This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Anthony M. DeStefano, Alison Fox, Lisa Irizarry, Bart Jones, Nicole Fuller, Robert E. Kessler, Chau Lam, Mark Morales, Ivan Pereira, Pervaiz Shallwani and Rachel Uda. It was written by Jones.
A packed noontime Times Square became a scene of chaos and carnage Thursday when a troubled Bronx man who later told police he wanted to kill people drove down Seventh Avenue, made a sudden U-turn, sped along a sidewalk and mowed down pedestrians for three city blocks, police said.
An 18-year-old tourist from Michigan was killed, and 22 people were injured, four critically.
The rampage was reminiscent of terrorist attacks around the world including last July when a cargo truck driver plowed through nighttime crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, killing 86 people.
But officials said initially there appears to be no terrorism link in Thursday’s attack in one of the city’s busiest and most famous crossroads.
Authorities arrested and charged Richard Rojas, 26, and police sources told Newsday that Rojas made statements indicating “police might shoot him,” creating suspicion among investigators that he may have been attempting what authorities term suicide by cop.
Rojas, a Navy veteran, also made incriminating statements, saying, “I wanted to kill them,” referring to the pedestrians, the sources said. Late Thursday, he was charged with second-degree murder, 20 counts of second-degree attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Rojas has two prior arrests for drunken driving and one for menacing last week. He tested negative for alcohol Thursday and drug tests were pending.
The victim who died at the scene was identified as Alyssa Elsman. FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the four critically wounded people did not have life-threatening injuries. “We’re very hopeful . . . that they will survive,” Nigro said.
Three of the injured were in serious condition, and 15 received less serious injuries, he said. The injuries included “open fractures, puncture wounds, multiple hematomas, traumatic injuries that one would expect from a car traveling probably 30 mph,” Nigro said.
Although officials said Rojas’ action were not terrorism-based, they were not taking any chances.
“Based on the information we have at this moment,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “there is no indication that this was an act of terrorism.
“That being said, we are reinforcing key locations around the city with our anti-terror units of the NYPD. Out of an abundance of caution major sites in this city will get additional police coverage from our anti-terror units.”
Pedestrians described a scene of horror as Rojas’ red 2009 Honda Accord hurtled down the sidewalk at high speed, running over workers who had stepped out for lunch or tourists strolling through the area on a picture-perfect summerlike day.
The car came to a stop only after slamming into metal stanchions and hurtling into the air, coming to rest on top of the stanchions, flames emerging from its badly damaged front end.
Dave Willis, 42, was visiting from the United Kingdom and having a drink at Junior’s on 45th Street when he heard Rojas’ car crash into the metal stanchions.
“It sounded like a bomb going off,” Willis said, adding, “We stood up and all I saw was a crowd of people just running after somebody and diving on top of him.”
Rojas tried to flee after the crash, but was tackled by police officers and civilians including workers from a nearby Planet Hollywood and NYPD traffic agent Elfaki Abdelmagid.
Kenya Bradix, 47, a supervisor at Planet Hollywood, said he was walking back to the restaurant on 45th Street, when he heard screams and saw Rojas’ car driving along the sidewalk on the west side of Seventh Avenue, heading against traffic.
When Rojas got out and started running, two bystanders tried to detain him, with one tearing his shirt, Bradix said, but Rojas got away. That’s when Bradix and others tackled Rojas and held him until police came.
“He was just screaming when he got out of the car,” Bradix said. “No particular words. Nothing uttered, just screams.”
Bradix, who has worked in nightclubs for 25 years, said he did not smell alcohol on Rojas. “He wasn’t running as if he was drunk. He was stumbling. He was basically making a beeline toward 45th Street,” Bradix said.
Sources said Rojas tried to strike an officer as he was being arrested.
De Blasio identified Rojas as a “United States citizen and former member of the armed forces with the United States Navy.” The mayor called it “a tough day for New York City,” and urged people to pray for the victims, especially the family of the young woman who died.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who came to the scene, said: “Today’s events were nothing short of horrific.”
Law enforcement officials said they reviewed footage of the deadly rampage from surveillance cameras located throughout Times Square.