Rampaging driver strikes Times Square pedestrians

By WILLIAM HENNELLY in New York(chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2017-05-19 06:18:35

A vehicle that struck pedestrians and later crashed is seen on the sidewalk in Times Square, New York City, US, May 18, 2017. [Photo/Agencies]

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.

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 plowing through people.

An injured man sits on the sidewalk in Times Square after a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians on the sidewalk in New York City, US, May 18, 2017. [Photo/Agencies]

Rojas' burgundy Honda Accord sedan was smoking when it came to a stop on top of a metal stanchion 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.

Daily Mail.com, citing law enforcement sources, said Rojas had smoked K-2, a synthetic form of marijuana, before the rampage. He also was arrested last week after pulling a knife on a man in the Bronx and asking him "Do you feel safe?" Rojas let off after reaching a deal with the Bronx District Attorney's Office, the newspaper reported.

"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.

Police investigate the scene where a vehicle was driven onto a sidewalk and struck pedestrians in Times Square in New York, US, May 18, 2017. [Photo by Calvin Zhou/China Daily]

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.

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

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

"The bouncer from Planet Hollywood knocked him out," Balde told the New York Daily News. "He knocked him out so bad you could see the blood coming out of his face. That's when I jumped in, I grabbed him from his neck and within about one minute everybody's there."

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

"I ripped off his shirt," Balde said. "You have to make sure this guy doesn't have anything under his shirt that's going to damage you. So I ripped the shirt to find out no gun, no knife, no belt."

A man who police said was the suspected driver of a car which crashed into a crowd on Times Square, is led out of the NYPD Midtown South precinct in New York, US, May 18, 2017. [Photo/Agencies]

He fought with officers who then handcuffed him, authorities said.

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

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.

Police investigate the scene where a vehicle was driven onto a sidewalk and struck pedestrians in Times Square in New York, US, May 18, 2017. [Photo/Agencies]

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 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 man helps an injured woman on the sidewalk in Times Square after a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians on the sidewalk in New York City, US, May 18, 2017. [Photo/Agencies]

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.

Multiple injuries on the spot at the Times Square in New York, US, May 18, 2017. [Photo by Calvin Zhou/China Daily]

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.

The New York Police Department closed off the area. [Photo by Calvin Zhou/China Daily]

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