Minutes before a man pushed a 30-year-old woman into a moving train at a midtown Manhattan subway station Wednesday, he had been screaming obscenities and punched another passenger on the platform, breaking his jaw.
The attacker, whom police officials identified as Sabir Jones, 39, was still being sought by the police on Thursday. Subway camera footage helped identify him as the attacker who pushed the woman, critically injuring her as she commuted to work just after noon, they said.
Michael Kemper, the Police Department’s chief of transit, described Mr. Jones as an emotionally disturbed homeless man “known to the department” through a previous arrest and by his constant presence in subway stations.
Officers have been given photos of Mr. Jones and were searching for him in the subways, a law enforcement official said. Patrols have been increased in the Manhattan subways, the official said.
On Wednesday, the woman was on the platform of the Fifth Avenue-53rd Street station waiting for an E train. Mr. Jones approached and shoved her against a departing train, sending her onto the subway tracks after her head hit a car, Chief Kemper said. Other passengers helped her back onto the platform and called 911. She was in critical condition on Wednesday.
The unprovoked attack has unnerved a city deeply reliant on the subway as its lifeline. High-profile attacks have fed fears over the safety of a system trying to win back ridership that plunged during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Thursday, the 26-year-old man who was punched minutes before the attack said in an interview that Mr. Jones had been on the platform screaming obscenities. The man who was struck asked to remain anonymous out of fear, because his attacker was still on the loose.
The man, a student from Queens, had been on the way to a library to study when he left an E train at the station. He saw Mr. Jones screaming, and was quickly walking away when Mr. Jones came up from behind, he said. Mr. Jones punched the man in the left side of his face and fractured his jaw before fleeing.
The punching victim ran out of the station and said Thursday that he was in the hospital awaiting surgery. He said he did not see Mr. Jones push the woman onto the tracks, but when he saw a photo of Mr. Jones later, he recognized him as the person who had punched him. The man said he called the police after he heard about the woman’s attack.
Mr. Jones has a history of homelessness, mental illness and drug abuse, according to a person who was given access to some of his social service records.
In November 2021, workers from an organization that does homeless outreach on the subway, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, talked to him at a station in Manhattan. The person said he told them he used the synthetic marijuana K2, took psychiatric medication and had been homeless for four years.
A few weeks later, Mr. Jones was encountered at a station in Queens. An outreach worker wrote that he would be a good candidate for a type of less-restrictive homeless shelter called a safe haven, because he “was able to demonstrate nonthreatening behavior” and “communicated effectively with a friendly demeanor.” Mr. Jones did not appear to have gone to the shelter, the person said.
According to a bulletin put out by the Newark Police Department in March 2021, Mr. Jones was reported missing by relatives in that New Jersey city. In the bulletin, police officials said Mr. Jones was homeless and had been diagnosed with depression and psychosis. He was known to sleep in Newark’s Penn Station and panhandle on a local highway, they said, and had a previous address in Maryland.
On Wednesday, Janno Lieber, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subway, hailed recent progress on subway crime but also cited the need for city officials to help homeless people out of the subways and into proper treatment programs.
Although subway crime is slightly down this year compared with last year and the chance of becoming a crime victim on the subway is low, the prospect of being shoved while on a platform is a perennial urban nightmare.
In May, a woman was critically injured after a man shoved her head against a moving subway train at the Lexington Avenue/63rd Street station. The woman, Emine Yilmaz Ozsoy, 35, was partially paralyzed.
The last fatal subway push occurred in January 2022, when Michelle Go, 40, was shoved onto the tracks at the Times Square station and hit by an R train. Martial Simon, 61, a homeless man with schizophrenia and a history of erratic behavior, was charged with second-degree murder in Ms. Go’s death but deemed unfit to stand trial.
The fatal shoving of Ms. Go prompted renewed calls for the M.T.A. to explore installing the kind of platform barriers used in subway systems around the world to block access to tracks. In February 2022, the authority announced plans to test such barriers at three stations.
Maria Cramer contributed reporting.