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Chelsea bombing trial: Witnesses testify they heard big explosions

Ahmad Khan Rahimi, the man accused of setting

Ahmad Khan Rahimi, the man accused of setting off bombs in New Jersey and New York's Chelsea neighborhood, sits in court in Elizabeth, N.J., Dec. 20, 2016. Photo Credit: AP / Mel Evans

Cort Cheek, paralyzed at the waist, was sitting in his wheelchair outside his apartment house on West 23rd Street getting some air on a Saturday evening when it happened — a “boom-boom” sound he can’t forget, he told jurors Wednesday at alleged Chelsea bomber Ahmad Khan Rahimi’s trial.

“I couldn’t get that boom out of my mind,” Cheek testified in Manhattan federal court, where Rahimi is charged with planting two pressure-cooker bombs. “That was the loudest thing I ever heard in my life. I thought it was doomsday. Ka-BOOM! It was incredible.”

Cheek’s description highlighted a third day of testimony as prosecutors again featured victims of the Sept. 17, 2016 bomb blast on West 23rd that injured 30. Rahimi, 29, from Elizabeth, New Jersey, is also accused of planting a bomb on West 27th Street that was removed before it detonated.

Testimony from victims like Cheek has been interspersed with security video showing a man resembling Rahimi leaving suitcases the government says held bombs, and FBI agents describing components found on 23rd Street — pressure cooker valves, remnants of a cellphone detonator, labels for Tannerite explosive packs, and ball bearings used as shrapnel.

Cheek said when the device blew up near Selis Manor, a housing facility for the disabled where he lives, chaos and terror erupted. “It scared the crap out of me,” he said. “I just saw papers and debris flying around the air, sirens going off, people screaming. It happened so fast I was in shock.”

He immediately wheeled his chair back into his building, adjacent to where the bomb detonated. “My heart was jumping,” he said, and many of the building’s blind residents were gathered in the lobby, confused and begging to know what was going on.

Cheeks was stranded until 4 a.m. waiting for his health aide — who couldn’t get to the block — and hasn’t gotten over it. “No physical injury, just jumpy and nervousness and anxiety,” he testified. “ . . . It’s still constant. I have a lot of anxiety about everything that’s going on.”

Mary West, one of the building’s blind residents, was accompanied to the witness stand by her yellow Lab “Judy” as she told jurors she was sitting in her bedroom on the third floor when the explosion occurred, followed by the pinging of metal objects and then “loud screaming.”

West dropped to the floor, worried her window would shatter, and then began to wonder if she was still alive. “I said ‘you might be dead and you don’t know it,’ ” she testified. “I touched my face. Then I said, ‘no, you’re still alive!’ Then I said, ‘My God you’ve got to get out of here.’ ”

She grabbed her fanny pack and Judy, who led her into the hall, and waited out the crisis there, but West said she still has hearing problems – she had to lean forward in court to hear questions – as well as headaches and a sense of anxiety that she eventually got acupuncture to alleviate.

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel totally safe after what happened over there,” West testified.

Altogether, the government has called 11 witnesses to describe physical, psychic or property damage during the first three days of trial, and played about 50 clips from area security cameras showing either the moment of the blast or movements of the suspect alleged to be Rahimi.

Rahimi’s lawyers late Wednesday, outside the presence of the jury, said enough was enough and asked U.S. District Judge Richard Berman to shut down the parade of victims.

“We’ve had to go back and forth showing every conceivable angle from every camera to show the same thing over and over again,” said defense lawyer Matthew Larsen. “We have had more than enough witnesses to establish personal injuries and property damage.”

Berman said he will rule on Thursday.

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