Police find clues in potential car bomb vehicle

May 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

From Susan Candiotti and Jeanne Meserve, CNN

(CNN) — A T-shirt vendor who noticed smoke coming out of a dark green sport utility vehicle alerted police to what turned out to be a potential bomb placed in the city’s iconic Times Square — teeming with tourists and theater-goers on a balmy spring evening.

“We avoided what could have been a very deadly event,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg early Sunday morning. “It certainly could have exploded and had a pretty big fire and a decent amount of explosive impact.”

The atmosphere at Times Square returned to normal Sunday, but questions remained about the contents of the vehicle.

Two federal officials said Sunday it was too early to tell whether the incident involved al Qaeda or another international terror group. The national threat level remained at yellow, or elevated.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” noting that the New York police, FBI and federal Joint Terrorism Task Force were involved in the investigation. “We’re treating it as if it could be a potential terrorist attack.”

President Obama, updated on the situation late Saturday night, said the federal government was prepared to provide support.

Police are combing through surveillance camera footage to determine who left the Nissan Pathfinder with its engine running and lights flashing on a street shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday.

Authorities may also appeal to the public to provide personal photos taken at the time, a federal law enforcement official said.

Inside the Pathfinder, police found “gas cans and bomb-making materials,” Bloomberg said.

Investigators removed three propane tanks, two filled five-gallon gasoline containers, two clocks with batteries, consumer-grade fireworks, and a locked metal box that resembled a gun locker.

The wiring around the device “looked amateurish,” Bloomberg said.

A robot from the city police department’s bomb squad smashed through the back window of the SUV and retrieved the box after several hours. It was taken to a bomb squad facility in the Bronx.

As of Sunday morning, the box was the only component found in the car that was not yet rendered safe, a police official told CNN. Authorities had not yet opened it, he said.

The forensics on the bomb component will take time and are complex, a federal law enforcement official said. But, the official said, “the scientists can do wonders.”

Officials did not immediately know how the bomb would have been detonated, nor did anyone claim responsibility.

“So far we have no reports of anybody running away [from the car],” Bloomberg said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be when we look at all the cameras.”

The SUV’s Vehicle Identification Number had been removed from the dashboard, but officials recovered the VIN from another location on the car, a federal law enforcement official told CNN.

With that information, they can trace the history of the SUV to some degree.

The official said investigators were looking at the vehicle and device for fingerprints and fibers that could provide clues.

The Pathfinder’s license plate was taken from another truck, Bloomberg said.

Authorities interviewed the truck owner who told them he had taken it to a junkyard.

A law enforcement official said the plate came from a junkyard near Bridgeport, Connecticut. Under Connecticut law, plates must be returned to a local Department of Motor Vehicle branch or to a Connecticut state trooper if a car is to be junked for scrap metal.

The mayor said authorities did not have reason to believe the truck owner “had anything to do with it or his story is false.”

Following the incident, security in other boroughs was heightened, but nothing suspicious was reported anywhere else, the mayor said.

A federal official, briefed on the situation, told CNN that New York police were just beginning their investigation and cautioned against connecting any dots about who may have been involved.

But based on the preliminary investigation, the official downplayed the impact of the car bomb.

“If it was real, it didn’t work,” the official said.

The lockdown of the popular New York attraction began after the T-shirt vendor — a Vietnam veteran — saw the SUV, found it suspicious and alerted a mounted police officer.

The officer peered inside and noticed a box with smoke coming out and smelled gunpowder, the mayor said.

“I told my friend, ‘Yo, yo, look at this!’ I mean it looks like a fireworks inside,” said Hamid Boubaln, a street vendor. “I don’t know; it’s hard to explain. After that, like 15 minutes later, the smoke came out. And one of the officers came and he started kicking everybody from the corner for safety.”

Authorities immediately evacuated the area.

The Marriott Marquis hotel did not allow anyone to enter or leave. A nearby T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant shut its doors and evacuated staff. Theater-goers found themselves unable to leave shows.

Pamela Hall was at a McDonald’s when a police officer told her to pick up her food and leave.

“They told us to go straight to 47th Street,” Hall said. “Nobody was frightened. The cops weren’t upset and the people were not noticeably upset. We were all just perplexed. We just went to 47th Street and ended up taking pictures and watching.”

Speaking to reporters, Bloomberg said: “You know we often say that when a terrorist is caught, he has a map of New York City in his pocket. … And tonight is a further reminder of the dangers that we face.”

Early Sunday morning, Gov. David Paterson issued a statement commending the police department.

“Tonight, we owe an incredible debt of gratitude to the heroic actions of the New York City Police Department and to a single vigilant New Yorker who identified a suspicious vehicle near Times Square in New York City,” he said.

“Luckily, no one is hurt, and now the full attention of city, state and federal law enforcement will be turned to bringing the guilty party to justice in this act of terrorism.”

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