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14/12/2008

New York 6 march 2008

March 6, 2008, 5:33 am

Blast Damages Times Square Recruiting Station

times squarePolice officers, one of them in a hazardous-materials suit, examined the military recruiting station in Times Square after an explosion damaged the front of the building early Thursday morning. (Photo: Chip East/Reuters)
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Latest Update, 10 p.m. | The police said the explosive device involved in the Times Square blast this morning was “roughly similar” to the devices used in two earlier bombings at foreign consulates in Manhattan, in 2005 and 2007, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at an afternoon news conference [video]. The device had been placed in an ammunition box like the kind that can be bought at a military supply store. Officials said that in today’s attack, a man bundled in a gray hooded jacket or sweatshirt and wearing a backpack was seen riding a bicycle around the recruiting station and acting suspiciously moments before the explosion. Video footage from a surveillance camera showed a bicyclist dismounting, approaching the recruitment center, then returning to the bike and riding away before the explosion occurs. (See a related slide show and the latest from Friday’s print edition.)

Full Account | New York City police officers and firefighters cordoned off much of Times Square for more than two hours after a small explosion — set off, the authorities said, by an “improvised explosive device” — damaged the front of the Armed Forces Career Center on the traffic island bounded by 43rd and 44th Streets, Seventh Avenue and Broadway at 3:43 a.m., officials said. No one was injured, and after a temporary interruption, subway service was restored.

Most traffic around Times Square was allowed to pass by 6:45 a.m., after vehicles had been diverted for more than two hours. City officials confirmed that police had initially blocked off the area as a precaution to ensure that there was no secondary device or other threat; the officials emphasized that they did not believe anyone was in danger.

Police officers at the scene said the explosion blew a hole through the front door of the recruiting station, which is at the northern end of the structure.

Members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the large Police Department and F.B.I. unit that investigates terrorism, were at the scene of the blast, supporting the Police Department’s Bomb Squad, which along with other police detectives likely will take the lead role in investigating the incident, an F.B.I. official said. The official said that in today’s attack, a man in a gray hooded sweatshirt was seen leaving the scene on a bicycle.

The authorities were looking into whether the explosion was connected to two earlier blasts that were similar in method and timing, the official said. At about 3:40 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2007, two dummy hand grenades that had been fashioned into crude bombs exploded outside the Mexican Consulate at 27 East 39th Street in Murray Hill, shattering windows. The building was not occupied and no one was hurt. At 3:55 a.m. on May 5, 2005, two crude but powerful explosive devices detonated outside the British Consulate at 845 Third Avenue in East Midtown, shattering windows and damaging a planter.

Mr. Kelly spoke with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at a news conference at 9:30 a.m. in Times Square. Later, at a second news conference, Mr. Kelly said the explosive material used today “was not particularly powerful,” and that the explosion was “roughly similar” to the earlier consular bombings. Material from the two earlier explosions has been sent to the F.B.I. crime lab in Quantico, Va., and material from today’s explosion will be taken there for analysis as well, Mr. Kelly said.

A witness who was buying a newspaper told police that he saw a man wearing a gray-hooded sweatshirt biking around the recruiting center moments before the bombing. After the bombing, at about 7 a.m., a building superintendent notified the police that a 10-speed bicycle in good condition had been abandoned at Madison Avenue and 38th Street. The police are looking into the possibility that the bicycle had been used by the attacker.

From the writing on the side of the ammunition box found at the site of the explosion, it appeared that the box had once contained belt-mounted machine-gun ammunition. The box was 4 inches wide, 10 inches long and 10 inches deep, Mr. Kelly said.

In the two earlier incidents, the police said the improvised explosive devices were virtually identical. Both contained explosive powder. Both attacks occurred before dawn when there were few people on the street. And in both cases the devices were thrown against building facades.

Both of those attacks were captured on video surveillance. The arc of the device — with its lighted fuse – was visible on the videotape. In the 2007 attack, a witness told police that a man in his 20s on a bicycle pedaled quickly away and turned south onto Park Avenue, the authorities said at the time. The bicyclist was wearing a hooded gray jacket and his face was partly covered, but the police could not say for certain that he threw the grenades. At the time of the Mexican consulate attack, Mr. Kelly, the police commissioner, described the two improvised explosives. He said they were training, or dummy, grenades — perhaps purchased from a novelty shop — that had been hollowed out and stuffed with gunpowder, possibly black powder, and equipped with pyrotechnic fuses. One had a smooth surface, modeled after the “lemon” type used in the Vietnam War, and the other was scored like the rough “pineapple” type used during World War II.

Although the damage today was relatively minor, the prominent location of the blast at a time of heightened concerns about terrorism attracted national attention.

In Washington, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Homeland Security said it was monitoring and investigating the explosion, Reuters reported. Asked if there was a link to terrorism, the spokeswoman, Laura Keehner, said, “At this time we’re still investigating.”

In West Palm Beach, Fla., Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, who was campaigning with Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, said, “My friends, a bad thing happened in Times Square this morning, and that is some idiot tried to harm a recruiting station there in Times Square where we recruit men and women who serve in the military,’’ he said. “We have to track down and prosecute and put in jail people that commit acts of that nature.”

The office of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York issued this statement this afternoon:

I am deeply concerned by the detonation of a small bomb at the military recruiting office in Times Square. While we should be grateful that there were no injuries and minimal damage, there is an ongoing investigation into whether the attack is linked to foreign terrorist groups, and federal, state, and city authorities should be given every resource and every tool to swiftly complete that investigation. Having worked with and supported our law enforcement and national security authorities in New York, I am confident that they will get the job done.

Whatever else we learn about this attack, it is a reminder of the threats we continue to face at home and the importance of remaining vigilant. I will continue to work to provide all levels of law enforcement with the tools they need to continue to protect us here at home.

Capt. Charles V. Jaquillard, the Army Recruiting Command’s company commander for New York City, said in a phone interview that he was informed of the explosion around 5 a.m. “If it were something directed toward the individuals working at that station, then obviously it’s very unfortunate and of great concern, because there’s nothing more important to us than the safety of our troops,” he said.

The explosion briefly disrupted the vital transit node at Times Square, but full subway service had been restored as of 5:39 a.m. A dozen subway lines — the A, C, E, N, Q, R, W, S and Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 7 — run through Times Square. Subway service on those lines — along with the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 lines, which run through Grand Central Terminal — had been suspended at 4:24 a.m., with some lines restored soon after. The recruiting station sits almost directly atop the western terminus of the S, also known as the 42nd Street shuttle, which connects Times Square with Grand Central Terminal.

“I was getting ready to set up the cart, and then I heard a very loud explosion,” said Bashir Saleh, 51, who was preparing to open his coffee cart at the corner of 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue. “Very, very loud. It was the first time I ever heard such a thing. I thought it was some problem with the cart. I got a gas tank here. I thought it might have exploded, that’s how loud it was. Then I ran out towards the source of the noise. I saw a cloud of smoke, then I saw the police rushing towards it. In a matter of minutes there were 10 to 15 police cars. It was a scary experience for me.”

David Hassan, 41, whose coffee cart is on the southwest corner of the same intersection, across the street from Mr. Saleh’s and was also setting up his cart when the blast occurred, said, “It was the biggest, loudest noise you ever heard. I just turned around, and I saw lots of smoke. It sounded like a bomb. It was scary, very scary. I’m still shaking.”

Other workers nearby offered similar descriptions.

“I just heard a boom,” said Deon Halliday, 43, a maintenance-security worker at Silverstein Properties at 570 Seventh Avenue who was standing on the avenue, examining the scene, at 6 a.m. “I thought it was a garbage truck. It happened around 4 o’clock. I stayed in the building because I didn’t know what it was. I had to secure the building.” He added, “I came out later and I was looking at the street and no cars are coming by. I saw all the helicopters.”

As the sun came up, at least three helicopters flew overhead, but it was not clear whether the helicopters were operated by the police.

Mohammed Hossain, 39, whose coffee cart, is at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 44th Street, said he heard the explosion before 4 a.m. “I heard a loud noise and I turned around and saw smoke,” he said. “And then the cops were everywhere, within minutes.” Mr. Hossain, who has operated the cart for 15 years, said police asked him to close up until about 7:15.

Guests at the New York Marriott Marquis, one of the city’s largest hotels, felt the force of the blast. “I felt the building shaking, and then a second after, I heard the explosion,” said Mercy Sepulveda, who was visiting on business from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was staying on the 10th floor of the hotel. “It sounded like a gas tank exploding. And that was it. Ten minutes later I heard the police. After that I kept waking up every 15 minutes or so. But I thought if it was something really big, like a terrorist attack, there would have been more sirens.”

Maggie Shannon, a real estate agent from Washington, who was staying on the hotel’s 29th floor, said: “I thought it was thunder at first, just one single huge bang. So I got up to look out the window, saw nothing, then spent the rest of the night worrying what it was. I thought it couldn’t be a terrorist attack in the middle of the night, right? But I was concerned.”

Just after 6:45 a.m., a handful of law enforcement officers knelt at the foundation of the recruiting station, smashing the carpet of glass shards with long-handled mallets. Two men in hazardous-materials suits stood above them, among more than a dozen investigators from the city’s Police and Fire Departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Police vans and squad cars ringed the scene, with clusters of detectives on street corners, paging through notebooks and talking on cellphones.

For about two hours after the explosion, police officers at the scene said Times Square was closed, and they turned people and cars back. A large police van and a police vehicle with lights flashing were parked at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue by 5:30 a.m. Police had cordoned off much of 41st Street, Seventh Avenue and the subway station entrances. Police officers turned pedestrians away, including a woman who was trying to jog through. Workers already in their buildings in the cordoned off area were not being allowed out, police officers at the scene said. Employees of Reuters were being turned back at the police tape, and officers were telling them to take the day off.

“It happened two hours ago,” one officer said at the scene, describing the situation as “very fluid.”

Traffic was diverted for a time even to the west, at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street, where a large police vehicle blocked the avenue and traffic was being diverted through the Port Authority bus terminal. Cars were backed up on Eighth Avenue, with some drivers honking angrily. By 6:30 a.m., traffic was moving more easily up Eighth Avenue.

The recruiting station — the third that has stood on the site since 1946 — has been the site of regular antiwar protests since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, although until today, the only major threat to the station seemed to come from pigeons.

The station reopened in September 1999 after a $1 million redesign by Stephen Cassell and Adam Yarinsky of the Architecture Research Office, a Manhattan-based architecture firm. The 520-square-foot building is decorated with 33-by-14-foot flags rendered in fluorescent lights and a giant, nine-panel television screen. The interior contains space for Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine recruiters and one bathroom.

The previous recruiting station, often known simply as the booth, opened in 1950. Built of stainless steel, with smoked-glass windows, the 400-square-foot station was an instantly recognizable landmark of Times Square. “It was the only outpost to house recruiters from all four military branches,” Paul von Zielbauer wrote in The Times in February 1999, when the old station was demolished to make way for the redesigned one. “It was the only station that could reject far more recruits than it enlisted — more than 200 a year signed up — and still claim top honors in recruiting circles. And it was the only recruiting station in the country without a bathroom.”

times sqA worker donned a hazardous-materials suit to inspect the damage to the Armed Forces Career Center in Times Square. (Photo: Robert Caplin for The New York Times)

Reporting was contributed by Al Baker, Graham Bowley, Michael Cooper, Sharon Otterman, William K. Rashbaum and Stacey Stowe.

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