UPDATED 05/19/17 12:16 a.m.
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — One person was killed and 22 people injured after being struck by a car in Times Square shortly before noon Thursday.
As CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported, surveillance video captured the calm of people walking around Times Square at lunchtime before the out-of-control car changed everything. As the car zoomed through, people were thrown from its hood and left disoriented on the sidewalk.
Alyssa Elsman, 18, of Portage, Michigan, was killed after being struck by the red Honda Accord before it came to a stop by crashing into steel barriers at 45th Street and Seventh Avenue, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. The 22 injured victims included Elsman’s 13-year-old sister.
Four of victims were initially reported in critical condition. Six others were rushed to Mount Sinai West Hospital, with two in serious condition and four others expected to be treated and released.
NYC Health + Hospitals Bellevue reported two people in serious condition late Thursday afternoon.
A traffic agent, patrol officer, and others immediately apprehended the driver, Richard Rojas, after the incident.
Rojas was charged early Friday with one count of second-degree murder, 20 counts of attempted murder, and five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Rojas, 26, of the Bronx, has been arrested twice before for driving while intoxicated.
Authorities said that preliminary information showed no terror connection, although the NYPD has increased patrols at other spots around the city.
Witnesses described the driver, who was seen in a crosswalk moments before the crash, as looking completely crazed before he was taken into custody. As people ran for their lives, minds were racing over whether it was all an accident or an act of terrorism.
City officials quickly set the record straight.
“This is not an act of terror,” de Blasio said. Nonetheless, the NYPD increased its security posture at a number of major sites across the city “out of an abundance of caution,” he added.
Rojas is a U.S. citizen and a former member of the U.S. Navy, de Blasio said.
The incident began at 11:54 a.m. as Rojas was driving south on Seventh Avenue through Times Square, police said.
“As he approaches 42nd Street, he makes a quick U-turn on to the west side street, the west side sidewalk of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street,” said NYPD Chief of Manhattan South Detectives William Aubry. “He proceeds on that west side sidewalk for 3 and half blocks, where he hits a stanchion.”
The car went flying and also caught fire when it finally struck the stanchion along the sidewalk at 45th Street.
“I was walking. There were bodies scattered everywhere; people injured,” said witness Kevin Sykes.
“I saw the flames coming up from under the hood of the car and somebody was getting pulled out from under the car,” said tourist Annette Proehl.
“If it wasn’t for the pole, we would’ve been injured,” added a teenage witness.
Rojas got out of the car and was tackled and taken into custody.
“They get him in the patrol car, they get him back to Midtown South Precinct, he makes certain statements which I’m not going to get into right now,” Aubry added.
Rojas was being tested for drugs and alcohol and blew zero on a Breathalyzer, police sources said. He told police he “smoked something.”
Sources said Rojas may have been under the influence of some drug. It was not known if the drug was K2.
Sources said Rojas initially tested positive for marijuana. Further testing was under way late Thursday to determine whether there were any additional drugs in his system.
Police sources also said a possible motive for the incident was suicide by cop.
“The driver tried to run from the scene, and the bouncer from Planet Hollywood hit him, so we jumped on top of him and ripped his shirt, wanted to make sure he had no gun or knife on him,” a tour bus ticket agent told CBS2’s Janelle Burrell. “I see the car coming in fast, no brake, no nothing. Bang! Before I realized it there’s fire on the car… my co-worker jumped from the scene. … I don’t smell alcohol because he turned around and we saw his face. He said to make him loose. … Anything happens here there’s no time for people to react.”
CBS2 caught up with the Planet Hollywood bouncer, Kenya Bradix, who is being hailed as a hero after taking on the suspect.
“I saw the guy run into the poll. I heard people screaming: ‘Get him! Get him!’ After I heard the screaming, I just did what anyone would do,” Bradix said. “I have 25 years of experience in security, so it was a kneejerk reaction for me. It was just one of those things. I didn’t want to just sit around and let things go.”
Once the scene was secured, police began looking into the car.
“Everyone was just kind of hanging out and the car just came and hit the pole out of nowhere,” a witness told CBS2’s Alice Gainer. “People were going to the scene to check it out. There was actually a guy trapped in the car. Within 45 seconds [first responders] were on the scene. People were concerned it was going to be a bomb.”
Eventually, police started moving everyone back several blocks because, as one officer said, they indeed did not know what was in the car.
Several witnesses described the horror of the scene afterward.
“I’m scared, it’s very surprising but scary at the same time. Just how one person may end up doing this, out of the blue,” said another witness. He also said he heard a “huge bang” when the crash happened.
“The car just came really fast and injured a lot of people. We actually saw the people in the ground and tried to help but we couldn’t do anything.”
“It made like a path and that’s it,” another witness told Gainer. “They caught the person after a couple of seconds. It’s really tragic. .. Some woman in front of us she died and lot of people had serious injuries. Blood everywhere, we kept looking at ourselves like what can we do. But the police came really fast. I just feel like everybody had no reaction because we tried to help .. it’s just like people on the ground hit by a car, there’s not much we could do and everybody was like really stunned and we didn’t know what to do. It was really a terrible scene.”
“There was a lot of tourists here buying tickets for Phantom of the Opera because there’s a 2 p.m. show,” a witness told CBS2’s Burrell. “Also a lot of people sitting and having lunch and talking, it was a nice day. What happened was a surprise, I just heard the sound of the car on fire … It happened so fast, it was a lot of smoke and fire, you couldn’t see nothing. … It was a very big surprise, I was scared because I remember Paris and I was scared to get closer.”
Many victims felt sad for the young woman who was killed and for those struck, They said they also felt lucky they weren’t hit themselves.
“Being that I got hit by pebble, yeah, I’m pretty damn lucky today,” one witness said.
“I had to get off the street, and if I hadn’t, I’d probably be dead,” a woman said.
Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo both offered their thoughts and prayers to the victims in the incident.
“We all feel deeply right now for those who were injured and for the families and particularly for the family of the young woman who was lost, our prayers are with her family and with all those right now who are suffering because of this horrible incident,” de Blasio said.
“Today’s events at Times Square were nothing short of horrific,” said Cuomo. “As facts continue to emerge, my heart goes out to the victims of this terrible tragedy, as well as their families.”
“This is a tough day for New York City, but as usual, the people of New York City will stand firm, will be resilient,” de Blasio said.
Traffic in the area was rerouted and much of the area was blocked off. Times Square was only partially back open five hours after the incident.
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The car was removed from the scene around 8:30 p.m. after police investigated and processed the scene.
Some road closures continued as of 10:30 p.m. Seventh Avenue was closed between 40th and 57th streets, 45th and 46th streets were closed between Sixth and Eighth avenues, and 43rd Street was closed between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
The car was hoisted onto the back of a trailer and hauled away.
President Donald Trump was made aware of the situation, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tweeted.
Suspect Rojas was arrested in 2008 and 2015 for drinking and driving. He was most recently arrested earlier this month for menacing, Aubry said.
Rojas was also arrested on suspicion of battery in 2012 at the Mayport Naval Base in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was stationed at the time.
Rojas was taken to NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue for a medical evaluation after he was apprehended.