TIMES SQUARE — A Navy vet with a history of drunk driving jumped the curb in the middle of crowded Times Square and sped along the sidewalk, killing 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman and leaving 22 people hurt before being tackled and arrested, officials said.
Richard Rojas, 26, who officials said had two prior arrests for drunk driving, was driving southbound on Seventh Avenue when he pulled a U-turn at West 42nd Street and veered north onto the sidewalk on Broadway just before noon, officials and sources said, striking Elsman, who was visiting from Michigan, and plowing into 22 other people.
Richard Rojas, 26, is walked from the Midtown South Precinct by police. (DNAinfo/Trevor Kapp)
As panicked tourists dove for cover, he plowed his maroon 2009 Honda Accord through several blocks of pedestrians on the sidewalk before crashing to a halt against a metal stanchion near the George Abbott Way pedestrian plaza south of the TKTS booth, according to officials.
"Bodies were flying, he was running over people, it was like nothing I’d ever seen," said Julie Fallo of Hoboken, who was visiting in Times Square with her daughter and niece. "Everyone thought it was a terrorist attack and ran into buildings screaming. People were trying to get off the street... he never slowed down. He gunned it right into the people. He looked like he accelerated."
"There was bodies everywhere, flying left and right."
Twenty-two people were hurt with broken bones and other traumatic injuries, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at a press conference from the scene. Four of them were taken to area hospitals in critical condition with injuries that weren't expected to be life threatening, he said.
Police identified Elsman as the 18-year-old killed. Elsman's 13-year-old sister was among the injured, according to NYPD Assistant Chief William Aubry.
Officials didn't immediately elaborate about where the other victims were from and if anyone was from another country.
Rojas tried to make a run for it before being tackled by several good Samaritans and NYPD traffic enforcement agent Elfaki Addul Majid, Aubry and union officials said.
Traffic Enforcement agent Elfaki Abdul Majid helped arrest Richard Rojas after he plowed into a crowd of people in Times Square on Thursday, May 18, 2017. (CWA Local 1182)
Majid was working at 45th Street and Seventh Avenue when Rojas hit the stanchion, CWA Local 1182 President Syed Rahim told DNAinfo New York. The agent then ran over to offer help and ended up helping to chase down Rojas when he tried to flee, Rahim said.
"Today he’s a hero," Rahim said.
Police led Rojas, a Navy vet with a criminal record, in handcuffs through Times Square and put him into a police SUV before taking him to Midtown South Precinct stationhouse for questioning, officials said.
About 1:40 p.m. they transferred him to a highway patrol facility so they could test him for drugs and alcohol, officials said.
An initial test did not show any signs he was drunk and investigators were waiting on results from a toxicology test, sources said.
Rojas was arrested in 2008 and 2015 for driving while intoxicated, police said. He was also arrested in May for menacing, police added.
He pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol after the 2008 arrest and had his license suspended for 90 days, according to the Queens District Attorney's office.
He was then busted on May 11 for pulling a knife on a stranger and asking, "Do you feel safe?"
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the calamity did not appear to be related to terrorism.
"Based on the information we have at this moment, there's no indication that this was an act of terror," de Blasio said.
But still, both the mayor and NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill immediately feared the worst when they heard what happened.
"Of course, the worst went through my mind and that's why the mayor and I came here as quickly as we could," O'Neill said.
Out of an abundance of caution, bomb-sniffing dogs were brought to the scene just after 12:15 p.m., officials said.
Road Closures near Times Square, MN: West 42-49th Streets from 7th-8th Ave. FDR Drive 23 St & 42 St exits. Use alt routes.— NYCEM - Notify NYC (@NotifyNYC) May 18, 2017
The streets and sidewalks were full of tourists during the unseasonably warm temperatures.
Kelly Graves, 54, of Wisconsin, who was visiting the city on vacation, said she was near the Disney store on Broadway between West 45th and 46th streets when she heard a crash.
"We saw groups of people lying on the sidewalk on the next block over, also in front of the car we saw a Gray Line ticket person laying on the ground with police surrounding him. he was injured. All of a sudden the car caught on fire. The police made us get back," Graves said. "People screamed, they were running away... it was total chaos."
Witnesses said they were afraid the crash may have been an act of terrorism.
"One of the cops said we should get back because they didn't know if there was a bomb," said Alex Ashton, 21, visiting from Georgia with her mother.
credit: Scott Heins/Gothamist