Police found an “amateurish” but potentially powerful bomb that apparently began to detonate but did not explode in a smoking SUV in Times Square, authorities said Sunday. Thousands of tourists were cleared from the streets for 10 hours while the bomb was dismantled.
“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.”
Investigators removed three propane tanks, fireworks, two filled five-gallon gasoline containers, and two clocks with batteries, electrical wire and other components from the back of the Nissan Pathfinder, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. A black metal box resembling a gun locker was also recovered and will be detonated off site, he said.
Kelly said the explosives were consumer-grade fireworks but could have caused huge damage on a block of Broadway theaters and restaurants teeming with tourists.
“I think the intent was to cause a significant ball of fire,” Kelly said.
Firefighters who arrived shortly after first call heard a popping sound, said Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano, who described the sound as not quite an explosion.
The bomb appeared to be starting to detonate but malfunctioned, police spokesman Paul Browne told The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
No suspects were in custody, although 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.
“The full attention of city, state and federal law enforcement will be turned to bringing the guilty party to justice in this act of terrorism,” Gov. David Paterson said in a statement. Bloomberg did not describe it as an act of terrorism.
A T-shirt vendor alerted police to billowing smoke coming from the back of the vehicle at about 6:30 p.m., the height of dinner hour as theatergoers rush to eat before Saturday night shows begin.
Smoke was coming from the car, its hazard lights were on and “it was just sitting there,” said Rallis Gialaboukis, another vendor who has hawked his wares for 20 years across the street.
A white robotic police arm broke windows of the Pathfinder 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 police he had sent the plates to a nearby junkyard, Bloomberg said.
Heavily armed police and emergency vehicles shut down the city’s busiest streets, choked with taxis and theatergoers on one of the first summer-like days of the year.
Tourist Shelly Carlisle said police crowded into her Broadway theater after the curtain closed on “Next to Normal,” a show on the same block where the SUV was found.
“At the end of the show, the police came in. We were told we had to leave,” Carlisle said. “They said there was a bomb scare.”