NEW YORK (AP) — A man who appeared to be intoxicated steered his car onto a sidewalk running through the heart of Times Square on Thursday and mowed down pedestrians for three blocks, killing a teenager and injuring 22 others, before he was tackled by bystanders, authorities said.
Pandemonium erupted when the vehicle barreled through the prime tourist location and slammed into a security barrier, coming to rest with two of its wheels in the air. The car leaned on a lamppost and steel barriers intended to block vehicles from getting onto the sidewalk.
“He didn’t stop,” said Asa Lowe, of Brooklyn, who was standing outside a store when he heard screaming. “He just kept going.”
The driver was tackled by pedestrians and taken into custody. He was being tested for drugs and alcohol and charges against him were pending.
The crash happened at midday on a hot, clear day that brought large crowds of people into the streets to enjoy the good weather. Video posted online showed steam or smoke pouring from the car for a few moments after it stopped moving.
The driver, a 26-year-old Navy veteran named Richard Rojas, was taken into custody and was undergoing tests for alcohol and drugs, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said. Rojas had been arrested at least twice previously for driving while intoxicated, once in 2008 and once in 2015, police 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.
He was arrested last week on a charge of menacing. Police said he pointed a kitchen knife at a notary who’d come over to do paperwork, and he accused the notary of stealing his identity. The case is pending.
In previous arrests, he told authorities he believed he was being harassed and followed, according to a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on an ongoing probe and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Investigators were searching his Bronx home and canvassing the crime scene for video.
Rojas enlisted in the Navy in 2011 and was an electrician’s mate fireman apprentice, according to the Navy. He was most recently based at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, and was discharged in 2014.
He wasn’t immediately available to comment.
The crash killed an 18-year-old woman, and the injured included her 13-year-old sister, police said.
Police do not suspect a link to terrorism, but the vehicle was checked by the bomb squad and some landmarks were getting beefed-up security.
“Out of an abundance of caution,” Mayor Bill de Blasio added.
Police said Rojas made a quick U-turn onto 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 and mowing people down before slamming into a pole. He was combative with officers who handcuffed him, authorities said.
Bruno Carvalho, a student at SUNY Albany, said the car approached quickly and passed him on the sidewalk.
“People just got stunned,” he said. “I don’t think there was actually time for screaming.”
Victims had no time to react and scramble for safety in crowded Times Square, said Alpha Balde, a sightseeing-ticket seller.
“This place?” Balde said. “Anything happens here, there’s no time for people to get out.”
After the crash, the driver climbed out of the vehicle and began to run away, witnesses and police said. Ken Bradix, a door host supervisor at Planet Hollywood, struck him to get him to stop, 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, Balde said.
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 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.
Times Square also has a heavy police presence at all hours of the day and night.