Token clerk saved from fire attack

BY GREG GITTRICH
and PETE DONOHUE
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS

A ticked-off subway schemer tried to torch a Manhattan token booth clerk, but tragedy was averted when a fire-fighting system kicked in, police said yesterday.
The skell was selling MetroCard swipes for a buck at the W. 23rd St. station of the No. 1 line Wednesday night when clerk Gordhan Patel, 69, told him to stop.

But the man kept swiping people through, so Patel said he told subway riders the move was illegal.

"The guy became mad," Patel said from his New Jersey home yesterday. "He came closer to the booth and poured something from a water bottle into the aperture."

"He struck a match and lit it," Patel said. "The blaze of the fire came into the booth."

An automatic fire suppression system quickly extinguished the flames, he said.

"I ran out of the booth," said Patel, who was unhurt.

The firebug fled and was still at large yesterday.

Union officials credited the firefighting system - Halon gas that sucks oxygen out of the booth - with thwarting a potentially deadly attack.

Still, the assault prompted Transport Workers Union Local 100 to blast the shifting of clerks from booths to roving posts through stations to assist customers with vending machines and other problems.

"Wednesday night's incident is a stark reminder of why we need the protection of the token booth and why we need to maintain personnel rather than cutting back," union President Roger Toussaint said.

The Transit Authority declined to comment on the staff assignments, but officials have previously noted that other employees, including cleaners, work safely outside the booths.

Patel, meanwhile, urged subway riders not to patronize the dollar swipers.

"If people don't buy from them, then the business stops," he said. "As long people will buy from them, they will continue this sort of business. If we call the police or do something, they will threaten us."

In 1995, token clerk Harry Kaufman suffered fatal injuries when his booth was firebombed in a botched robbery in Brooklyn.

Originally published on July 16, 2004