Times Square scare: Fear of NYC terror fueled by suspicious incidents

A cooler left in Times Square today prompted jittery authorities to clear the streets.

By , Associated Press

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    New York City Police officers on motorbikes May 2, 2010 at Times Square in New York.
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New York police clear streets around Times Square and call in the bomb squad after someone spots an abandoned cooler.

An airplane bound for the Mideast is brought back to a Kennedy airport gate after a name is found on a no-fly list that is similar to that of a passenger.

The bomb squad rushes to check a truck reeking of gasoline, abandoned on a Manhattan bridge.

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In the wake of Saturday night's failed car bombing in Times Square, jittery authorities are pouncing on anything suspicious and overwrought headlines are keeping the city on edge.

Otherwise, New Yorkers and visitors are going about their business, crowding sidewalks, shopping, dining at restaurants — and enjoying Times Square.

Bicycling around the square, "I was quite surprised by how normal things are — by contrast with 9/11," said Charles B. Strozier, who heads the Center on Terrorism at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"New Yorkers are showing remarkable resilience," said Strozier, a psychoanalyst and historian.

Yalixa Sanchez, who works in a Times Square shop near where the bomb-rigged SUV was abandoned, seemed unfazed.

"You keep thinking, 'what if....?' But I've been through 9/11 and like every New Yorker, you have to get used to this," she said, greeting customers at the Sunglass Hut.

Two uniformed police officers stood by the shop door.

On a sunny May afternoon, Times Square was alive with pedestrians and cars.

Most were aware of the heightened security — and grateful for city authorities' quick-response mode.

Nothing was found in New York's Columbus Circle subway station during Tuesday's random bag checks. The city's sprawling subway system remains one of the biggest security worries after a plot to bomb it was foiled last year.

A moving truck ditched Wednesday near a toll booth at the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge linking Manhattan with Queens was neither dangerous nor related to terrorism, authorities determined after a bridge authority officer reported a gasoline odor coming from the vehicle and saw a man flee. It turned out the driver had been waived over during routine searches of trucks on city bridges, and may have fled because the vehicle was stolen.

Nothing kept people away from the Times Square street corner where vendors first spotted the gray Nissan Pathfinder, its motor running and emergency lights blinking. Saturday, smoke issued from the sport utility vehicle, and people started running.

Prosecutors said the car bomb was planted by Faisal Shahzad of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a Pakistani-American who fled the scene and was arrested Monday at Kennedy airport aboard an Emirates flight to Dubai.

On Thursday, another Emirates airplane was brought back to a Kennedy gate after a name was found on a no-fly list that was similar to that of a passenger. The name match was false, officials said.

And on Friday, the false alarm over the abandoned cooler briefly cleared the area near Saturday's bombing attempt and dominated television coverage for the better part of an hour in the midafternoon.

In Times Square, a Senegalese vendor knew the risks he faced in front of his gift stand of New York photographs.

"Anyone could wrap a bomb in a trash bag and add it to this pile; nobody would think it's a bomb," said an anguished Alioune Niass, pointing to a huge mound of black plastic bags sitting by the same curb where the SUV with the homemade firebomb had been.

"On Saturday, I almost died," he said.

But Wesley Weddington, a 51-year-old Army veteran, selling "I Love New York" T-shirts, felt confident.

He pointed to the heavy police presence, saying: "This is the safest place today other than the White House."

His family wasn't quite so sure.

After Saturday's scare, Weddington went home "and I hugged my wife and son." He first returned to work on Wednesday.

"My wife told me, 'Be careful,'" he said. "She called me all day, about every hour and a half, to make sure I was OK."

And his 11-year-old son, Wesley Jr., was nervous. "He didn't want me to go to work."

Gail Bhole, a bank employee from Trinidad, was in New York with her niece from Boca Raton, Florida. The two were taking photos of each other in the square — in sight of the spot where the bomb-rigged SUV sat.

"It's a little disturbing," said Bhole, adding as she broke into a smile, "But I said, 'I'm still going.' And I prayed to God to protect us."

Said her niece, Jenna Ali: "I'm not wary. This can happen anywhere, anytime."

The generally upbeat mood in Times Square was proof of a city transformed in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that generated what Strozier called "a terrible culture of fear that lasted for years and lingered just below the surface."

Now, though "we're not far from danger and the fear that some individual can attack our city — it's easy to put a bomb in a trash bag — there's a feeling that you have to go on with your life," Strozier said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a budget plan that restores about $55 million (euro43 million) for nearly 900 police officer jobs that were targeted for elimination. New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio applauded the decision, given the anxiety over security following the failed car bombing.

But make no mistake, Bloomberg said earlier in the week, New York is still a target for terrorists as a city that symbolizes America.

"Terrorists around the world who feel threatened by the freedoms that we have always focus on those symbols of freedoms," the mayor said. "And that is New York City."

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