The news was grim: five people dead, hundreds injured, and five subway cars trashed in a pile of debris. It was August 1991, and a No. 4 train had just derailed under Union Square in New York City in one of the deadliest mass transit accidents in the city’s history. Subway operator Glenn Rowe had finished his shift on the day of the accident, when his brother, a work train operator for the MTA, called to say he had to work the salvage shift at the wreck. Would Rowe like to come along?
Rowe grabbed his camera, fastened his work vest and hurried to the abandoned 18th Street Lexington Avenue station. When he arrived, he flashed his employment pass to supervisors at the scene and pushed his way through to a clear position on the nearby platform, where he took some of the first photographs ever taken of the wreck.
The photos could have amounted to tawdry voyeurism. Instead, Rowe managed to capture the gravity and the ghostly commotion of New York’s subway workers at the scene of a tragedy. After all, Rowe is a seasoned photographer: he belongs to a club of sorts of current and former transit workers who double as secret, eloquent photographers of the trains and systems they operate.
In the 1970s and 1980s, they documented the grimy, graffiti-covered subways where vigilante Guardian Angels squared off against thugs. Today, they snap mint-new cars with automated messages and light-up signs. Taken together, their thousands of photographs are an homage to New York’s subway system.