Return to Transcripts main page


Car Bomb is Found in New York's Times Square; Fire at U.S. Embassy in Pakistan

Aired May 2, 2010 - 05:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Here at CNN as you are, as the federal authorities are but in looking at some of the overnight notes, this is an email that came in from you and often times when we see situations like this we try to look back in our past or perhaps our recent past and you've wrote that the best comparison perhaps you could think of was the bomb used in the Glasgow Airport bombing. I believe that was back in 2007 in Scotland. Refresh my memory. What happened then?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I wish I could remember all the specifics for you but I do remember that I believe it was a doctor who had loaded some materials in his car and his made a drive to the Glasgow Airport and he came - he hit his target and there was a big conflagration at the time and what the person was saying it was similar in this regard. There was the same kinds of materials involved in the bomb. That's what the similarity was there. There have been some other incidents that also though are ringing some bells with people. Someone who I work with mentioned that there had been an instance where a car was found near Piccadilly in London where passers by noticed something unusual with this car and indeed it turned out to be a vehicle explosive device. So a couple of things to compare it to, the Glasgow comparison it was principally similar because of the materials involved.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Still looking at live pictures, New York City's Times Square. This is taped picture now, what we saw just a short time ago. You actually see that robot there working on - that was working on this Nissan Pathfinder that was packed. There it is now, another picture of it, that was packed with these bomb making materials. In particular, three propane tanks, two five gallon tanks of gasoline, two clocks, electrical wires, batteries and also consumer grade fireworks is how it's described to us but it's coming up five o'clock eastern time here, top of the hour here in the U.S. I want to welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. also from CNN International watching us around the world from what we are seeing today, a scary scene in New York's Times Square which has now been evacuated. Yes, you heard me right. One of the most popular tour destinations - tourist destinations in the world is right now closed because of the suspicious vehicle found in Times Square that is still being worked on at this hour. It is still down there from what we know. The materials inside have been taken out but this, let me set the scene for you for those of you just joining us. Last night, 6:34 eastern time a vendor, a Vietnam veteran but also t-shirt vendor working down on Times Square like so many vendors do, he sees a suspicious vehicle, sees some smoke, something coming from this vehicle.

He alerts a police officer who then makes the call at 6:34 p.m. that in fact something's going on and police then make the decision to clear Times Square, the theater district, some 39 Broadway shows going on last night. Many people, some of those shows went on. Actually some of them had to be stopped and people were turned around and didn't get to see their show last night. Other people described being yanked out of restaurants by police officers who came in and told them you need to go and Times Square was cleared out. This is a place that sees some 40 million visitors every single year. The most popular tourist spot in the country, evacuated this evening. No one at this point is in custody. The mayor says we don't know who did this or why.

I believe we're seeing video now from our Allan Chernoff's camera. He was standing by when he had to move from this location saying he thought the vehicle was about to be taken away from Times Square, thought they were going to go right past him. We will look at this video together, we're seeing for the first time as well but maybe not the vehicle itself but some other police vehicles, clearing out. Our Allan Chernoff said it appeared that they were in fact starting, the police presence was starting to scale back a little bit so maybe things might start to get to normal but the citizens of New York City are being told to go about their business. They are being told to go about business as usual. The national threat level has not been increased and we do not know according to federal officials and they don't believe or at least it's too early to tell whether or not this was some kind of act of international terrorism. They're very and particular about using the word international terrorism. At the same time, this is terrorism no way - no matter what way you look at it.

We have our Lou Palumbo on the phone with us as well, a security expert. Lou, it seems like maybe - like they say they're going to try to get back to normal up there but tell me what you think of the federal officials saying we don't believe this is international terrorism but we do agree this is terrorism no matter what way you cut it?

LOU PALUMBO, SECURITY EXPERT: Well it's definitely a terrorist act T.J. and I think it's a bit premature for anyone to identify whether or not this was driven by an international base or a domestic base. I think that's going to be information regarding that will be fruition of this investigation which is going to be ongoing but I would tell you that probably within the next couple of days they're going to have a good handle on what drove this incident.

BALDWIN: Lou, let me ask you this. You know we were just talking to Jeanne Meserve and she said, you know what? There has not been any increased chatter among her sources at homeland security, nothing in terms of the timing of this potential here happening in Times Square and when you first heard about this and we talk about Times Square and T.J.'s really hammered this point home, this is sort of the crux of all things tourist in New York City. You have millions of people coming in through back and forth every year and then you hear about this car in the middle of Times Square, 45th and 7th, and inside this car you have propane tanks, fireworks, batteries, a clock, this metal box, just what does your gut tell you when you first heard about this?

PALUMBO: Well, obviously it's someone who intended on causing a rather substantial event to take place which would have inflicted a substantial loss of life and damage to property. It was unsophisticated because as you already know now by continuous reporting, there was an ignition in the vehicle. We're getting that based on people that - your correspondents and journalists are interviewing on the street. I can only say this, this is the most elevated level of good fortune because the propane tanks would have caused a tremendous impact zone there and done an immense amount of damage. It's very, very volatile and very dangerous.

BALDWIN: I want to follow up on that point because, right, we were listening to Allan Chernoff and we're hearing from a lot of these street vendors who have reported absolutely seeing this white smoke and I think one gentleman reported that some sort of explosion had gone off so when you hear that, did you think that this bomb was amateurish, that it just wasn't successful in fully exploding?

PALUMBO: Well you know what? It was successful from a perspective that we had an ignition. Fortunately they were not highly literate in the area of bomb making because had they been and those canisters had gone off, you would have seen some unbelievable devastation from the propane tanks. There's no secret that one there's an issue with propane. They have large areas that are cordoned off or perimeters created to minimize any type of collateral damage in the event that they do ignite. I can only say to you that again they were very fortunate and the police department which has an immense amount of assets responded to this and evacuated the area, contained it and then went through the process of identification and then you know basically extracted it from the area to take it to Rodman's back up in the Bronx where they have an area dedicated to detonating devices that they think are potentially explosive.

HOLMES: Lou, you said illiterate in their bomb making. Certainly fortunate that this thing didn't go off but how fortunate and how much of a treasure trove will we have of information, police have of information, forensic information, fingerprints and anything else in that vehicle which was essentially according to if you were trying to make a bomb and whoever this person might have been, they expected this thing to be destroyed so they didn't necessarily had to cover their tracks in that vehicle. They assumed it was all going to be blown to bits. So should there be a potential treasure trove of information in there?

PALUMBO: Absolutely T.J. The fact that there was no detonation lends itself to the police and the FBI's ability to put together all the pieces of this puzzle. They are going to find out exactly where this came from, who is behind it and what drove this particular incident. Once again, was it driven by an international element or domestic and you're right. There's so much here for them to examine. I mean they can literally go back and trace where the batteries for example were manufactured, distributed and even consumed. The same thing with propane tanks, where they were manufactured, the fixtures of the propane tanks. It's just - it's going to continue to unfold for you and they're going to be able to come to a resolution with this.

BALDWIN: Lou, when I first heard - when I was first learning about this and I realized it was Times Square, I sort of had this immediate reaction of well it could be best case scenario and worse case scenario in terms of the surveillance video. Obviously a potential for worst case because you have all of these tourists and the potential for mass casualties is huge. The good thing is that didn't happen and the good situation is that you have all of these people around with their cell phones, with cameras, with surveillance video from all of the different traffic lights and the stores all around Times Square. If you were an officer on the ground and you are trying to get that surveillance video to try to figure out who in the world was driving this car, what do you do?

PALUMBO: Well the first thing is I'd use the media as a vehicle to influence anyone who was there recording anything, taking pictures of friends, videotaping Times Square, any possible avenue of information that might be of assistance to law enforcement agencies here in identifying who may have been in that area. You know the video cameras it's no secret, they're just saturated in the Times Square area and I do think there's going to be a quick resolution to this and I'm going out the line once again to say that but I think that there's so many parts of this that are still in tact for the police to follow for example that - and the FBI that they're going to come to a relatively expeditious identification of who drove this. this whole issue of the vehicle being dropped off at a junk yard and the plates left with it, if that is the case I'm a little bit, how would you say, concerned because many people who are residents of the state of New York for example are aware that when you surrender a vehicle to a junk yard, the dealer or transaction to another individual it's your responsibility to take those plates continuously account for them until you surrender them to DMV. We now need to look at the process of the state of Connecticut, the VIN number although it appears that they weren't able of identifying what the vehicle identification number was on this vehicle. It appears on numerous locations on vehicles including the engine block so they're going to be able - it's just going to be a plethora of information that they have to work from which is why I'm so confident when I say to you they are going to find out in a rather quick fashion who drove this.

BALDWIN: Go ahead.

HOLMES: Lou, we'll have you stand by for us. We're going to get to the white house as well to get some information about the federal response. So you stay with us Lou because we certainly appreciate your expertise and to our viewers again in the U.S. and around the world, you're watching our continuing coverage of this suspicious - these bomb making materials according to the mayor of New York that were found in this vehicle that was left in Times Square. Our Kate Bolduan is in D.C. covering this for us and the white house's reaction and response. Kate, the focus for the president at least today was supposed to be on what was happening in the gulf coast. He planned a trip to go down actually in a few hours to keep an eye on what's happening there and the potential disaster but now gathered to keep your eye on terrorism is back on the front burner. I guess when did the president find out? You can kind of take us through what his night was like. When did the president find out about what was happening in New York and what has the white house response been since then?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Hey there T.J. Hey there Brooke. Well and of course the white house will be the first to tell you while the president was supposed to be going to Louisiana this morning and the plan is still that he will be going to Louisiana this morning, the white house, the president is very capable and this is their job is to multitask and handle many things at the same time. Of course they don't wish that they're handling, you know, an attempted car bomb in the middle of New York City. That's not clearly something they want to have to be dealing with but putting that aside, let me just get you quick to a statement, a bit of a kind of a tick tock we kind of call it in the media of what we received from the white house press office kind of letting us know when the president found out. This is what it says. It says, "At about 10:45 p.m.," that's last night, "The president was updated on the excellent work by the NYPD in relation to the incident in Times Square.

The president commended the quick action by the NYPD and asked John Brennan," that's his top homeland security adviser, "To communicate to the NYPD that the federal government is prepared to provide support. John Brennan, working with the NYPD and others, will continue to keep the president up to date on the investigation." We've gone over this a few times, T.J., but just to tick off what we're learning bit by bit from federal officials, a federal official briefed on the situation has told CNN that right now, you guys have mentioned it, it's too early to make any link to any major terror groups, al Qaeda or another terror group. Another federal official saying there are no clear indicators that this is international terrorism but as we've been discussing, this clearly falls into the range, kind of the umbrella of terrorism in general, be it domestic or international but officials are stressing that this investigation really is just getting underway. Of course it is. As they always do, they caution that connecting any dots right now would be getting way ahead of the investigation so you can be sure they're being very careful of what they're trying to get out in making sure they are double checking it before they tell us.

Officials have described this explosive device as crudely constructed, amateurish and a similarly crude bomb was used in other attacks which including one in 2007 the attack at the international airport Glasgow, Scotland. Of course they're not making any connection from this event to that, just showing that this types of crude devices have been used in the past but really what we talk about and I know you guys are talking about it, we're talking about it here, a lot of what we want - what the discussion is is the big question marks that remain because that's really what there are a lot of right now, big question marks, of course who did it and why. That's - that is going to be going on and that investigation will continue for a very long time to come but also in the short term, what can those dozens of video cameras in the area in Times Square show to investigators? You can only imagine in that area Times Square that is - I think it's called the crossroads of the world. This is where so many people converge. It's quite an exciting and vibrant place but you can also imagine that it has a lot of video cameras, NYPD video cameras as well as from the private companies around that area. So you can only imagine that that is top priority for them to see what they can see in terms of timing, in terms of people, and see what kind of information they can gather from that, T.J.

BALDWIN: All right. Kate Bolduan for us in Washington. Kate, thank you. Don't go too far.

BOLDUAN: No problem.

BALDWIN: I'm sure we'll be checking back in with you. Also as we look at this live picture, I just want to point out as I've been listening to Kate I've also been looking at the right hand side of the screen and it looks like traffic is just now starting to trickle back through Times Square. Of course police given what happened about 10, 10.5 hours ago they had cordoned off a number of blocks but it's looking like there's a little bit of traffic passing through. It looks like perhaps even some pedestrians out and about. As the mayor said, he's hoping for things to go back to what he said normal on a Sunday.

We're not going to go too far from this story, this breaking story out of New York but I want to get to some other breaking news this morning. This out of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad where a fire broke out there at the U.S. embassy. We have CNN's Reza Sayah on the phone with us. And Reza, just bring us up to speed. What do you know? What are you hearing there on the ground?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, first off, a couple of pieces of good news to pass along. This fire is under control and I just got off the phone with a spokesperson of the U.S. embassy here in Islamabad Rick Snelsire and he tells us there's absolutely no indication at this point that this fire was intentionally set or if this is linked to any terrorist activity. Nevertheless, there was some concern earlier this afternoon Islamabad time when that fire did break out in the first floor of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. The spokesperson tells us this fire broke out in an area where you had the public affairs office, administrative offices. It's Sunday. There's not a lot of people there so they didn't have to evacuate a lot of people. They called the local fire department. The spokesperson of the embassy said the fire department did an excellent job in getting to the scene and putting this fire out. At this point, they're looking into exactly what the cause was, what caused this fire, but at this point they say there's no indication that it was intentionally set Brooke.

BALDWIN: No indication that it was intentionally set. Reza you said it is under control. Firefighters worked expediently and just so I'm clear, no injuries, no fatalities this morning?

SAYAH: No injuries, no fatalities. Obviously the U.S. embassy is considered a target by many here because of the security situation here, because of the unpopular presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This U.S. embassy is inside a diplomatic enclave, a very secure place which sometimes makes it difficult for rescue crews to get there but based on what we've been told by the spokesperson, rescue crews got there very quickly including the local fire department here in Islamabad but no injuries, some damage. An investigation is underway to find out exactly what caused this fire, Brooke.

BALDWIN: All right. Reza Sayah's for us in Islamabad in Pakistan. Some sort of fire breaking out at the U.S. embassy. As he mentioned, it is a target but so far no injuries and it is under control. Reza, thank you.

HOLMES: And again returning to the story, the breaking news we are watching out of New York City, New York. At Times Square, the most popular tourist destination in the United States where a car bomb, what appears to be a car bomb according to the mayor was found there about 11 hours ago. You're looking at a live picture of what is usually a bustling New York City Times Square. It has been shut down for the past several hours to foot traffic, also to car traffic. Because of this scare, police cleared the place out. Our Allan Chernoff has been there for the past several hours. Allan, give us - first of all, we were wondering when you told me a little while ago that they expect possibly by the morning to open things up again and I am seeing a couple of cabs in this live picture drive through and a couple of town cars it appears as well. So is Times Square re-opened?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well not entirely. I imagine that you're looking at a picture of 7th Avenue or Broadway which cut right through Times Square. That's a block away from where we are and I have also been seeing the vehicles going north/south. As you can see behind me though, the cross street, 45th Street here, still blocked off as are some of the other streets that lead right into Times Square. The vehicle itself that Nissan is still on the street here. That vehicle where the current explosion did occur and we had two eyewitnesses who told us that indeed there was an explosion inside of the vehicle. One of them described firecrackers pretty much going off inside. The other person said there was quite a large boom that he heard. Now we did not hear that detail from the police chief or from the mayor during their press conference held earlier this evening. So nonetheless as I said, the vehicle still there. Over the past half hour the police really have not been going back into it. For a good hour or so we did have police checking out that vehicle and this is after the explosive material, the timer, the wires, all of that stuff was taken out, put into a truck by the bomb squad and taken up to the Bronx to a facility where they detonate bombs. But as I said, the vehicle still there. At some point this morning they should be towing it out and at that point we would expect that this street would be cleared and everybody would be back to normal here.

BALDWIN: Allan if we can, just turn back the clock a couple of hours and I don't know at what point you got on the scene there in Times Square but if you can just repaint the scene for me. Was there a sense of panic or was this a fairly quiet procedure in which that initial t-shirt vendor spotted the smoke coming out of the car, you know contacted a police officer and the rest of it sort of went quietly? How did it go down?

CHERNOFF: Well the eyewitnesses did describe to us a sense of panic right at the scene just down the block. 6:28 the vehicle was actually captured on a surveillance camera, on one of the cameras, one of the dozens of cameras here in Times Square. 6:34 p.m. at that point that was when the call came in to the police. Now there was a t-shirt vendor who notified a mounted police officer, told him hey, there's smoke inside of that vehicle. There was white smoke actually coming out from the vehicle. It seems according to the eyewitnesses that smoke was also from some firecrackers going off and the authorities have told that indeed there were firecrackers. Mayor Bloomberg described them as the type that you would buy in Pennsylvania and then drive them right across the border, drive them right into New York. So anyway there was a little bit of an explosion according to these two eyewitnesses. The police cleared out the area. They also, this is interesting, some of the Broadway shows and there are several Broadway theaters on this street, some of those shows had a late start to their show but the shows went on and immediately at the curtain, police came into the theaters and at that point evacuated the theatergoers. So they did not cancel those shows. They allowed them to proceed. Very interesting but the police did clear out Times Square and for the whole night pretty much it's been empty since very late last evening.

HOLMES: Allan, how difficult and how much time did something like that take? This is - it's one thing to clear out a building. It's one thing to clear out an area but we are talking about Times Square. This is several blocks and several big blocks with a whole lot of people, a whole lot of restaurants, a whole lot of shops, how difficult of a procedure was that and just how big was the police presence down there in that effort to try to get people away from what was potential danger?

CHERNOFF: Right. Well, first let's consider on a Saturday night, any night really there are many, many police officers in Times Square so there's a large police presence there to begin with. There are also precincts nearby. They converge, move people out. This is just a truck from the Marriott Hotel, half of that hotel by the way was evacuated, the southern portion, the southern tower and hopefully those people have been able to get back to their rooms but there's a very large police presence. They converged but clearly you've got tens of thousands of people within the Times Square area so it has to take some time. Fortunately nobody was injured here and they were able to evacuate the area safely.

BALDWIN: Allan Chernoff, thank you for - let me stay with you. I think we have somebody else on the phone. We're trying to get someone who had heard some of these firecrackers, Allan, as you've described and it's just interesting. We're just trying to get as many accounts as we can. I know you spoke with a couple of the vendors who reported seeing the smoke, one hearing some sort of - seeing some sort of explosion. As we are trying to information gather here in the early, early Sunday morning hours let me just reiterate and Allan if you can just reiterate the point is that this car has been parked at 45th and 7th right there in the middle of Times Square. We have been looking at some live pictures. It had looked like traffic was beginning to trickle back through but from your vantage point at least where you are, is it still cordoned off?

CHERNOFF: Just right behind, just have a look, nobody's driving down here unless you're a police officer and as a matter of fact, earlier this morning three police officers on motorcycles jumped up onto the sidewalk right behind me and took the sidewalk halfway down the street before they got to the vehicle so get there any way they can.

HOLMES: And reminding our viewers, we're getting to the bottom of the hour here, exactly what we're covering but still we still have that live picture of Times Square. Times Square was just empty right now. Our Allan Chernoff not too far from it doing reporting this morning after that vehicle, which is still down there. The materials have been removed but what's described by the mayor as a car bomb found in a vehicle caused this scare and caused Times Square to be evacuated last night. Again our Allan Chernoff is with us. Allan, you were able to find down there on the streets of New York, all those people down there, you were able to find several folks who described hearing something go off inside that vehicle and even seeing it. Describe a couple of witness - a couple of witness accounts that you were able to bring us a short time ago.

CHERNOFF: Right. These two gentlemen are hot dog vendors. One of whom actually has been working that corner for 20 years and so they were right across the street from that SUV when the smoke came out, when what they described an explosion took place. Police moved them away as they did everyone else. They actually said they moved them right into the Marriott Marquette area, one of the largest hotels in the Times Square area and they spent the entire evening there and only just about an hour ago were they able to emerge and retrieve their carts. So as they were pushing their cart out, I grabbed them and questioned them about exactly what had happened and it seemed they were virtually the last eyewitnesses around because everyone else has left, gone to their hotels, gone home but a few vendors had to retrieve their carts and they did say that earlier this evening about 6:30 p.m. here in New York there was an SUV, Nissan SUV right behind me down the street filled with white smoke. Then they said that there was - one of them described a very large explosion. He said it was heard down the entire block. The other gentleman said that he heard several smaller explosions as well that lasted for several minutes.

So essentially it sounded he was describing fireworks going off and indeed the police say there were fireworks in the back seat of this vehicle. The police also did find in that vehicle, propane tanks, three of them, two filled gasoline containers, two timing mechanisms with batteries, clocks they described them as and electrical wire. Mayor Bloomberg described the wiring as very amateurish. That's his description but nonetheless all that found in the back seat of this Nissan SUV.

BALDWIN: And Allan, a huge chunk of this story right now as it continues to develop is surveillance cameras, the pictures that these authorities are hoping to get. Obviously there's some sort of picture from what I understand of this car driving along prior to parking at 45th and 7th. But give us just a sense of how many cameras might be positioned around that hustling bustling area that is Times Square. I mean the probability has to be fairly high at some point for police to have caught this individual or individuals on some camera.

CHERNOFF: This is - this is I think without question probably the most camera filled spot in the United States. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, not just police cameras but also for the various businesses, the hotels, and they all do indeed work in concert with the police. The police have a very close relationship with a lot of businesses here because they know Times Square is a potential target. They work with the businessmen prior to New Year's Eve.