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Photographer: 'If I could have, I would have' saved man on subway tracks

Dec. 5, 2012 at 8:08 AM ET

A New York Post freelance photographer who has come under fire for taking photos of a man shortly before he was fatally struck by a subway train defended himself Wednesday, saying there was no way he could have saved the man. 

Queens man Ki-Suk Han, 58, was fatally struck by a Q train in the 49th Street station in Manhattan on Monday after being pushed on to the tracks following an argument with an assailant. On Tuesday, the New York Post ran a photo by freelancer R. Umar Abbasi depicting Han struggling to pull himself up from the tracks as the train approached, using the headline "Doomed."

Abbasi was subjected to a firestorm of criticism across the Web from people who felt he should have helped Han instead of taking the photos. The Post was also attacked for deciding to use the morbid photo on its cover with that headline. 

"My condolences to the family, and if I could have, I would have pulled Mr. Han out,'' Abbasi told Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Wednesday. "I didn’t care about the photographs. If you were to see the raw photographs, you would say, I cannot see anything in them.'' 

'Just crazy': Outrage on the Web over photo capturing subway death

Abbasi said the photographs were very dark and were lightened by the New York Post. He said his main objective in snapping the photos was using his camera's flash to alert the driver of the subway train about a man on the tracks. Abbasi confirmed that he was paid for usage of the photographs of Han. 

"I was approached that there would be interest,'' he told Lauer. "I would call it licensing to use it. Selling a photograph of this nature sounds morbid. I licensed these photographs. (How the image was used) is not my decision. I don’t control what image is used and how it is used and how it is presented.

"That was on assignment. It's not that I ran to The Post and said, ‘Hey guys I have a photograph you might be interested in.’'' 

Police announced they have taken former deli worker Naeem Davis, 30, into custody for questioning about Monday's incident, adding that he made statements implicating himself in the crime. Davis has several prior minor arrests on his record, but he has not been charged with any crime.

Han's family declined comment to NBC News on the Post running the photo and the actions of Abbasi. 

Abbasi saw Han flung onto the tracks out of his peripheral vision and said he was about 150 feet onto the platform, which he said is 500 to 600 feet long, when the incident occurred. He estimated that about 20 to 22 seconds elapsed between when he saw Han and when Han was fatally struck, during which time he started running toward Han and snapping the photographs with his professional digital SLR camera. 

"If this thing happened again with the same circumstances, whether I had a camera or not and I was running towards it, there was no way I could've rescued Mr. Han,'' he said. "If I was in a reachable distance, I would've grabbed him and tried to pull him.'' 

"I think the photographer did what he was trained to do, which is to capture a picture of drama that was taking place before him, so all we can do is try to understand, and again, we’re not in that photographer’s position,'' former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt told NBC News. 

Standing on the side of the platform near 50th Street, Abbasi did not see the initial altercation between Han and the assailant, which occurred closer to the 47th Street exit. 

"I saw a body flying off on to the tracks, and there was a collective gasp that arose,'' he said. "That got my total attention, and I saw the man on the tracks. It took me a second to figure out what is happening. The guy got up and was trying to get as close to the edge of the platform. I saw the lights in the distance of the approaching train, and the only thing I could think of at that time was to alert the driver with my camera flash, and I started running.'' 

The alleged attacker also slowed down Abbasi as he tried to run toward Han. 

"The person who pushed him is coming towards me,'' he said. "There’s a lapse in there where I  brace myself with my back to the wall because I don’t want to be pushed on the (tracks)."

None of the people on the part of the platform closer to Han reached out to help him, and afterward several people were taking cell phone videos of Han's body as a doctor performed CPR, according to Abbasi. 

"They could have moved and grabbed him and pulled him out,'' he said. "Nobody made an effort. This is a frozen moment. There's a train approaching. From where the train is to where Mr. Han is, is a second. I am further away.'' 

Witnesses told police the alleged assailant was mumbling to himself before having a loud argument with Han that was partially caught on video by a bystander. The suspect then pushed Han on the tracks. 

"It was horrifying,'' witness Leigh Wingus told NBC News. "It was terrible. Everyone was screaming, 'Stop the train, there’s a man on the tracks!' And all I saw was that it clearly didn’t stop in time for him to survive.'' 

Abbasi believes that the incident should call attention to safety issues in the subway stations. 

"A positive thing can come out,'' he said. "We have started a debate about what could have been done. How can we improve the safety on our subway systems? If you notice when these subway trains come into the train station, basically they are barreling down. They slow down when they have reached the middle of the platform."

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