Meter always ticking for lives of N.Y. cab drivers

December 20, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- He's No. 38. That's all. A man who was doing his job and was killed in his cab on some street corner in the South Bronx on a cold November night.

Whoever shot Sundulfo Perez didn't take the $200 from his wallet or the gold chain from his neck. All the assailant took from him was his life.

And now, the only people in New York who remember Mr. Perez are his fellow workers at the Dyckman car service in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

They gently place in a folder Mr. Perez's faded passport and a photocopy of a picture of his two children who live in his native Dominican Republic. But they realize that in the cab business, life is often as cheap as a 5 percent tip, and names quickly become numbers on a list of the dead.

"I had a dead driver in December, 1988," said Ruth Rodriguez, Mr. Perez's dispatcher. "And a dead driver in 1991. This guy got more publicity than any of my other dead drivers."

Another mean year is coming to a close for the cabbies of New York. The 1993 death toll stands at 42, and that's not even a record.

But this year may still emerge as the deadliest ever for New York's cabbies, surpassing 1992 when 45 fatalities were recorded.

"It's bad up here," Mrs. Rodriguez said. "Real bad."

And apparently, New York is not alone.

Drive a cab in the United States and you are in the occupation most at risk for on-the-job murder, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Based on death certificates compiled in the 1980s, 15.1 workers out of every 100,000 in the taxi industry lost their lives. Not even law enforcement personnel sustained such a staggering homicide rate. Their rate of on-the-job murder was 9.3 per 100,000.

"Cab drivers work alone. They work at night. They exchange money from the public. They fall into quite a few risk factors," said Lynn Jenkins, a statistician at the institute.

Perhaps nowhere is the risk greater than in the outer boroughs of New York.

This is not a tale of the stereotypical, tough-talking, street-smart New York City cab driver who takes tourists for a ride down Fifth Avenue or through the Theater District.

Instead, it's about drivers who venture alone into chunks of the city beyond midtown Manhattan.

In blighted neighborhoods ravaged by violence and drugs, cabbies are engaged in a real-life game of Russian roulette on wheels.

The next passenger could leave a tip -- or pull a gun.

Djibril Sonko is No. 1, the first cabbie killed in 1993.

At 4 a.m.

On New Year's Day.

Jeoffrey Ewuzie, a Nigerian immigrant, No. 18, was killed clutching $58 in his hand.

Altaf Qureshi, No. 32, a Pakistani immigrant, lay dead for two days before his body was discovered.

The meter of his cab was still running. Four hundred dollars and counting.

'An epidemic'

"It's an epidemic that has to be stopped," said Rick Versace, vice president of the Livery Owners Coalition of New York. "If we had 42 police officers murdered, President Clinton would be sending in troops. Someone has to know it's not open season on the cabdriver."

To understand the carnage in New York's cabs you have to understand the industry, which, like the city, is all at once fragmented and gigantic.

There are 11,787 yellow cabs that carry medallions, valued at up to $150,000 a car. These are the high-end cabs that ferry passengers to the airports and buzz the midtown Manhattan streets like killer bees.

There are another 30,000 licensed livery cars, the kind tourists rarely see. They are dispatched to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, ,, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.

And then there are the gypsy cabs -- unlicensed, maybe 10,000 or more, often nothing more than a guy taking out his family car and prowling the streets in search of a fare and extra cash.

The gypsies are most at risk, sustaining 27 of the 42 murders, while licensed liveries have sustained nine homicides. The yellow cabs, the safest and most lucrative, have accounted for six murders.

The most dangerous borough of all for cab drivers is the Bronx, site of 17 murders.

"The bad guy gets to call all the shots," said Capt. Richard Savage, head of the New York Police Department's special taxi crime unit. "He gets to call the time, and the place, and the victim."

What kind of danger does a New York cab driver face?

Listen to Francisco Atizol, 52, who was a newspaper fact-checker and accountant in the Dominican Republic before immigrating to the United States nine years ago. He drives a cab day and night for the Dyckman service, earning enough money to enable his three children to attend college in Florida.

In August, he made a routine night run in the South Bronx.

"Nice lady," he said. "She had glasses." They drove for 30 blocks, finally reaching the woman's destination at 132nd and Locust Avenue, a desolate stretch of warehouses and shuttered shops.

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