As a Woman Was Raped, Train Riders Failed to Intervene, Police Say

By Eduardo Medina

The SEPTA train car near Philadelphia had several passengers aboard but none called 911 while the woman was sexually assaulted, the authorities said.

Surveillance video of the assault aboard a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority train showed that passengers did not intervene, the authorities said.
Surveillance video of the assault aboard a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority train showed that passengers did not intervene, the authorities said.Credit...Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

As a woman was being raped while on a train near Philadelphia on Wednesday night, riders watched, failed to intervene and did not call 911, the authorities said.

A man whom officials identified as Fiston Ngoy sat down next to a woman at about 10 p.m. on a train that was traveling westbound on the Market-Frankford Line toward the 69th Street Transportation Center. Mr. Ngoy “attempted to touch her a few times,” said Andrew Busch, a spokesman for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA.

The woman pushed back and tried to stop Mr. Ngoy from touching her, Mr. Busch said. “Then, unfortunately, he proceeded to rip her clothes off,” Mr. Busch said on Sunday.

The assault lasted about eight minutes, and no passengers in the train car intervened, the authorities said.

“I’m appalled by those who did nothing to help this woman,” Timothy Bernhardt, the superintendent of the Upper Darby Township Police Department, said on Sunday. “Anybody that was on that train has to look in the mirror and ask why they didn’t intervene or why they didn’t do something.”

Mr. Ngoy, 35, was charged with rape, sexual assault and aggravated indecent assault without consent, among other crimes, court records show. The authorities said Mr. Ngoy was homeless and was not armed during the attack. He was being held at the Delaware County Jail in lieu of $180,000 bail and did not have a lawyer as of Sunday afternoon.

Several passengers were in the train car but Mr. Bernhardt declined to say how many; investigators were still working to determine the exact number, he said. While there were not “dozens of people” in the car at the time, Mr. Bernhardt said, there were enough that, “collectively, they could have gotten together and done something.”

He added that investigators had received reports of some passengers recording the attack on their phones but that the police had not confirmed those reports.

Eventually, a transportation authority employee got on the train, saw what was happening and called 911, Mr. Busch said.

Then, a “police officer ran onto the train and caught this man in the act and took him into custody,” Mr. Busch said.

The surveillance footage that the authorities are reviewing does not contain audio, Mr. Bernhardt said. But based on the footage that he had reviewed, it was clear that passengers had an opportunity to intervene, he said.

The woman told the authorities what had happened after Mr. Ngoy was in custody, Mr. Bernhardt said. She was taken to a hospital, the authorities said.

“What this woman endured at the hands of this guy, what she’s been able to provide for us, it’s been unbelievable,” Mr. Bernhardt said.

Bystanders on the train who failed to intervene could be criminally charged if they recorded the attack, Mr. Bernhardt said, adding that it would be up to the Delaware County district attorney’s office to make such a decision after the police finish their investigation and submit their findings.

It was not immediately clear what those charges could be, and Mr. Bernhardt said he did not want to speculate. He added that Pennsylvania does not have a good Samaritan law and said it would be “very difficult to bring charges against those” who witnessed the attack but did not intervene.

A representative from the district attorney’s office could not be reached on Sunday.

Alexis Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami, said there are several possible reasons that some crime witnesses do not intervene, such as fear of retaliation by the perpetrator and a belief that someone else will step in and help.

“The onus is really on us as a collective because we can’t always rely on the police,” he said. “We have to rely on one another.”

By expecting someone else to help, “we’re basically washing our hands and absolving ourselves of that responsibility,” he added.

“We need a world where people are doing the right thing when you see someone assaulted,” he said.

SEPTA said reports of sexual assault are rare, with thefts and robberies accounting for most of the crimes that are reported on its trains. It does not have an officer riding on every train. The Market-Frankford line carries about 90,000 people on an average weekday, Mr. Busch said.

“We really do hope that people will read about this, will see the stories on TV, and will think about helping with the efforts to prevent incidents like this from happening,” he said.