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 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 drunken-driving 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, neighborhood 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. In 2012 he served aboard the U.S.S. Carney, a destroyer. He was most recently based at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, and was discharged in 2014.
Thursday’s mayhem began at noon on a hot, clear day that brought large crowds of people into the streets to enjoy the good weather.
Police said Rojas had been driving south on Seventh Avenue when he made a quick U-turn at 42nd Street and drove up the sidewalk for three blocks, passing tourist draws like the Hard Rock Cafe and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant.
Bruno Carvalho, a student at SUNY Albany, said the car approached quickly and passed him on the sidewalk.
“People just got stunned,” he said. “I don’t think there was actually time for screaming.”
Victims had no time to react and scramble for safety in crowded Times Square, said Alpha Balde, a sightseeing-ticket seller.
“This place?” Balde said. “Anything happens here. There’s no time for people to get out.”
As Rojas ran from his wrecked vehicle, Ken Bradix, a door host supervisor at Planet Hollywood, struck him to get him to stop, Balde said.
He and Bradix jumped on top of Rojas, lifted his shirt to make sure he had no weapons and held him until police arrived moments later, Balde said.
Planet Hollywood said Bradix “selflessly and heroically took action, helping to stop the fleeing suspect.”
The White House said President Donald Trump was informed of the situation in Times Square and would continue to be briefed as it unfolded.
The apartment building where Rojas lives was cordoned off by police Thursday. It was unclear when Rojas, who was in custody, would get a lawyer or face formal charges in court.
The sidewalks in many parts of Times Square and surrounding blocks are lined with metal posts designed to prevent cars from getting onto the sidewalks and other public areas.
That network of barricades, though, is far from a complete defense. There are many areas where vehicles could be driven onto packed sidewalks or public plazas.
Times Square also has a heavy police presence at all hours of the day and night.