Police found an “amateurish” but potentially powerful bomb that apparently began to detonate but did not explode in a smoking sport utility vehicle in Times Square, authorities said Sunday.
Thousands of tourists were cleared from the streets for 10 hours after two vendors alerted police to the suspicious vehicle, which contained three propane tanks, fireworks, two filled 19 litre gasoline containers, and two clocks with batteries, electrical wire and other components, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
“We avoided what we could have been a very deadly event,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. “It certainly could have exploded and had a pretty big fire and a decent amount of explosive impact.” The bomb appeared to be starting to detonate but malfunctioned, top police spokesman Paul Browne said Sunday.
Firefighters who arrived shortly after the first call heard a popping sound, said Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano, who described the sound as not quite an explosion.
“I think the intent was to cause a significant ball of fire,” Kelly said.
No suspects were in custody, though Kelly said a surveillance video showed the car driving west on 45th Street before it parked between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Police were looking for more video from office buildings that weren’t open at the time.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on NBC’s Meet the Press that officials are treating the incident as a potential terrorist attack. The mayor said earlier Sunday, “We have no idea who did this or why” but said it’s not surprising the city is a frequent target of terrorism.
“These things invariably ... come back to New York,” Bloomberg said.
A T-shirt vendor and a handbag vendor alerted police at about 6:30 p.m., the height of dinner hour before theatergoers head to shows.
Smoke was coming from the back of the dark-coloured Pathfinder, its hazard lights were on and “it was just sitting there,” said Rallis Gialaboukis, 37, another vendor who has hawked his wares for 20 years across the street.
Duane Jackson, a 58-year-old handbag vendor, said he noticed the car at around 6:30 p.m. and wondered who had left it there. “That was my first thought: Who sat this car here?” Jackson said Sunday.
Jackson said he looked in the car and saw keys in the ignition with 19 or 20 keys on a ring.
He said he alerted a passing mounted police officer. “That’s when the smoke started coming out and then we heard the little pop pop pop like firecrackers going out and that’s when everybody scattered and ran back,” he said.
“Now that I saw the propane tanks and the gasoline, what if that would have ignited?” Jackson said. “I’m less than 8 feet (2.5 meters) away from the car. We dodged a bullet here.” He didn’t think the car had been there for more than 10 or 15 minutes.
A white robotic police arm broke windows of the SUV to remove any explosive materials. A Connecticut license plate on the vehicle did not match up, Bloomberg said. Police interviewed the Connecticut car owner, who told them he had sent the plates to a nearby junkyard, Bloomberg said.
The SUV was towed early Sunday to a forensic lab in Queens, where it was being “thoroughly checked for prints, hairs and fibers,” Browne said Sunday. Napolitano said fingerprints had been recovered from the vehicle.