Rampaging driver strikes Times Square pedestrians

By WILLIAM HENNELLY in New York | | Updated: 2017-05-19 06:18

A driver careening against traffic in New York's Times Square on Thursday struck more than 20 pedestrians, fatally injuring a young woman before his car came to a stop on two wheels against a light pole.

The chaotic scene disrupted the heart of midtown Manhattan on a sweltering afternoon for more than four hours, stranding workers in their offices and tourists wheeling suitcases.

The driver was identified as Richard Rojas, 26, of the Bronx, New York, a former US Navy sailor.

Police said Rojas made a sudden U-turn onto West 42nd Street and drove north up the sidewalk for three blocks, passing tourist attractions such as the Hard Rock Cafe and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant and mowing people down. He fought with officers who then handcuffed him, authorities said.

Rojas' burgundy Honda Accord sedan was smoking when it came to a stop at West 45th Street and Broadway, where it remained at least until 6 pm.

Rojas had been arrested twice for drunken driving in 2008 and 2015, and once earlier this month for menacing. Court records showed Rojas also was arrested at a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida, in September 2012 after he yelled, "My life is over," and threatened to kill police.

"People were being hit and rolling off the car," said Josh Duboff, who works at the nearby Thomson Reuters headquarters. He said he leapt out of the way to avoid being struck.

The body of a young woman identified as Alyssa Elsman, 18, a visitor from Portage, Michigan, lay covered with a bloodstained sheet at 43rd Street. Her 13-year-old sister also was injured. A police officer kept vigil nearby, sadly shaking his head. Shoes were scattered on the sidewalk.

The New York Police Department has a station right in Times Square, at 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue, so the response to the incident was almost instantaneous.

The streets around Times Square are heavily patrolled by police, some on horseback. Many sidewalks are lined with barricades and planters to deter vehicle attacks.

The incident took place close to 12 pm ET. Security camera footage showed the car slam into pedestrians who moments earlier were ambling along, some carrying shopping bags and others pushing baby strollers.

After the crash, the driver climbed out of the car and began to run away, witnesses and police said.

Ken Bradix, a door bouncer at Planet Hollywood, hit him to get him to stop, according to Alpha Balde, a sightseeing-ticket seller.

Balde said he and Bradix jumped on top of Rojas, lifted his shirt to make sure he had no weapons and held him until police arrived moments later.

Planet Hollywood said Bradix "selflessly and heroically took action, helping to stop the fleeing suspect".

After the incident, police cordoned off an area from West 41st to 47th streets and from Sixth to Eighth avenues for a few hours.

The incident occurred near the headquarters of China Daily USA, 1500 Broadway and West 43rd Street, and near the Reuters news agency, 3 Times Square.

Rodney Muir, the building foreman at Reuters, said he heard what sounded like a big bang and crunching metal.

One of the injured, Cheryl Howard, had blood dripping down her right arm and a bruise above her left eye. She and her daughter were shopping when the car sped toward them.

"I'm so freaked out!" Howard's daughter said. "They mowed everyone down."

One woman had a large open wound on her leg.

Another witness, who would only identify himself as Andrew, said the driver was "aiming for as many people as he could possibly get. ... It was very bloody, very disturbing."

A pregnant 38-year-old teacher from Baltimore who would only give her last name, Martin, said, "A man pulled me out of the way of the car," she said. "I think he saved my life."

A random sampling of tourists in the area included a woman from South China who just wanted to get back to her hotel with her infant son. A mother and daughter visiting from Austria were relieved they spent the day on the beach in Coney Island in Brooklyn and missed the commotion. A couple from Southampton, England, said they happened to be in a nearby pub so they also missed the tragedy.

It was a scene that New Yorkers and unsuspecting tourists have become used to in a post-9/11 world, with the initial fearful reaction that it was terrorism and then the subsequent exasperation that one of the busiest intersections in the world was shut down.

Initial reports brought to mind vehicle attacks on pedestrians, such as those in recent months in Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Sweden.

Times Square was evacuated in May 2010 when a car bomb that failed to explode was found in an SUV. Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American and Taliban-trained militant, later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Six months ago, the city completed a $55 million renovation of Times Square that turned roadways into pedestrian zones.

Thursday's incident invoked comparisons to July 2016, when a man driving a truck killed at least 84 people, 10 of them children, and injured 202 in the French city of Nice. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

On March 22, five people were killed in London and about 40 injured after a car hit pedestrians and a suspected Islamist-inspired attacker stabbed a policeman near Britain's parliament.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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