By Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former U.S. Navy sailor slammed his car into pedestrians in New York City’s packed Times Square on Thursday, killing an 18-year-old woman and wounding 22 people, and authorities said there was no indication it was an act of terrorism.
Witnesses said the motorist mounted the sidewalk in a burgundy Honda sedan and sped along more than three city blocks, knocking people over before the car hit a pole and came to rest at 45th Street and Broadway in Midtown Manhattan.
Police who took the driver into custody identified him as Richard Rojas, 26, of the New York City borough of the Bronx. They said he had been arrested twice for drunken driving in 2008 and 2015, and once earlier this month for menacing.
There was “no indication” it was an act of terrorism, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference at the scene.
Initial reports of the incident brought to mind vehicle attacks on pedestrians like those seen in recent months in Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Sweden.
“People were being hit and rolling off the car,” said Josh Duboff, who works at the nearby Thomson Reuters headquarters. He said he leaped out of the way to avoid being struck.
A woman’s body lay covered with a bloodstained blanket. A police officer kept vigil nearby, sadly shaking his head. Shoes were scattered on the sidewalk.
Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them tourists from around the world, pass daily through Times Square, the heart of the Broadway theater district.
The bustling streets are heavily patrolled by police, some on horseback. Many, but not all, sidewalks are lined with barricades and planters for fear of vehicle attacks.
The incident took place close to noon ET on a bright, sunny day. Security camera footage showed the car slam into pedestrians who moments earlier were ambling along, some carrying shopping bags and others pushing baby strollers.
A bouncer from the Planet Hollywood restaurant and a ticket agent were among onlookers who helped police subdue the suspect when he tried to flee the scene, media reports said.
For a graphic on Times Square car crash, click here.
‘MOWED EVERYONE DOWN’
Court records showed Rojas was also arrested at a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida, in September 2012 after he yelled, “my life is over,” and threatened to kill police.
After Thursday’s incident, authorities cordoned off an area from 41st to 47th streets and from 6th to 8th avenues for several hours, effectively shutting down one of the busiest parts of one of the busiest cities in the world.
The crash occurred near the headquarters of the Reuters news agency, 3 Times Square. Building foreman Rodney Muir said he heard what sounded like a big bang and crunching metal. He said he looked out and saw what appeared to be a body in the street.
One of the injured, Cheryl Howard, had blood dripping down her right arm and a bruise above her left eye. She and her daughter were shopping when the car sped toward them.
“I’m so freaked out!” Howard’s daughter said. “They mowed everyone down.”
One injured woman nearby had a large open wound on her leg.
Times Square was evacuated in May 2010 when a car bomb that failed to explode was found in an SUV. Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American and Taliban-trained militant, later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Six months ago the city completed a $55 million, nearly 6-year renovation of Times Square that turned roadways into pedestrian zones. It aimed to improve traffic congestion and safety, but not all sidewalks were fitted with safety bollards or barriers to vehicles.
Thursday’s incident revived memories of July last year when a man driving a truck killed at least 84 people, 10 of them children, and injured 202 in the French city of Nice. Islamic State claimed responsibility.
On March 22, five people were killed in London and about 40 injured after a car hit pedestrians and a suspected Islamist-inspired attacker stabbed a policeman near Britain’s parliament.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Bases, Andrew Chung, Grant McCool, Jonathan Spicer, Barbara Goldberg, Joseph Ax, Hilary Russ, Peter Szekely, Letitia Stein, Colleen Jenkins and Emily Flitter; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Howard Goller)