NEW YORK (AP) — A former U.S. Navy veteran who appeared intoxicated drove his car the wrong way up a Times Square street Thursday and plowed into pedestrians on the sidewalk, killing a teenager and injuring 22 other people, authorities and witnesses said. The driver was taken into custody and being tested for alcohol.
Pandemonium erupted when the vehicle barreled through the prime tourist location and came to rest with two of its wheels in the air. The car leaned on a lamppost and steel barriers intended to block vehicles from getting onto the sidewalk.
“He’s just mowing down people,” said Asa Lowe, of Brooklyn, who was standing outside a store when he heard screaming. “He didn’t stop. He just kept going.”
The crash happened midday on a hot, clear day that brought large crowds of people into the streets to enjoy the good weather. Video posted online showed steam or smoke pouring from the car for a few moments after it stopped moving.
After the car struck a barricade and stopped, the driver climbed out of his vehicle, Lowe said.
“He just started running until people tackled him down,” Lowe said. “Citizens just reacted.”
The driver, 26-year-old Richard Rojas, was taken into custody and was undergoing tests for alcohol and drugs, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said. Rojas had been arrested at least twice previously for driving while intoxicated, once in 2008 and once in 2015, police said. He was in custody, and it wasn’t clear if he had an attorney yet who could comment on his behalf.
The crash killed an 18-year-old woman and the injured included her 13-year-old sister, police said.
Police do not suspect a link to terrorism, but the vehicle was checked by the bomb squad and certain city landmarks were getting a beefed up police presence.
“Out of an abundance of caution,” Mayor Bill de Blasio added.
Police said Rojas made a quick U-turn onto 42nd Street and then drove up the sidewalk for three blocks, passing tourist draws like the Hard Rock Cafe and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant and mowing people down before slamming into a pole. He was combative with officers arresting him, authorities said.
Bruno Carvalho, a student at SUNY Albany, said the car approached quickly and passed him on the sidewalk.
“People just got stunned,” he said. “I don’t think there was actually time for screaming.”
He said he saw about five people who looked gravely injured — “people, really bad, in front of us.”
Tourists Patrick and Kelly Graves of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, were waiting to get on a tour bus when they heard the crash.
Kelly Graves said she feared the worst, maybe a bomb, as “chaos” erupted and people began running.
People rushed to help the injured, who were lying on the sidewalk.
The White House said President Donald Trump was informed of the situation in Times Square and would continue to be briefed as it unfolded.
The sidewalks in many parts of Times Square and surrounding blocks are lined with metal posts designed to prevent cars from getting onto the sidewalks and other public areas.
That network of barricades, though, is far from a complete defense. There are many areas where vehicles could be driven onto packed sidewalks or public plazas.
Times Square also has a heavy police presence at all hours of the day and night.