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NYC sidewalk drive kills teen; man held

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Photographs by AP/JACOB PEARSON

First responders assist one of the victims of a car crash Thursday at Times Square in New York.

NEW YORK -- A man steered his car onto a sidewalk running through Times Square on Thursday and mowed down pedestrians for three blocks, killing a teenager, then emerged from his wrecked vehicle wild-eyed and screaming 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 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.

Police said 23 people were struck, including Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Portage, Mich., who died. The woman's 13-year-old sister was among the injured.

The crash happened at midday on a hot, clear day that brought large crowds of people into the streets to enjoy the good weather.

Video posted online showed steam or smoke pouring from the car for a few moments after it stopped moving.

"Based on information we have at this moment, there is no indication that this was an act of terrorism," Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters at a news conference in Times Square. "We all feel deeply right now for those who were injured and for their families."

The driver, named Richard Rojas, was taken into custody and was tested for alcohol and drugs, Police Commissioner James O'Neill said.

Initial tests were negative for alcohol, but more detailed drug tests were pending, according to two law enforcement officials who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rojas had been arrested at least twice previously for driving while intoxicated, once in 2008 and once in 2015, police 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.

He was arrested last week on a charge of menacing. Police said he pointed a kitchen knife at a notary who'd come over to do paperwork, and he accused the notary of stealing his identity. The case is pending.

In previous arrests, he told authorities he believed he was being harassed and followed, according to a law enforcement official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on an ongoing probe and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Investigators were searching his Bronx home and canvassing the crime scene for video.

Rojas enlisted in the Navy in 2011 and was an electrician's mate fireman apprentice, according to the Navy. He was most recently based at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., and was discharged in 2014.

Officials said the deadly rampage began around noon near 42nd Street, when Rojas, traveling south on Seventh Avenue, inexplicably made a U-turn, mounted a curb on the west side of the one-way avenue and began to drive north against traffic but on the sidewalk.

Police said that when Rojas drove up on the sidewalk, he went for three blocks, passing tourist draws like the Hard Rock Cafe and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant and mowing people down before slamming into a pole. He was combative with officers who handcuffed him, authorities said.

Witnesses described their horror at seeing a car race through the area.

Bruno Carvalho, a student at State University of New York 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."

After the crash, the driver climbed out of the vehicle and began to run away, witnesses and police said. 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.

"He began screaming, no particular words but just utter screaming. He was swinging his arms at the same time," said Bradix. "There was something wrong with him."

Planet Hollywood said Bradix "selflessly and heroically took action, helping to stop the fleeing suspect."

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.

Information for this article was contributed by Colleen Long, Libby Quaid, Jennifer Peltz, Jake Pearson and Tom Hays of The Associated Press and by Eli Rosenberg, William K. Rashbaum, Andy Newman, Daniel Victor, Christine Hauser, Ashley Southall and Liam Stack of The New York Times.

A Section on 05/19/2017

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