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NYPD: Man with gas cans detained at St. Patrick's Cathedral

The man entered the landmark Fifth Avenue cathedral at about 7:55 p.m. Wednesday, then walked out after security confronted him, police said.

St. Patrick's Cathedral last year.

St. Patrick's Cathedral last year. Photo Credit: AP / Richard Drew

A New Jersey man carried cans of gas and lighter fluid into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan on Wednesday night and was detained after church security stopped him, the NYPD said.

The man, 37, was being questioned over the incident, which comes two days after Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral burned in an accidental fire.

“He’s confronted by a cathedral security officer who asks him where he’s going and informs him that he can’t proceed into the cathedral carrying these things,” John Miller, NYPD deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, told reporters outside St. Patrick’s. “At that point, some gasoline has apparently spilled out onto the floor as he’s turned around.”

The suspect, whose name was not released, had parked his minivan on Fifth Avenue, where the landmark 1858 cathedral is located, police said, and he walked around the area for some time before returning to the minivan shortly before 8 p.m.

“He takes out two two-gallon cans of gasoline, a plastic bag containing two bottles of lighter fluid, the type of which you would use to light a charcoal grill or barbecue, two extended lighters … controlled by a trigger and enters St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” Miller said.

The church security officer then notified members of the NYPD counterterrorism bureau, which had officers stationed near the cathedral as part of a beefed-up protection after the blaze at Notre Dame.

The suspect walked off, but when he was tracked down nearby by counterterrorism officers stationed near the cathedral, he told them his minivan had run out of gas and he was cutting through the church to get to Madison Avenue, Miller said.

When police got to his vehicle nearby, they found it had not run out of fuel, so officers took the man into custody for questioning, police said. “His answers were inconsistent and evasive,” Miller said.

Miller praised the quick response, from church security to officers who were assigned near the church and who had located the man. The Notre Dame blaze had prompted NYPD to beef up security around the Gothic-style cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of New York.

“It’s hard to say what his intentions were,” Miller said of the New Jersey man. It’s “something we should have great concern over,” he said.

An NYPD spokesman said the incident is being investigated and that the man had not been charged as of early Thursday morning.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was briefed on the incident, said his spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein.

“Thank you @NYPDnews for the swift response tonight. We are all focused on keeping our congregations and houses of worship safe as they celebrate this Holy Week,” the mayor tweeted late Wednesday night.

With Matthew Chayes and Anthony M. DeStefano 

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