Daily News: Tram breaks down
Cops work overnight to save 69 people stuck on two cars
Dangling high above the East River, 69 people waited for hours aboard two busted Roosevelt Island tram cars last night as elite teams of cops launched an unprecedented rescue effort.
A four-minute trip turned into a high-wire drama when a power failure brought the two tram cars going in opposite directions to an abrupt halt at 5:24 p.m.
Five hours and 50 minutes later, a cheer went up from onlookers when the first rescue basket laden with eight children and five adults inched toward safety on the Roosevelt Island side.
"It's all right, it's all right. It's just going to be a little bumpy," a police officer reassured 11-year-old Zachary Rothfeld, one of the first to be saved.
"They were so great. They really made us feel so calm," said Zachary's mother, Elena Rothfeld. "They made us feel safe."
More than an hour later, nine more people were plucked from the eastbound gondola as rescuers worked into the night to free the remaining travelers, about a dozen at a time.
There were 47 aboard the eastbound car, including its operator. Another 21 passengers and one operator were stranded in the car stuck over Manhattan.
"We were under the basket and policemen were literally physically pulling us up," said Alex Gamburg, 74, an illustrator for New York Press who was among the second group. "I was extremely impressed with how the police were extremely careful with all of us."
Former Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio, who lost a Senate race to Hillary Clinton in 2000, waited nervously on Roosevelt Island as rescuers brought his teenage daughter Kelsey to safety. The girl, who had been on her way to a tennis lesson on Roosevelt Island, embraced her dad on solid ground.
"She's a trouper," Lazio said. "We're very proud of how she held up."
Passengers described a comforting camaraderie on the stalled gondolas. They sang lullabies to the fussy babies, told jokes and pondered how long they might be stuck.
"It was brilliant the way people connected," said Maari DeSouza, who runs a school for leaning disabled children and prayed the rosary to pass the time. "The children were amazing. Only one cried towards the end."
But much of the time was spent trying to contact loved ones via cell phones and gather information about the rescue.
"The little one is very afraid. She wants to know when she's coming down," said Sciencia Fleury, 48, whose 8-year-old daughter, Annie, and 18-year-old son, John, were trapped aboard. "She said, 'I'm hungry. I want to come home.' "
The car stranded over 60th St. and First Ave. sent a note down in a basket to rescuers pleading for baby formula, diapers and blankets. Provisions like potato chips, Oreo cookies, diapers and water were later hoisted up in a basket.
The passengers were initially thrilled at the sight of rescuers, but then petrified at the idea of carefully boarding the tiny rescue basket.
"Being on the tram was fine, but when I heard we had to get on the little cage thing, I was nervous," Elena Rothfeld said. Emergency Service Unit cops hooked the basket securely onto the gondolas and guided passengers out an emergency door. Then they began the slow and steady ride to safety.
Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and a swarm of media were waiting as the first batch of rescuees reached solid ground.
"I've talked to all of them. I've exchanged high-fives with some of the kids," Bloomberg said during a press conference.
The source of the power outage was not known last night, but Bloomberg said tram operators were unable to restart the main and backup generators.
"This is a 30-year-old tram, which obviously has some problems. We're going to make sure it doesn't go again until we make a careful review," he said.
The cabins were stopped at opposite ends of the tramway's 3,100-foot route, which runs parallel to the Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island.
Lee Anne Siegel, who was stuck with her 14-month-old daughter, Riley, was making the best of the endless wait, sending camera-phone photos to her husband at the Manhattan station.
"The baby's in a good mood," said Jordan Siegel, 30. "They've got water. The kid had an entire bag of Goldfish [crackers] for dinner."
The mother and daughter had taken the tram to visit a park on Roosevelt Island as a change of pace.
"I think they'll go to Central Park next time," the father said.
Cops first tried to use a hand crank to manually pull the trams back over land toward their docking stations as engineers struggled to fix the electrical problem.
A similarly alarming power outage stalled service in September but trapped riders for only about 90 minutes before the power kicked back on.
"They said this would not happen again, and here we are. It happened again," said City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, a Democrat who represents Roosevelt Island. "It has to be a safe and reliable form of transportation."
With Jimmy Vielkind and Derek Rose
Originally published on April 19, 2006