Before Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Newtown, there was the Long Island Rail Road.
On Dec. 7, 1993, a gunman opened fire on a train car filled with commuters leaving New York City. By the time passengers tackled Colin Ferguson, his fusillade had left six people dead and 19 wounded.
“In a mall or a school or a movie theater, there is at least some opportunity for hiding or escaping,” said James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “These people had nowhere to go.”
And then there was the trial. Ferguson defended himself in court, cross-examining the very people he terrorized.
Ferguson, an African American who boarded the train in Queens, claimed that he waited to open fire until the train crossed over the New York City border out of respect for David Dinkins, the mayor at the time who was the first black to lead the city. He fired methodically over several minutes, reloading at least once, before the train arrived at the next station, where terrified survivors ran screaming from the exits.
Twenty years on, The Associated Press conducted a series of interviews with those whose lives changed.
People still ask Lisa Combatti about her baby, who is now 19 years old.
Combatti was shot in the hip during the incident, but she went on to give birth to a healthy daughter two months later.
“The baby is in her second year of college,” Combatti proclaimed in a telephone interview from her home a block from the Merillon Avenue station in Garden City, where Ferguson’s carnage ended. “I was one of the very fortunate individuals, because after the shooting I really had something to focus on, and that was her.”
Kimberly Combatti, now an education-psychology major at Bucknell University, said she learned of her place in history when she was about 7.
“My mom always said we both survived because we were destined to do great things,” she said.
Lisa Combatti, a Deutsche Bank vice president, continues to take the LIRR as part of her commute to her job in Jersey City, N.J. She said she never made a big deal of the shootings to her daughter, who as recently as a few years ago acknowledged she didn’t even know what Colin Ferguson looked like.
That’s a luxury the mother wishes she shared.
“I turned around and saw him shooting as he was coming up the aisle,” Combatti said. “I never thought there would be closure. But it’s funny how this time around, talking to other people and seeing where we are today, I’m beginning to think that maybe there is some now.”
Retired Nassau County Judge Donald Belfi will always be remembered for his decision to allow Ferguson to represent himself in his murder trial.
Ferguson made the unusual request after firing noted defense attorneys William Kuntsler and Ron Kuby, who wanted to proffer a “black rage” insanity defense. He wanted no part of claiming that racial persecution triggered the violence. The defendant said at one point that he would rather be convicted than judged insane.
“He knew basically what he did and could understand right from wrong,” recalled the now 77-year-old Belfi, who said 30 or 40 judges around the country wrote to him, questioning his decision. “He showed sufficient intelligence to me.”
The prosecutor, George Peck, said victims were initially reticent about being cross-examined by the gunman but were reassured after a meeting with prosecutors.
“We actually couldn’t keep them off the stand after that,” Peck said. We had them calling us up, asking, ‘When are we going to testify?’”
The sentencing hearing took three days because so many victims and family members wanted to speak. “In those three days, I don’t think I was ever so moved in 30 years of being a judge,” Belfi said.
When he imposed six life sentences, the courtroom erupted in applause. “Any other time, I would not like something like that happening in my courtroom,” Belfi said. “But a trial of this magnitude and emotion, I thought it was almost appropriate.”
Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son seriously wounded, emerged as a key spokeswoman for the victims’ families. And in 1996, she made gun control the focus of her successful bid for Congress.
Her success at passing gun control legislation has been spotty through nine terms in the House. President George W. Bush in 2008 signed a bill she sponsored establishing a national database for criminal background checks on gun purchases, but other efforts at obtaining assault weapons bans, and limits on the sizes of ammunition clips, have not gained traction.
McCarthy’s son Kevin, who doctors initially feared might not survive, has largely recovered. He is now married with two children and still lives on Long Island.
Ferguson, now 55, is serving his sentence at the Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, N.Y., not far from the Canadian border.
In addition to six consecutive terms of 25 years to life, he received the maximum of 50 years for 19 counts of attempted murder, two weapons charges and one of reckless endangerment. He is eligible for parole in 2309.
A Corrections Department spokeswoman said Ferguson was not allowed to conduct interviews in prison because of an “unsatisfactory” disciplinary record. That three-page record includes sanctions for failure to obey orders, violent conduct, harassment, unhygienic acts and rioting.