Artist Steps In to Aid Victim in Violent NYC Subway Attack

Artist William Chan was on his way to the C train at the Fulton Street station in Lower Manhattan on Saturday morning, March 9, when he sensed a commotion among fellow riders coming up the stairs. He overheard some of them saying that a person had been pushed.

“And that’s when I realized a woman was screaming for help,” Chan told Hyperallergic, recounting the moment he reached the subway platform. “She was yelling, ‘I don’t want to die.’”

It was a grim start to the weekend in New York, where a horrific attack in the city’s subway system made local and national headlines: A 29-year-old woman had been shoved onto the tracks by her boyfriend and struck by a southbound 3 train, losing both of her feet to the impact. Chan, an NYC resident of four decades who co-runs the artist-led galleries Transmitter in Bushwick and Field Projects in Chelsea and an army veteran familiar with life-threatening encounters, stood by the victim in the critical moments before paramedics arrived on the scene.

He recalled that the train’s passengers had been moved to a rear car and were not being allowed to exit, and that onlookers on the platform crowded in a semicircle around him, peering down at the tracks and taking photos and videos. One person wanted to give a sermon, he said. Chan approached the woman trapped underneath the train to evaluate her physical and mental condition; once he saw she was responsive, he focused on maintaining a connection.

“I had to keep her calm so that she didn’t go into shock. I just kept talking to her to keep her awake and not let her get too excited,” Chan said. He asked her if she had kids. “I wanted to give her a reason to keep fighting,” he went on.

“I was kneeling down to let her know that I was comfortable. I told her, ‘Hey, I’ve done this a lot. You are actually in a good place.’ I told her that I’ve been deployed, that I’ve been in Iraq three times, just to give her as much reassurance as I could,” Chan continued. “To me, she seemed very strong.”

Chan served in Iraq during the United States invasion in 2003 and later pursued an MFA in Photo, Video, and Related Media at the School of Visual Arts via the GI Bill, an experience that expanded his perspective of what art could be. In addition to his social practice and mutual aid organizing, Chan’s performances and other works critique the nation’s military-industrial complex and the horrors of war from a place of self-awareness and disillusionment. In 2015, he published Ten Years After Iraq, a poetic book of photographs portraying veterans reflecting on and reckoning with their past.

Chan said that after first responders came that day, he stepped away and returned a few hours later to check on the woman, whose name has not been released for privacy reasons. She was rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where she had both feet amputated. Later that weekend, her boyfriend was charged with attempted murder and felony assault.

Though incidents of violence on mass transit are statistically rare, reports of isolated cases can have a lasting and destabilizing effect on residents, contributing to a growing sense of unease in New York City at the same time that increased policing in the underground system has left many feeling even more unsafe.

Because of his military background, many of Chan’s friends work in law enforcement, and he recognizes that the structural issues within policing run deep. “I think they believe they’re doing the best they can,” Chan said. “And I also believe they come from a background that’s not as well-rounded.”

He credits his artistic journey with helping him nurture a sense of compassion and deepening his emotional and intellectual grasp of social issues. “If I never went to get my MFA, I would not have access to bell hooks or Angela Davis,” Chan said. “If your only degree is in finance, for example, your expertise in life is going to be very narrow in terms of humanity.”

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