A U.S. Navy veteran with a history of drunk driving arrests plowed through crowds of pedestrians along three blocks of New York’s bustling Times Square on Thursday, killing one person and injuring at least 22 others, police said.
The incident sparked pandemonium in one of the city’s busiest tourist and leisure centers, as bloodied victims were hauled away on stretchers and the vehicle lay upended and steaming on a sidewalk.
Officials said early indications were that the crash was not terrorism-related, but tied to a driver who’s had several brushes with the law and who was tackled by police and civilians as he tried to flee the scene.
“Based on the information we have at this moment, there is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters.
“That being said, we are reinforcing key locations around the city with our anti-terror units of the NYPD,” he said. “It’s a tough day for New York City, but as usual the people of New York City will stand firm, will be resilient.”
Authorities said the rampage began shortly before noon, when a car driving south on 7th Avenue made a U-turn at 42nd Street, then drove onto the sidewalk and sped north against traffic for three blocks before flipping on a row of short security posts at the corner of 45th Street and Broadway.
Along the way, 23 pedestrians were struck, with four of them critically injured, police said.
Emergency vehicles with sirens blaring rushed to the corner where the maroon Honda Accord lay tilted against a stanchion, its right wheels in the air.
The man taken into custody was identified as Bronx resident Richard Rojas, 26. Police said he is a Navy veteran and has two prior arrests, in 2008 and 2015, for driving under the influence. He was also arrested this month for an unspecified drug-related offense, they said.
The pedestrian who was killed was identified as Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan. Her 13-year-old sister was transported to a hospital.
Angela Opara, 40, was standing across the street from the sisters with a friend who was distributing fliers for a tour company.
“He was coming so fast,” she said of the driver. “He was coming right up on the sidewalk, taking innocent people, bringing them down.”
She thought perhaps the driver was drunk or the vehicle’s brakes had failed. But her companion, Frederick Nyamekeh, was convinced the driver had acted deliberately.
“If it was not for that last pillar that he hit, he would have gone on to hit more people in the pedestrian plaza,” said Nyamckeh, 42.
More than 200 stainless steel posts were installed last year to protect the sidewalks around Times Square in the event of a vehicular terrorist attack or accident, said Robert Reiter, chief security consultant for Calpipe Security Bollards, the Rancho Dominguez-based company that manufactured the posts.
At least 173 people have been killed and more than 700 wounded around the world in the last three years in a series of attacks in which vehicles rammed into crowds of pedestrians enjoying street festivals, markets and other popular destinations, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said in a report this month.
Isabel Chang, 40, and a colleague were waiting for an Uber ride when she heard screams from a few blocks away. Then she saw a car plowing down the opposite side of the street.
“He wasn’t swerving, and it felt intentional,” Chang said. “Then I saw people who didn’t move away fast enough get hit and fly off to the side.”
By the time the car stopped, Chang said, she saw three bodies lying on the street. As the driver got out of the vehicle, he appeared to be limping. “I saw people grab his shirt to stop him and when he started coming toward our direction, that’s when my colleague said we need to go.”
Brad Hoylman, a New York state senator, arrived at Times Square moments after the crash. He said he saw a “very large and impressive” man who worked at Planet Hollywood rush out of the restaurant and help a traffic officer tackle the driver, who was trying to flee.
“It was an absolutely sickening scene,” he said. “There was this demolished car, and wreckage strewn all over the street.”
Evan Stemmer, 25, who was visiting from Detroit, said he was returning to his hotel with a friend when they heard the sirens and saw the arrest.
“We could see that there was someone being pulled and a struggle,” he said. “And on each block, there was somebody lying on the sidewalk.”
Police cordoned off the entrance to the building on Walton Avenue in the Bronx where Rojas lived in a fifth-floor apartment with his mother.
On the sidewalk outside, Harrison Ramos, 30, described himself as a friend of Rojas, having known him since their high school years.
Ramos said the suspect wanted to work in real estate and had printed up business cards, though he didn’t know whether Rojas was currently employed. He said Rojas was close to his family and liked to play video games.
“When he came back from serving, that was when he started drinking a lot,” Ramos said of Rojas’ time in the Navy.
“He didn’t come back normal,” he said. “So, yes, he was intoxicated; he kept dreaming crazy dreams.”
Recently, he said, Rojas had been posting “crazy things” on his Instagram account, which was no longer active Thursday.
The last time he saw his friend was about a week ago on a street in the neighborhood. “He looked a little lost in this world.”
Times staff writer Demick and special correspondent Haller reported from New York and staff writer Zavis from Los Angeles. Staff writers Kurtis Lee and Melissa Etehad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
3:10 p.m.: The article was updated with the identity of the pedestrian who was killed.
2:40 p.m.: The article was updated with comments from an acquaintance of the driver.
12:50 p.m.: The article was updated with additional accounts from witnesses.
11:07 a.m. The article was updated with information about the pedestrian who was killed and reports of an arrest earlier this month of the driver on a drug-related charge.
10:40 a.m.: The article was updated with additional details of the incident, the identity of the driver, and an increase in the number of injuries.
10:10 a.m.: The article was updated with news of additional injuries.
9:45 a.m.: This article was updated with news of a fatality.
9:30 a.m.: This article was updated with reports of at least 13 people injured.
This article was initially published at 9:15 a.m.