Hourari Benkada didn’t pay much attention to the man he sat next to on a New York subway car Tuesday morning. Benkada, headphones on, put his head down and only got a glimpse of the person.
But after the train started moving to the next stop, the man set off a “smoke bomb,” Benkada said.
That sent Benkada and others rushing in confusion toward the car’s other end. And Benkada believes that the man he sat next to was the one who would shoot him and nine other people in that car, under cover of thick and choking smoke, as the train headed to the 36th Street subway station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park.
It was “the worst pain in my entire life,” the 27-year-old Benkada, who was shot in the back of the knee, said in one of several interviews he gave CNN on Tuesday and Wednesday while recovering post-surgery in a hospital bed.
Police said a gunman set off two smoke grenades and fired a handgun 33 times on the crowded train, leaving 29 people injured, including 10 who were shot. A suspect was arrested Wednesday.
Benkada and others on the train described a harrowing scene: Smoke, a mad rush away from its source – and then what sounded like fireworks, followed by a panicked realization that people were hurt and bleeding.
As passenger Claire Tunkel recalled: “When I heard people saying, ‘I’m hurt; there’s so much blood’ … that’s when my mind changed to, ‘This is not fireworks.’”
Man had duffel bag
Benkada, a housekeeping manager at The New Yorker hotel, said the person he sat next to had a duffel bag, was wearing a mask, and appeared to be wearing a Metropolitan Transportation Authority vest.
When the smoke started, “all you see (is) smoke – black smoke … going off, and then people bum-rushing to the back,” Benkada said.
“This pregnant woman was in front of me. I was trying to help her. I didn’t know there were shots at first. I just thought it was a black smoke bomb.
“She said, ‘I’m pregnant with a baby.’ I hugged her. And then the bum-rush continued. I got pushed, and that’s when I got shot in the back of my knee.”
The noise, he too said, at first sounded “like fireworks going off.”
The shooting started about 20 seconds after the train took off, and felt like it lasted for 1 to nearly 2 minutes, Benkada said.
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In pictures: Brooklyn subway shooting
As people flocked to the end farthest from the smoke source, someone broke down a door at that end, hoping to cross to the next car, but that car had its own door that didn’t open, Benkada and others said.
Benkada heard other people in pain, but couldn’t see them or the suspect because of the smoke, he said.
Adding to the riders’ terror, the train didn’t seem like it was heading to the next station as fast as it could. It stopped at least once between stations, riders said.
“The conductor said that there was a delay, because there was train traffic ahead of us,” rider Yav Montano, who said perhaps 40 to 50 people were in the car, told CNN.
“Thank goodness the train moved within a minute. I don’t know what could have happened if we were stuck there for longer.”
People were crying out for help and falling down, witness says
Tunkel, 46, said that before the chaos started, she thought she’d seen the person police have described as a suspect in the shooting.
“He said there was urine in the seat (next to him), don’t sit there.” However, she said, “with masks and hats and things like that,” she can’t be sure that was the suspect.
She said her first indication something was wrong was hearing “something drop on the floor,” and smoke “just started coming out.”
Tunkel ran with others to the car’s other end, but the train filled with smoke. “And that’s when … what I thought was fireworks, at the beginning, started going off,” she said.
She said she heard people crying out for help and others who said they were bleeding.
“You couldn’t see anything, but you could feel it,” and some people rushing to that end were falling down, she said. “You could feel the bodies.”
‘Clothes … were covered in blood’
Montano, who was trying to get to work in Williamsburg, said he also thought the noise was “like fireworks on the floor.”
But just in case, he said, he move behind a wooden plank on the other side of a chair, by some doors – “I moved myself out of the way.”
Eventually, he said, he saw some people “whose clothes … were covered in blood.”
“There were some people – it didn’t even seem like their blood, because the person whose pants had … blood on it was OK and walking and helping the other people,” Montano said.
On his phone, he recorded a few seconds of video showing people holding their hands to their mouths in the smoky car “after the popping and shooting,” he said.
“The whole car was engulfed in smoke. Like, I had a mask on in the train; I couldn’t even use my mask anymore because it was black with smoke,” Montano said.
Riders rushed from train
The train eventually arrived at the 36th Street subway station In a video taken from the platform, people rush off the train after it arrived.
Smoke pours out of the car where the shooting took place, and people can be heard screaming. Someone helps an injured and bleeding person off the train, and another man is seen hobbling off the train shortly afterward.
Images taken by others at the scene show the subway platform streaked with blood and people sitting and lying on the train platform following the incident.
Now off the train, Tunkel said she saw a man with a gunshot wound. She said she took off her jacket and tied it around his leg.
Tunkel, went to a hospital for smoke inhalation, said several victims were lying on the floor of the subway platform after the train arrived at the station.
She said Wednesday she was “doing alright” physically.
“I have two small children that … go to school nearby, and they had a lockdown yesterday. So explaining this to them was definitely probably the hardest part of all of this. … I’m just taking it moment to moment.”
Benkada said that when he got off the train, he “looked at all the blood and (said) ‘this ain’t right.’”
He went up some stairs, and told a man in a booth that “I needed a lot of napkins – I’m bleeding.” Eventually, two firefighters helped him.
Doctors told him the bullet grazed his kneecap. He is expected to walk on his own after several weeks on crutches.
At the hospital Wednesday, Benkada still was coping with pain, and seemed to have made up his mind about one part of his future.
“I don’t think I can ever ride the train again,” he said.
CNN’s Sharif Paget, John Berman and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.