NYC cops hunt man caught on film in bombing
An image taken from a surveillance video released by police on Monday shows a man, center, carrying a bag and walking away after removing his shirt in New York City.
NEW YORK – Investigators combed through security video and other evidence on Monday in the hunt for suspects in a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said a white man in his 40s was spotted in security video footage about half a block from where the vehicle was left on Saturday evening with its engine running and hazard lights flashing.
In a video released by police, the man, who appears to be thin, is seen removing a dark shirt, stuffing it into some sort of bag and walking away down the sidewalk, carrying the bag and glancing at least twice over his shoulder.
Police said they’ll be releasing more video of people seen acting suspiciously in and around Times Square, including footage, taken by a tourist, of a man running away from the scene, heading north.
Police told NBC News that it would be incorrect to characterize the people, including the man shown changing his shirt, as “suspects.” They were sought for questioning, a spokesman said.
Police found the “amateurish” but potentially powerful bomb in a smoking sport utility vehicle in the busy theater district Saturday night after being alerted by two street vendors, then cleared the streets of thousands of tourists so they could dismantle it.
The SUV contained three propane tanks, fireworks, two filled 5-gallon gasoline containers and two clocks with batteries, electrical wire and other components, police said. Timers were connected to a 16-ounce can filled with fireworks that were apparently intended to set the gas cans afire, then ignite the three barbecue-grill-sized propane tanks.
Commissioner Kelly said it was “the intent of whoever did this to cause mayhem, create casualties.”
Police also found eight bags weighing more than 100 pounds of a substance that turned out to be fertilizer that was incapable of exploding.
Police spokesman Paul Browne said that unlike the ammonium nitrate grade fertilizer that has been used in terror attacks including the Oklahoma City bombing, this fertilizer would not have caused a massive explosion.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said there was no evidence of a link to al-Qaida or any other militant organization in the failed bomb attack that prompted the evacuation of the teeming entertainment and shopping district.
“It’s unfortunate that this happened. I’m confident that we will find out who did it,” Bloomberg told reporters outside a Times Square restaurant.
Officials were treating the incident as a potential terrorist attack, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” though it was too soon to tell who is responsible. She added that investigators had no suspects but that they had recovered forensic evidence, including fingerprints, from the vehicle.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. In a one-minute video, the group said the attack ws in revenge for the death of its leader Baitullah Mehsud and the recent killings of the top leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Kelly said there was no evidence to support the Pakistani Taliban’s claim.
In another video released early Monday and apparently dated early April, Pakistan’s Taliban chief promised attacks on major U.S. cities, a monitoring group said.
“We avoided what we could have been a very deadly event,” Bloomberg said in a press conference earlier Sunday. “It certainly could have exploded and had a pretty big fire and a decent amount of explosive impact.”
A T-shirt vendor and a handbag vendor alerted police at about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the height of dinner hour before theatergoers head to Saturday night shows.
T-shirt vendor and Vietnam veteran Lance Orton said he alerted a mounted policeman when he noticed smoke coming from a parked SUV.
“People take it lightly,” Orton said on NBC’s TODAY show. “I’ve had a few situations where I’ve told people about things; they say, ‘That’s nothing.’ But you can’t take that attitude.”
One of Orton’s helpers suggested calling 911. Orton said he pointed at mounted police officer Wayne Rhatigan, who was on duty in Times Square.
“There’s a patrolman right there on the horse. I asked one of my guys, ‘Go over there and grab that officer,’ ” Orton recalled. “He came over on horseback. He saw what I did. It was steadily getting worse.”
After the vendors noticed the SUV, police cleared buildings and streets at the so-called “Crossroads of the World.” Officers were deployed around the area with heavy weapons on empty streets in the heart of busy midtown Manhattan.
A white robotic police arm then broke the windows of the dark Nissan Pathfinder to remove any explosive devices.
While he called the device “amateurish,” Bloomberg said it could have been deadly.
“We are very lucky,” he said.
A Connecticut license plate on the vehicle did not match the SUV, according to authorities, who did not know a motive. Police interviewed the Connecticut car owner, who told police he had sent the plates to a nearby junkyard, Bloomberg said.
‘Act of terrorism’
New York Gov. David Paterson called the incident an “act of terrorism.”
“Luckily, no one is hurt, and now 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,” Paterson said in a statement.
Shelly Carlisle of Portland, Ore., said police crowded into the Booth Theatre 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.”
The car was parked on 45th Street, and the block was closed between Seventh and Eighth avenues as a precaution, police said.
Times Square lies about four traffic-choked miles north of where terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, then laid waste to it on Sept. 11, 2001.
The block that was closed is one of the prime blocks for Broadway shows, with seven theaters housing such big shows as “Billy Elliot” and “Lend Me a Tenor.”
The curtain at “God of Carnage” and “Red” opened a half-hour later than usual, but the shows were not canceled, said spokesman Adrian Bryan-Brown.
Katy Neubauer, 46, and Becca Saunders, 39, of Milwaukee were shopping for souvenirs two blocks south of the SUV when they saw panicked crowds.
“It was a mass of people running away from the scene,” Neubauer said. “There were too many people, too many cops. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.
Bloomberg left early from the White House correspondents dinner in Washington, D.C., on Saturday night. President Barack Obama, who attended the annual gala, praised the quick response by the New York Police Department, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said.
He has also directed his homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to advise New York officials that the federal government is prepared to provide support.
Brennan and others will keep Obama up to date on the investigation, Shapiro said.
The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York responded along with the NYPD, said agent Richard Kolko.
Islamic militants have used propane and compressed gas for years to enhance the force of explosives. Those instances include the 1983 suicide attack on the U.S. Marines barracks at the Beirut airport that killed 241 U.S. service members, and the 2007 attack on the international airport in Glasgow, Scotland.
In 2007 the U.S. military announced that an al-Qaida front group was using propane to rig car bombs in Iraq.
London’s theater district was also the target of a propane bomb attack in 2007, which may provide clues to American investigators.
In both cases, “the intention was to create a fireball” that would incinerate passers-by, Andy Hayman, former assistant commissioner in charge of counterterrorism at New Scotland Yard, told msnbc.com.
No one was injured when police discovered two Mercedeses loaded with nails packed around canisters of propane and gasoline outside of Tiger Tiger, a popular nightclub, on June 29, 2007.
“The big advantage (in New York City) is that because the car hasn’t been destroyed, the forensic opportunities are immense,” Hayman said.
“Police will be keen to mobilize the public — tourists might inadvertently have recorded the perpetrator leaving the car. There could be some very good images there,” he added.
Hayman also predicted that New Yorkers might be jumpy in the coming days.
“With a perpetrator at large, there will always be the worry that, being frustrated, he’ll try again,” he said.
In the London incident, police traced suspects two days later.