NEW YORK – A man steered his car onto a sidewalk running through the heart of Times Square and mowed down pedestrians for three blocks Thursday, killing a teenager, and then emerged from his wrecked vehicle wild-eyed and waving his arms before he was subdued by police and bystanders.
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 barreled 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 Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Portage, 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.
A week ago, Rojas was arrested and charged with pointing a knife at a notary, whom he accused of stealing his identity. He was also arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated in 2008 and 2015, police Commissioner James O'Neill said.
In previous arrests, he told authorities he believed he was being harassed and followed, one of the law enforcement officials said.