Adjunct Saves Child from Assailant on Subway


Jessamine Irwin is a hero. (MEGAN O’HARA/THE OBSERVER)


It happened in less than a minute.

On Oct. 5, Adjunct Professor Jessamine Irwin was on the 4 train. She was making her usual commute from the Rose Hill campus to NYU, where she teaches Intermediate French and  Elementary French 2, respectively.  

It had already been a crazy day, Irwin said. She had forgotten her cell phone at home and her Rose Hill class had been observed by the university. “I was like ‘Okay. The stress is over for the day. You’ll be fine,’” she said.

When the train reached 59th Street, however, Irwin noticed something unusual. A man was standing directly in front of her and was leaning against the door at the end of subway car.

“He leans against that door and the moment he does that, there’s a big slam against the door against his back,” she said. “And I was like what was that? Was that from him leaning on the door? I had never seen that happen before.”

Irwin looked out the window of the door and saw that there were two people between the cars. One had the other pinned up against the door.  

Suddenly, the assailant turned quickly with the other person in his grip.

“My heart just stopped because I thought that he had thrown someone off of the moving 4 train,” Irwin said.

When she got up to look through the window, she could see that the man was dangling the victim over the guardrail and shaking him. He turned again, and Irwin tried to get the attention of the other passengers.

“I knew everyone knew something was happening because obviously the guy that had leaned against the door, he moved away,” she said. “He walked away from the door, whereas I was like ‘What’s happening? What’s happening?’ and trying to get someone else to notice and maybe help me.”

No one came to help. Irwin, however, said that she “wasn’t really so focused on that.”

When the assailant turned again and the train was approaching 42nd Street, Irwin decided to act. “I was like ‘Okay he’s in between the man and me so it’s now or never,’” she said.

She opened the door and brought the victim inside. It was then that she realized he was a child.

After she guided the boy into the train, she noticed that the assailant was over six feet tall and muscular.

“I was fortunate that the man let me just take him, because if he had wanted to keep him or if he had wanted to pull me in or something, he probably could have,” she said. “I mean I would hope that the people around me in the train might’ve helped me or something but I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

The assailant returned to the other car and she sat down with the crying boy and began to speak with him, even though his voice was “no louder than a whisper,” Irwin said. His name was Zion, an 11-year-old from Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, a long way away from Midtown Manhattan.

Irwin suggested that they call his mom. Zion had managed to hold onto his phone the entire time.

“Hey baby” was the response Irwin received when she called. His mom thought her son was calling her. Irwin answered and told Zion’s mom who she was and that Zion was okay. She tried to explain the situation, but the signal cut out. All of these events happened in less than 30 seconds, according to Irwin.

Irwin then decided that it would be best to bring Zion to the police station. “I was like ‘we’re going to get off the train at the next stop and we’ll go to the police station, okay?’” Irwin said.  “And I made it very clear that I would stay with him the whole time.”

At that point, another passenger acknowledged the situation and told Irwin that there was a police station at 14th Street, the next stop. While she said she was grateful, she wished other people had reacted initially.

When they reached the police station, Irwin said it was hard to watch the boy as his shock began to wear off and say that his head and arm hurt, which was bruised.

“It was just really hard to watch because he’s just a kid,” Irwin said, holding back tears. “And I just feel so bad he has to live with that and I just wish someone would have intervened earlier in the story, because people saw what was going on in the other car. And I know we’re in New York, but there’s no question about what’s wrong and what’s right when there’s an adult man taking a child and bullying him like that.”

The New York Times reported that the assailant had grabbed Zion because Zion and his friend were play fighting and had accidently hit the man.

After being at the police station for an hour and a half and being told that Zion’s father was there, Irwin said goodbye to the child and resumed her commute to NYU. “I was just in robot mode going to NYU because this is what I do at this time of day,” she said. “Like I go to NYU and it’s where I’m supposed to be.” She wound up cancelling her class for the day and explained the situation to her students, who she said were “very understanding.”   

When she got home, she posted on social media about the situation to encourage others to act in similar scenarios and put themselves in the shoes of the victim. “When it’s an entire subway car against one guy, the odds are in our favor,” she said in an interview. “But when it’s just myself against one guy, they’re not.”

Irwin said that during the situation, she wasn’t “really thinking so much like ‘I’m gonna save the day.’” She said she was more “just trying to get a way out” and help Zion. She also said she would’ve done the same thing even if she had time to think about the situation before she acted.

Irwin has since been in contact with Zion’s father and is hoping to see the child again soon. The assailant, meanwhile, has not been found.

Her advice for Fordham students and other people who run into similar situations on the subway is to be aware of their surroundings. This awareness includes seeing if there is an emergency call button in the car and checking the location of the conductor. She also encouraged people to put themselves in the position of the victim so that when the situation does arise, intervening is “just second nature.”

Looking back on the situation, Irwin said that she “would always rather risk getting [her] ass kicked than let someone potentially die or something.”

“It’s just a sickening feeling that comes over you when you see abuse or someone that’s just totally outnumbered in that regard, like someone who’s totally defenseless, and they’re just getting picked on or bullied,” she said. “They can’t defend themselves and I couldn’t ever just let that be.”