NEW YORK— A man steered his car onto a sidewalk running through the heart of Times Square and mowed down pedestrians for three blocks Thursday, killing a teenager, then emerged from his wrecked vehicle wild-eyed and waving his arms before he was subdued by police and bystanders.
The driver, a 26-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, told officers he was hearing voices and expected to die, two law enforcement officials said.
Helpless pedestrians had little time to react as the car barreled down the sidewalk and through intersections before smashing into a row of steel security barriers installed in recent years to prevent vehicle attacks on the square where massive crowds gather every New Year’s Eve. The car came to rest with its two right wheels in the air.
“He didn’t stop,” said Asa Lowe, of Brooklyn, who was standing outside a store when he heard screaming as people scattered. “He just kept going.”
Police said 23 people were hit by the car, including an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan who died. The woman’s 13-year-old sister was among the injured.
A fire department chief, Mark Foris, was at an unrelated elevator rescue when he saw the car speed by.
“This is more than just a car accident,” he thought as he walked among bleeding victims.
The carnage raised immediate fears of terrorism, fueled by recent attacks in England, France and Germany in which vehicles plowed through crowds of pedestrians. But investigators quickly turned their focus to the sobriety and mental health of the driver, identified as Bronx resident Richard Rojas.
“There is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Photographers snapped pictures of Rojas after he climbed from the wrecked car and ran through the street before he was tackled by a group that included a ticket seller and a muscular door supervisor at a nearby Planet Hollywood restaurant.
Rojas initially tested negative for alcohol, but more detailed testing was being done to determine if he was high, according to two law enforcement officials who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
The officials said Rojas told officers he had been hearing voices.
A week ago, Rojas was arrested and charged with pointing a knife at a notary, whom he accused of stealing his identity. He pleaded guilty to a harassment violation.
He was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated in 2008 and 2015, police Commissioner James O’Neill said. He pleaded guilty to an infraction in 2015 and was ordered to complete a drunken-driving program and lost his license for 90 days.
In previous arrests, he told authorities he believed he was being harassed and followed, one of the law enforcement officials said.
Police identified the woman killed by the car as Alyssa Elsman, of Portage, Michigan.
Elsman graduated last year from Portage Northern High School.
“If you didn’t know her, you might think she’s reserved or shy,” school principal Eric Alburtus said. “But if you could talk to her for a minute, you’d realize she was engaging. She was bright. She was funny.”
In the Bronx, neighborhood acquaintances said Rojas was a friendly man who had been having problems. Harrison Ramos said Rojas wasn’t the same when he came back from active duty in 2014.
“He’s been going through a real tough time,” he said.
Rojas enlisted in the Navy in 2011 and was an electrician’s mate fireman apprentice. In 2012 he served aboard the U.S.S. Carney, a destroyer.
Navy records show that in 2013 he spent two months at a naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina. They don’t indicate why.
Rojas was based at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, before being discharged in 2014 as the result of a special court martial, a Navy official said. Details were not immediately available.
Thursday’s mayhem began at noon on a hot, clear day that brought large crowds of people into the streets to enjoy the good weather.
Police said Rojas had been driving south on Seventh Avenue when he made a quick U-turn at 42nd Street and drove up the sidewalk for three blocks, passing tourist draws like the Hard Rock Cafe and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant.
Security camera video showed people being flung in bunches over the car’s hood.
“People just got stunned,” said Bruno Carvalho, a student at SUNY Albany. “I don’t think there was actually time for screaming.”
As Rojas ran from his wrecked vehicle, Ken Bradix, a door supervisor at Planet Hollywood, struck him to get him to stop. Alpha Balde, who works in the square selling sightseeing tour tickets, said he and Bradix jumped on top of Rojas and held him until police took over.
Planet Hollywood said Bradix “selflessly and heroically took action, helping to stop the fleeing suspect.”
The White House said President Donald Trump was informed of the situation in Times Square and would continue to be briefed as it unfolded.
The apartment building where Rojas lives was cordoned off by police Thursday. It was unclear when Rojas, who was in custody, would get a lawyer or face formal charges in court.
The sidewalks in many parts of Times Square and surrounding blocks are lined with metal posts designed to prevent cars from getting onto the sidewalks and other public areas.
That network of barricades, though, is far from a complete defense. There are many areas where vehicles could be driven onto packed sidewalks or public plazas.
Sunita Prasad and her family, visiting from Guyana, were marveling at the sights when the car came toward them.
She pushed her children, 3 and 6, out of its path. But an uncle was struck on the head by a pole dislodged by the vehicle, relatives said as they left the hospital where he was being treated.
“We were just touring, seeing how beautiful Times Square was,” Prasad said. “And this came.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.