LIRR massacre survivors share how the horrific mass shooting still affects them 30 years later

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS



Lisa Combatti hates Christmas lights. 

As one of the victims of the Dec. 7, 1993 mass shooting in which six people were killed and 19 others hurt on a rush-hour Long Island Rail Road train, the traditional twinklers are a stark reminder of what came to be known as the LIRR massacre.

“As soon as the Christmas lights go up I find myself in a funk,” she told The Post as the 30th anniversary of the bloodshed neared.

“It’s like a black cloud that follows me until Dec. 7 each year, like waiting for a stomach ache to pass.”

Combatti boarded the 5:33 pm eastbound train from Penn Station after another long day working for Deutsche Bank in the city.

Then 33 years old and and seven and a half months pregnant, she took her seat in the third car and headed home to Garden City. 

But as the train approached the Merillon Avenue Station, something changed.

“I heard this sound that was like backfire,” she told The Post.

Six people were killed and 19 hurt after Colin Ferguson opened fire on a rush hour LIRR train. AFP via Getty Images

“I turned and saw a man walking down the aisle shooting from left to right.”

Colin Ferguson, a 35-year-old naturalized citizen from Kingston, Jamaica, was striding through the train, armed with a Ruger P-89 9mm handgun.

“I’m going to get you,” he said, as he shot at the 80 passengers trapped inside.

Combatti was struck in the hip. 

“While it was happening, I remember thinking that I was never going to be a mother,” she said.

Carolyn McCarthy was a nurse when her husband Dennis was killed and her son, Kevin, severely injured. AP

“I asked my baby to kick for me that night, just to be sure she was okay.”

While Combatti, now 63, escaped with her life, Dennis McCarthy, husband of now-former Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, did not.

After finishing his day as an office manager at Prudential Securities in Midtown, Dennis, 52, and his son Kevin, 26, a broker with the same firm, headed home to Mineola together when Ferguson opened fire about 40 minutes into the trip.

When the shooting ended three minutes later, Dennis was among the dead.

Colin Ferguson, seen here in his initial court appearance in the 1993 LIRR massacre, espoused a number of wild conspiracy theories during his trial. AFP via Getty Images

Kevin tried to protect himself from the gunfire, but as he instinctively raised his hand, one of the bullets tore through his palm and entered his head.

The bullet destroyed 10% of his brain.

He was given just a 1 in 10 chance of survival and doctors said even if he did, he would never walk again.

“He just said he wanted to dance again,” Carolyn said of her son.

“And he’s stubborn like that. Just like me.”

At the time, such mass shootings were comparatively rare, especially in New York.

Colin Ferguson chose to fire his attorneys and defend himself in court. Newsday RM via Getty Images

Thirty years on, the survivors, victims and witnesses all have their stories to tell.

For Brooklyn-born McCarthy, a nurse by training, the tragedy of losing her husband and almost losing her son propelled her into politics to push for gun control.

She served in Congress for 18 years before retiring in 2015.

Her advocacy did not come easy.

“When I was standing, the National Rifle Association (NRA) would come to all my speeches and say terrible things,” she recalled.

“But I’d just say my son has life-altering injuries and I don’t have a husband any more.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, is flanked by Dr. Elgin Watkins, left, and Eric Adams, the then-president of the Police Guardians Association at a news conference at City Hall in New York, Dec. 9, 1993. ASSOCIATED PRESS

“Now tell me I’m wrong.”

Seated in front of the McCarthys on the 5:33 was Debra Weber, of Garden City.

As Ferguson made his way through the train, she was hit three times.

The first bullet, believed to be one that had passed through one of the McCarthys before ricocheting off the side of the train and hitting her, struck the base of her skull, knocking her to the ground.

As she lay on the floor, another bullet pierced her shoulder blades, before a third entered her hip and exited her upper thigh.

“Do you know when a bullet exits, it really hurts?” she said.

Colin Ferguson is led into a Nassau County courtroom during his preliminary hearing. Richard Drew

Weber, who now lives in Williamsburg, VA, still has the coat she was wearing that day, bullet holes and all.

“It’s pretty filthy after all these years but when you start sweating the small stuff, pull out the coat and nothing gets you down,” she said.

Like many of the survivors, it’s been an arduous process trying to come to terms with what happened.

The slightest thing can trigger flashbacks.

On a 1994 family holiday to Walt Disney World, Weber was traumatized by the sounds of people playing the shooting games using cap-firing rifles.

On another occasion, a balloon burst at a birthday party in a restaurant.

“My legs started to shake and it moved up my body and I started to cry,” she recalled.

“My husband, Bob, kept repeating: ‘It’s only a balloon!’ I told him, ‘I know, but I have no control over my body.’”

Robert Giugliano, then 38, was sitting next to 30-year-old Westbury lawyer Maria Magtoto as Ferguson shot her in the head from close range.

Straphangers Kevin Blum, Mark McEntee and Mike O’Connor wrestled Ferguson to the ground, restraining him until police arrived ending his shooting spree. Newsday RM via Getty Images

Then Ferguson aimed at Giugliano.

The mechanic from Franklin Square assumed the worst when the bullet ripped through his arm and lodged in his chest.

Though he survived, the horrors Giugliano witnessed will never left him.

“Every day, in some shape or form, I’m reminded of the tragedy,” he said. “But there will never be closure. I’ll never accept it, but I learned to live with it.”

Giugliano was the last person shot by Ferguson before the killing spree came to an end.

As the gunman attempted to reload his pistol for a third time, straphangers Kevin Blum, Mark McEntee and Mike O’Connor wrestled Ferguson to the ground, restraining him until police arrived.

“He was standing in the aisle with the gun in his hand — and [as] we came toward him, the gun dropped,” Blum told The Post at the time. “He had a blank look — like he knew he had done something wrong.”

Ferguson’s killing spree was brought to an end when three straphangers wrestled him to the floor. AP

Each year on the anniversary, Combatti rides the 5:33 train, calling it “act of defiance.”

Weber has also taken the same train, even sitting in the same car.

The train has since been retired by the LIRR.

“It was a challenge I had to put myself through and every time you face these challenges head on you win,” Weber said. “It gives you a purpose.” 

In January 1995 Colin Ferguson stood trial, charged with 93 counts, including murder, attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and weapons possession.

Ferguson advanced wild conspiracy theories to prove his innocence.

He admitted taking the gun on to the train, but then claimed to have fallen asleep before another man stole it and used it to shoot the passengers.

He claimed a mysterious character called “Mr. Su” had information that he was being framed, and he contended another witness knew the government had implanted a computer chip in his brain.

Famed attorneys Ronald Kuby and the late William Kunstler initially represented Ferguson, but when Judge Donald E. Belfi ruled him fit to stand trial, Ferguson promptly fired them and decided to represent himself in court.

Massacre victim Mark Heaney testifies to what he saw Ferguson, who fired his own lawyers, do during the massacre. AP

“Colin Ferguson was delusional and psychotic. The only question was whether he was competent to stand trial,” Kuby recalled. “But he was so paranoid that he was incapable of knowing what was in his own best interests, let alone of acting in accordance with his own interests.”

The trial was an “obscene spectacle” of Ferguson representing himself and cross-examining his victims, Kuby recalled.

“He was spinning these elaborate conspiracy theories and the media were treating it like there was some complex strategy for what he was doing, wondering when he was going to unveil his defense.

“But he simply didn’t have one.”

On Feb. 17, 1995, Ferguson was found guilty of six counts of murder, and 19 counts of attempted murder.

Sentencing him to a total of 315 years in prison, Judge Belfi called him a “selfish, self-righteous coward.”

Ferguson is serving his time at Mid-State Correctional Facility in upstate Marcy, about an hour east of Syracuse, where he is currently being held in a disciplinary unit.

State jail officials refused a request to visit the notorious killer or reveal why he is in special housing.

In the years since, the victims have become tight-knit.

Weber gives talks about her experience and how, through faith, family and friends, she has managed to emerge from the darkest of shadows.

She has bonded with Combatti and Joyce Gorycki, the widow of 51-year-old James Gorycki, who died beside Weber.

“If I could give one bit of advice to anyone involved in a mass shooting it would be to get all those affected together,” says Weber. “Too many people suffer in silence.”

Giugliano, meanwhile, knows he was one of the lucky ones.

“I’ve realized that you should live every day as if it’s your last,” he said. “Embrace life – check off your bucket list.”

For Carolyn McCarthy, there are mixed emotions.

On Dec. 7, she will travel from her home in Florida to New York to meet with survivors and relatives of the victims.

Her son Kevin made a miraculous recovery and now, at 56, is married with two children.

“Like I said, he’s stubborn,” she laughed.

Despite dedicating her political career to gun control, mass shootings have gone from being a comparative rarity in the United States to a seemingly daily occurrence.

She has grown tired of the hollow words some representatives employ whenever there is another mass shooting.

“If I hear them say their ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with the families of shooting victims one more time … it’s just meaningless.”

But despite battling cancer for a decade, McCarthy’s voice is as strong as ever and she’s convinced that much-needed change will come sooner or later.

“I know it’s an uphill battle but I do believe that, eventually, we will win,” she said. “We have to.”

Additional reporting by Georgia Worrell



Source link

You may also like