Times Square crash kills one
Driver tried to flee scene after hitting pedestrians
Aman who appeared intoxicated drove his car the wrong way up a Times Square street and plowed into pedestrians on the sidewalk Thursday, killing a teenager and injuring 22 other people, authorities and witnesses said.
The driver, a 26-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, told officers he was hearing voices and expected to die, two law enforcement officials said.
Helpless pedestrians had little time to react as the car barrelled down the sidewalk and through intersections before smashing into a row of steel security barriers installed in recent years to prevent vehicle attacks on the square where massive crowds gather every New Year’s Eve. The car came to rest with its two right wheels in the air.
“He didn’t stop,” said Asa Lowe, of Brooklyn, who was standing outside a store when he heard screaming as people scattered. “He just kept going.”
Police said 23 people were hit by the car, including an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan who died. The woman’s 13-year-old sister was among the injured.
A fire department chief, Mark Foris, was at an unrelated elevator rescue when he saw the car whiz by and called in emergency crews.
“This is more than just a car accident,” he recalled thinking as he walked among bleeding pedestrians, doing triage on the spot. “This is a mass casualty incident.”
The carnage raised immediate fears of a terrorist attack, but investigators quickly turned their focus to the sobriety and mental health of the driver, identified as Bronx resident Richard Rojas.
“There is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Photographers snapped pictures of Rojas after he climbed from the wrecked car and ran through the street before he was tackled by a group that included a ticket seller and a muscular door supervisor at a nearby Planet Hollywood restaurant.
Rojas initially tested negative for alcohol, but more detailed testing was being done to determine if he was high, according to two law enforcement officials who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
The officials said Rojas told officers he had been hearing voices.
A week ago, Rojas was arrested and charged with pointing a knife at a notary, whom he accused of stealing his identity. He pleaded guilty to a harassment violation and was given a conditional discharge.
He was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated in 2008 and 2015, police Commissioner James O’Neill said. He pleaded guilty to an infraction in 2015 and was ordered to complete a drunkendriving program and lost his license for 90 days.
In previous arrests, he told authorities he believed he was being harassed and followed, one of the law enforcement officials said.
Police identified the woman killed by the car as Alyssa Elsman, of Portage, Michigan.
Elsman graduated last year from Portage Northern High School.
“If you didn’t know her, you might think she’s reserved or shy,” school principal Eric Alburtus said. “But if you could talk to her for a minute, you’d realize she was engaging. She was bright. She was funny.”
In the Bronx, neighbourhood acquaintances said Rojas was a friendly man who had been having problems. Harrison Ramos said Rojas wasn’t the same when he came back from active duty in 2014.
“He’s been going through a real tough time,” he said.
Rojas enlisted in the Navy in 2011 and was an electrician’s mate fireman apprentice.
A smashed car sits on the corner of Broadway and 45th Street in New York's Times Square after ploughing through a crowd of pedestrians at lunchtime on Thursday. Police do not suspect a link to terrorism and the driver was taken into custody to be tested for alcohol.