BY JOHN V. KAZAN
Something just didn’t feel right with this one. This is what ran through my mind as we approached a reported car fire on West 45th Street near Seventh Avenue in the heart of Manhattan’s Times Square area. The events of May 1, 2010, have reinforced the importance of expecting the unexpected at any time—in this case, a vehicle-borne improvised incendiary device (VBIID) or car/truck bomb.
On the afternoon of May 1, I was conducting a routine theater inspection before my regular assigned tour. When finished, I walked through Times Square with a fellow firefighter back to our firehouse on West 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. We were discussing the warm weather and the larger than normal crowd of people and heavy traffic in the Times Square area. I did not know that this observation would figure in as part of my immediate size-up when we received the response ticket.
At 1835 hours, Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Engine 54 and Ladder 4 (Ninth Battalion/Third Division) received a response ticket (with limited information) that indicated a possible car fire involving a Nissan located on West 45th Street near Seventh Avenue. This is a block and a half east and three blocks south of Engine 54/Ladder 4 quarters. While reviewing the response ticket, I realized that the start time for Broadway theater shows was approaching. Because of the large crowds and traffic, I knew we would be delayed. As we turned onto Seventh Avenue south from West 48th Street, I had a clear view south and did not see any smoke or other obvious signs of a car fire.
Figure 1. Response to Suspicious Car Fire
Fire department units responded to a reported vehicle fire on West 45th Street, west of Seventh Avenue. Observing numerous indicators unusual for a typical car fire, firefighters did not approach the vehicle. Because of the suspicious nature of the vehicle, all streets were closed within the shaded area. This created gridlock and delayed fire unit and police bomb squad response.
As Engine 54 and Ladder 4 approached West 45th Street, we were waved in by New York Police Department (NYPD) officers on horseback, who pointed toward West 45th Street, west of Seventh Avenue. At this point I was still looking for the reported Nissan car fire. Engine 54 proceeded onto West 45th Street; Ladder 4 followed.
At 1840 hours, our rig stopped approximately 20 feet from the rear of a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder that was on the south side of the block, about 10 feet in from Seventh Avenue. Police had initially closed off an area of about 25 feet surrounding the vehicle.
Engine 54 proceeded to a hydrant about 60 feet in front of the Nissan. While I was still in the cab of Ladder 4, I saw white smoke that did not seem to be heated or under pressure swirling around inside the Nissan’s passenger area through the tinted windows. This was unusual for a car fire because smoke is more often gray or black, and no smoke was coming from the engine compartment or from under the car itself. In my 15 years with FDNY and my many years as a volunteer firefighter, I had never seen smoke inside of a car like that. I immediately had a gut feeling that something was different about this car fire. Time seemed to have slowed down, and I started to look at other details.
The vehicle was a black and blue four-door 1993 Nissan Pathfinder with slightly tinted windows and Connecticut license plates. It was parked haphazardly at an angle three to four feet away from the curb with its hazard lights flashing and engine running.
I considered other size-up details in the immediate area to be suspicious. A large number of trash bags were piled on the curb in front of the vehicle. In front of the garbage pile was an older dark blue van with no windows. The suspicious Nissan was parked directly in front of the Minskoff Theatre, which featured a production of The Lion King, which attracts a large number of families with children. The block also contained several other theaters. Adjacent to the theater was the 53-story Viacom Building. On the north side of West 45th Street was the 58-story Marriott Marquis Hotel. I did not see the vehicle’s owner as I stepped out of the apparatus, which was highly unusual. The vehicle’s doors were closed, and the hood was not open.
My outside vent firefighter exited from the apparatus on the chauffeur’s side and heard popping sounds coming from inside the Nissan and immediately notified me. Meanwhile, my chauffeur was walking to the rear of the rig to get his bunker coat and mask when an NYPD officer approached him, advising him that the car’s owner had run from the scene. My chauffeur immediately passed this information on to me and Lieutenant Mike Barvels, who was assigned to Engine 54 (he has since been promoted to captain).
At the same time, members of Engine 54 were stretching a 1¾-inch line. The nozzle and backup firefighters, who had been sitting on the chauffeur side of Engine 54, also stated that on arrival and as they passed the vehicle, they not only heard the popping sounds but also noticed sparks inside the passenger area of the vehicle. Moreover, we could not see what exactly was inside the vehicle. All of these details raised many red flags. At this point, we decided not to approach the vehicle yet.
Barvels and I decided to stretch the line to the officer’s side of Ladder 4 and stand fast, hoping this would provide a little bit of safety. Now realizing that this was a suspicious car fire, we requested Manhattan dispatch to have Battalion 9 respond to the scene. The smoke condition inside the vehicle was not getting any worse and seemed to be subsiding, which was another reason not to approach this vehicle.
Because of the out-of-the-ordinary factors in this incident, at 1841 hours I asked an NYPD officer to run a check on the license plates. As he did this, I returned to Ladder 4 and found that my inside team had already begun using our radiation detectors, reporting normal readings. They also pointed out other possible suspicious items in the area that could be considered secondary devices. I scanned the car from front to back using a thermal imaging camera. It showed normal heat readings in the engine compartment, the drive train, and the brake rotors (indicating recent braking) and picked up no heat in the passenger area. None of these factors indicated a car fire.
The NYPD sergeant reported that the plates came up as “not registered.” At this point, I told the sergeant to request the NYPD Emergency Services Unit (ESU) to respond. NYPD policy is to have an ESU unit respond and evaluate the scene before calling in the bomb squad. It was now 1842 hours.
As I returned to the rig and reevaluated the entire situation, I made my final decision not to approach this vehicle. I had also begun radio communications with Battalion 9, which was stuck in traffic. I advised Battalion Chief Thomas Meara of our current actions and findings. Meara agreed that we should stay away from the vehicle until his arrival. Members assisted NYPD officers in evacuating the immediate and surrounding area of the vehicle.
At 1847 hours, NYPD/ESU Truck 4 arrived. Barvels and I advised the ESU officers that FDNY personnel had not approached the car, the driver had run from the scene, firefighters had heard popping sounds and observed sparks inside the car, there was white smoke inside the passenger area, and the license plates were unregistered.
We advised the ESU officers that we were turning the scene over to them; according to protocol, we would support their operation from this point on.
Based on the information given, ESU decided not to approach the vehicle and requested the NYPD Bomb Squad to respond. It also wanted to extend the evacuation area further.
On arrival at 1849 hours, Meara was advised of all actions and decisions made up to this point. Because of the imminent threat, he then ordered Engine 54 to disconnect its hose, leave it in the street, and relocate down the block closer to Eighth Avenue. The company was to hook up to another hydrant and cordon off West 45th Street from Eighth Avenue and prevent civilians from coming down the block. This was not an easy task since this street has several large theaters, all of which would have been at full capacity. There were literally hundreds of angry people holding theater tickets. Also, the police department was establishing a larger evacuation area from West 48th to West 42nd Streets and from Eighth to Sixth Avenues. Ladder 4 was to reposition on Seventh Avenue, south of West 45th Street for safety. This took some time because of the large crowds and heavy traffic that the NYPD had to redirect. Meara ordered Ladder 4 to send two members into the Minskoff Theatre to advise the management not to allow any patrons on the West 45th Street side of the building.
The remaining members of Ladder 4 set up our firefighter assist and search team (FAST) truck equipment and stretchers in case any NYPD officers were injured. The police worked with the Marriott Marquis Hotel staff to evacuate its South Tower on the West 45th Street side of the building. Meara also requested an additional engine and ladder company to respond to Eighth Avenue and West 45th Street. These companies were to stand fast.
The NYPD Bomb Squad arrived at around 1930 hours, seriously delayed because of the gridlock created when the Times Square area was closed to traffic. The bomb squad initially used its robot to break open two windows of the vehicle. The suspicious materials inside the vehicle were difficult to see with the remote camera. At 2130 hours, two NYPD bomb technicians approached the car to make a final determination that bomb material was actually in the vehicle. It was not until 2230 hours that the police bomb squad confirmed the vehicle was indeed a VBIID.
Deputy Chief Daniel Donoghue from Division 3 had been in contact with Battalion 9 by cell phone during the entire incident. When the NYPD advised Meara that it felt something was in the car, Donoghue responded. After NYPD confirmed that the vehicle was a car bomb, Donoghue requested additional units to respond. The FDNY remained at the scene until the vehicle was removed around 0500 hours the next morning. Engine 54 and Ladder 4 returned to quarters after being relieved at 2300 hours.
The FDNY’s Center for Counterterrorism and Disaster Preparedness reported that an improvised incendiary device had been inside the vehicle. It included two analog alarm clocks, two five-gallon plastic gasoline cans, three 20-pound propane gas cylinders, M-88 fireworks, and a cardboard box that contained a metal gun case containing fertilizer. Wires from the two clocks were connected to a can containing 20 to 30 M-88 firecrackers between the two gas cans. These timing devices were also wired to another container holding M-88 firecrackers in the back of vehicle. Such bombs can carry a relatively large payload and be detonated remotely. VBIIDs can create additional shrapnel through the destruction of the vehicle itself, and vehicle fuel can be used as an incendiary weapon. The bomb initiated but failed to fully detonate. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) later recreated a VBIID using similar materials found in the Nissan and detonated it. If this device had detonated in the crowded Times Square area, many people would have been killed or maimed.
Since the events of 9/11, the FDNY has been proactive in training members at recognizing and operating at possible terrorist-related incidents. First-line units have been issued various meters to detect radiation as well as standoff charts to appropriately determine safe distances to maintain from suspicious objects, from a simple briefcase to a tractor trailer. The department has established a counterterrorism unit that produces documents to inform members of the latest events that occur worldwide. One of these communications is a simple, one-page publication called the “Watchline,” which is e-mailed to every company officer in the department. It briefly describes critical current events that have occurred and offers assessments on possible tactics and precautionary measures for responding to these incidents.
On June 29, 2007, in London, England, one car parked near a nightclub and another nearby were found to contain gasoline containers, propane cylinders, and nails. In Scotland the next day, two men attempted to drive an SUV into Glasgow International Airport but were stopped by security bollards. The vehicle burst into flames on impact. It was reported to be carrying containers of gasoline and propane.
The FDNY has developed a “Bus Bomb Drill” taught at the fire academy with classroom and hands-on sessions. The instructors keep the drill current and up-to-date with world events. During the hands-on session, members are required to work in a realistic street setting, which includes a blown-up bus, injured victims, and secondary devices. The department is developing a “Subway Bomb Drill” involving weapons of mass destruction, which will be conducted in a similar manner.
This incident reinforced some basic firefighting skills that we have all been taught. One of the most important skills is communication. The members of Engine 54 and Ladder 4 displayed situational awareness in relaying critical size-up information to their officers. This information, along with our own observations, allowed Barvels and me to make the necessary decisions and determinations to proceed carefully and ultimately not approach this vehicle. Members of Engine 54 and Ladder 4 never got within 10 feet of this vehicle and never had a clear view of what was inside. Had we responded aggressively, the outcome could have been catastrophic. That was demonstrated in a video the FBI released of a detonation of a VBIID based on the Times Square incident. Equally important, crucial evidence would have been destroyed, evidence that the NYPD and other agencies used to apprehend this terrorist.
JOHN V. KAZAN is a 15-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a lieutenant with Ladder 4 in the Times Square area of Manhattan. Previously, he served two years with nearby Engine 65. Before joining the department, he served as a volunteer firefighter for 12 years in New Jersey.
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