One Dead and 22 Injured as Car Rams Into Pedestrians in Times Square

Suddenly, there was a car where no car should be: plowing through the sidewalk crowds that had swelled in Times Square on a spectacular sun-filled day.

And it was moving fast.

By the time it rammed into a bollard, an 18-year-old woman was dead, 22 other people were injured and the heart of Manhattan had been turned into a scene of panic and carnage. The car, a maroon Honda Accord, had traveled along the sidewalk for more than three blocks.

“They were screaming, yelling, running,” said Sharief White, a vendor who was selling T-shirts and hats at Seventh Avenue and 44th Street and saw the Honda speed into the crowd. “It was running over everybody that was in front of the car.”

Unfolding in one of the city’s most crowded and high-profile areas, the episode instantly raised the specter of terrorism. An attempted car-bomb attack in Times Square in 2010 remains a potent memory for many, and recent terrorist attacks overseas have shown the damage that vehicles can do when used as weapons.

The driver of the Honda, Richard Rojas, 26, a Navy veteran from the Bronx, had a history of arrests for drunken driving, said officials, moving quickly to assuage fears of terrorism.

“Based on information we have at this moment, there is no indication that this was an act of terrorism,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters at a news conference near the scene of the rampage.

Mr. Rojas appeared to be under the influence of drugs when he mowed down the crowds, according to several law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing investigation. Under questioning by investigators, he rambled and talked about various things, making some statements suggesting that he might have wanted to provoke the police into killing him, the officials said.

It was around noon when Mr. Rojas swerved onto a curb near 42nd Street and then accelerated north along the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue, which runs one way, southbound — crashing into people for block after block.

Alyssa Elsman, 18, of Portage, Mich., was killed in the havoc, officials said. Her 13-year-old sister was injured.

The police responded to an injury after a vehicle struck pedestrians in Times Square in New York on Thursday.Creditvia Reuters

A security guard at a building at 44th Street and Seventh Avenue said he had watched through the lobby windows as the Honda sped past and drove over a woman.

“She just hit the floor and he went over her,” said the guard, who did not give his name.

Other witnesses described their horror at seeing terrified bystanders scramble for safety.

“It was going at a fast rate of speed and to me it looked like it was trying to hit as many people as possible,” said Annie Donahey, 24, who had just left work. “People were trying to jump out of the way.”

The car raced on, crossing 45th Street before smashing into barriers in front of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. The driver tried to escape, but he was quickly surrounded.

“He started trying to run away,” said Asa Lowe, 42, who had been walking on Seventh Avenue. “Traffic cops grabbed him. Regular citizens grabbed him. We became the city we need to be today.”

Richard Rojas was taken into custody after the episode. CreditRodrigo Campos/Reuters

The wrecked Honda stayed where it was through the day, as if in a disaster-movie still, amid the constant looping of Times Square’s electronic billboards and advertisements. The car’s right-side wheels hung in the air as smoke rose from under its crumpled front hood. The trunk was popped open, revealing piles of detritus. The rear bumper was torn off and lying in the middle of the street a few blocks away.

On a nearby pedestrian plaza, there was one small cluster of people who were not emergency medical workers: a couple with two young children. The man held a boy in his arms. The woman held the hand of a girl in a flowing sun dress. It was not clear if they were connected to any of the victims. They walked around slowly, as if in a daze.

Mr. Rojas offered alternate explanations for the episode to investigators, according to the law enforcement officials, who said that investigators had not come to any immediate conclusions.

“He’s just rambling and saying crazy stuff,” said one of officials, adding that Mr. Rojas had talked of hearing voices and having hallucinations. “He tried to fight the police.”

Two officials said Mr. Rojas had tested negative for alcohol; one official said that preliminary tests indicated that he was under the influence of PCP, a mood-altering drug.

Left, Pedestrians watched the aftermath of the crash. Right, the vehicle involved in the crash resting on bollards in Times Square. CreditLeft and right: Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Mr. Rojas eventually asked for a lawyer, ending the questioning, another official said.

Another witness, Magdy Tawfik, a hot dog vendor who was working near the corner of 44th Street and Seventh Avenue, said he had seen the car hit three people around him.

“One of the girls who was hit must have been about 20,” Mr. Tawfik said. “She looked like my daughter. I couldn’t stop crying. She was so young.”

He recounted the episode about a half-hour after it ended, the corner still frantic scene of emergency workers, police officers in tactical gear and caution tape. A young woman sat on a chair nearby and grasped at her chest as bystanders offered her water.

“The car sped through here, it was moving so fast, and it crushed all these people,” he said. “It ran into all these people and everyone was running and screaming.”

Mr. White, the clothing vendor, stood next to a woman who was lying on her back on a sidewalk and surrounded by paramedics.

A victim of the crash receiving medical assistance. CreditEarl Wilson/The New York Times

“It hit her,” Mr. White said of the car, pointing to the woman, who was moaning in pain. “And it hit a couple of other people. Then the next thing I know it went straight down to 45th. It just was doing like about 100 miles per hour and then the car crashed.”

Four other people were critically injured after sustaining multiple fractures and traumas, Daniel P. Nigro, the fire commissioner said. They were taken to two hospitals. Three others were taken to hospitals in serious condition. Others sustained less serious injuries.

Mr. Rojas was taken to Bellevue Hospital for an evaluation before being discharged into police custody. He was charged late Thursday with one count of murder, 20 counts of attempted murder and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.

He has a record of aggressive behavior. On May 11, he was arrested and charged with menacing and criminal possession of a weapon for threatening a man who had come to his apartment on Walton Avenue to notarize documents. A criminal complaint said he had wrapped a hand around the man’s neck, raised a knife and said, “You’re trying to steal my identity.”

On May 12, he pleaded guilty to harassment and received a conditional discharge.

In April 2015, Mr. Rojas was arrested in Manhattan for driving while intoxicated. A police officer described him in a criminal complaint as having slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol on his breath. He pleaded guilty to an infraction and was sentenced to complete a drunken driving program, 90-day license suspension and a $500 fine. He was also arrested for driving under the influence in Queens in 2008, and pleaded guilty to a violation.

Left, Mayor Bill de Blasio in Times Square after the crash. Right, People attending to an injured pedestrian moments after the crash.CreditLeft: Jeenah Moon for The New York Times; Right: Jewel Samad, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He served in the Navy from July 2011 to May 2014, according to naval records. Naval officials would not characterize the precise circumstances of his departure, but a friend, Hansel Guerrero, said Mr. Rojas had told him that he had been dishonorably discharged.

In September 2012, while stationed at a naval base in Jacksonville, Fla., he was arrested and charged with battery and resisting an officer after he refused to pay a taxi fare and beat up the cabdriver, according to records.

He began to express conspiratorial thoughts about the government when he returned to New York after being discharged from the Navy, said Mr. Guerrero, 26.

Mr. Guerrero, who grew up with Mr. Rojas in the Bronx, said that his friend was not the same person he was when he joined the Navy. Before enlisting, Mr. Guerrero said, the two men would hang out together and work on cars. By the time he came home, he had become paranoid.

“He thought that everybody had control over him,” Mr. Guerrero said. “They were trying to control his life and things he wanted to do in life.”

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