Long before we knew the names Uvalde, Pulse Nightclub, Parkland, and Sandy Hook, the nation was stunned and horrified by the Long Island Rail Road massacre.
It was among the first large-scale mass shootings in a public place in the modern era, and it came at a time the U.S. was beginning to grapple with a steadily increasing number of deadly rampages.
The gunman and his motives
Thirty years ago, on December 7, 1993, a Jamaican-born Brooklyn resident boarded a Long Island-bound commuter train, the 5:33 from Penn Station, armed with a semi-automatic 9mm handgun and more than 100 rounds of ammunition. Colin Ferguson opened fire on innocent commuters, killing six and injuring 19 of them.
Law enforcement, the public, and the news media descended upon the Merillon Avenue, Garden City station where the train stopped after three passengers tackled Ferguson and disarmed him as he was returning to his seat to reload for a second time. They came upon an unimaginable, chaotic scene of injured commuters, a "river of blood" in the aisle of the commuter railcar, and several victims tragically beyond help.
Police discovered in Ferguson's pockets handwritten notes labeled "Reasons for This,'' in which he vented his hatred for Adelphi University, where he had been a student, as well as "Caucasians and Uncle Tom Negroes," then-Governor Mario Cuomo, and the state Workers' Compensation Board. He cited "racism" he believed he endured, adding New York City was spared because of his respect for then-Mayor David Dinkens and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. He wrote, "Nassau County is the venue."
Ferguson's handpicked lawyers--William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby--suggested that he was overcome with "Black rage," from his perception he was a chronic victim of racism. Ferguson rejected that insanity defense, and eventually dismissed Kunstler and Kuby. Maintaining his innocence, Ferguson decided to represent himself in what became a highly-watched, televised, bizarre spectacle of a trial at the Nassau County Courthouse, where he cross-examined the very people he had tried to kill.
At trial, he claimed he had fallen asleep on the train and that an unidentified white passenger removed his gun from his backpack, and was responsible for the massacre.
A parade of survivors confronted him with composure, stating, "You shot me. You shot everyone on that train."
Ferguson was convicted of the murders on February 17, 1995 and sentenced to 315 years in prison, representing six consecutive life sentences. He was acquitted of hate crime charges. Jurors did not believe he chose his victims according to their race. The victims were white, Asian, Hispanic and Black.
Ferguson said at his sentencing, "I hope that, somewhere down the road, I will be forgotten. I will do my time on earth. It is a difficult place, but I will continue."
Onlookers, including the survivors of his rampage, erupted in thunderous applause as he was led out of the courtroom to begin a life sentence.
"Down the road," the carnage in our country has only escalated. Mass shootings have only increased since 1993, claiming innocent lives, instilling fear, and impacting our daily lives.
CBS New York embarked this year upon a quest to find and speak with the shooting survivors, law enforcement first on the scene, attorneys who represented Ferguson, and the families of those who perished, to ask the question, what will not be forgotten? And what must be remembered? The original CBS News New York documentary was produced and directed by Carolyn Gusoff with additional reporting by Jennifer McLogan, our veteran Long Island journalists who covered the night of the massacre and every aspect of the case in the days, months and years that followed. McLogan was the first reporter on the scene of the shooting on December 7, 1993.
In "The 5:33-Legacy of the LIRR Massacre," we hear extensively for the first time from Jury Foreman Delton Dove. What took the jury 10 hours to decide what appeared to be beyond question to court observers?
We also visited with retired Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband Dennis was shot to death on the train and whose son Kevin was shot in the head and suffered paralysis and brain damage. She emerged as a spokeswoman for the group of victims and became a nine-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, intent on reforming gun laws. Thirty years later, she says, " I couldn't face the families anymore. I just felt it was time for younger people, younger families to step in my footsteps."
We reconnect with Lisa Combatti, who still lives just blocks from the Merillon Avenue train station, and still commutes to her New York City job on the LIRR. She was nearly eight months pregnant when she curled up in the fetal position to try to protect her unborn child, and was shot through the hip. Her daughter is now 30, and Combatti is planning her wedding.
Joyce Gorycki, whose husband James was killed, is furious after 30 years of advocacy for stricter limits on large capacity weapons.
"Why do we have to go through this every night? I look at the news - oh, yeah, the latest shooting massacre. Shake my head. I said why? It shouldn't be. Come on, make stricter laws. Wake up," she pleads. " I know this country will always sell guns. But you don't sell an AR-15 to anybody who wants it. No other country does that."
Not all of the survivors believe the legacy of the LIRR Massacre must be tighter gun laws.
Frank Barker, a retired technology consultant who was shot 5 times, was a father of seven children in 1993.
"It was a tragedy. We tried to fix it through addressing the obvious way we could, a quick fix, let's just take away guns, as if that would make the problem go away and hasn't. The mental health issue and the sickness issue in our culture, and the treatment issue and people who are alienated or angry or view themselves as victims, we're doing nothing really for," Barker said. "We didn't get here quickly, and we're not going to get out of it quickly."
Barker now has 19 grandchildren.
CBS New York spoke on-camera with 18 people who were directly connected to the tragedy 30 years ago.
"The 5:33, Legacy of the LIRR Massacre" is a life-affirming hour-long documentary that raises some of the most challenging questions of our day: How do we stop an onslaught of violence and why must this tragedy not be forgotten.