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Police Find Car Bomb in Times Square

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, with Gov. David A. Paterson and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, spoke at a news conference in Times Square early Sunday.

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A crude car bomb of propane, gasoline and fireworks was discovered in a smoking Nissan Pathfinder in the heart of Times Square on Saturday evening, prompting the evacuation of thousands of tourists and theatergoers on a warm and busy night. Although the device had apparently started to detonate, there was no explosion, and early on Sunday the authorities were still seeking a suspect and motive.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

A police officer in a bomb suit examined a Nissan Pathfinder sport utility vehicle.

“We are very lucky,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a 2:15 a.m. press conference. “We avoided what could have been a very deadly event.”

A large swath of Midtown — from 43rd Street to 48th Street, and from Sixth to Eighth Avenues — was closed for much of the evening after the Pathfinder was discovered just off Broadway on 45th Street. Several theaters and stores, as well as the South Tower of the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, were evacuated.

Mr. Bloomberg was joined by Gov. David A. Paterson, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and other officials at the early morning press conference to give a chronology of the vehicle’s discovery, its disarming, and the investigation that has been launched. The mayor and police commissioner had returned early from the annual White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington.

At 6:28 p.m., Mr. Kelly said, a video surveillance camera recorded what was believed to be the dark green Nissan S.U.V. driving west on 45th Street.

Moments later, a T-shirt vendor on the sidewalk saw smoke coming out of vents near the back seat of the S.U.V., which was now parked awkwardly at the curb with its engine running and its hazard lights on. The vendor called to a mounted police officer, the mayor said, who smelled gunpowder when he approached the S.U.V. and called for assistance. The police began evacuating Times Square, starting with businesses along Seventh Avenue, including a Foot Locker store and a McDonald’s.

Police officers from the emergency service unit and firefighters flooded the area and were troubled by the hazard lights and running engine, and by the fact that the S.U.V. was oddly angled in the street. At this point, a firefighter from Ladder 4 reported hearing several “pops” from within the vehicle. The police also learned that the Pathfinder had the wrong license plates on it.

Members of the Police Department’s bomb squad donned protective gear, broke the Pathfinder’s back windows and sent in a “robotic device” to “observe” it, said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the police department’s chief spokesman.

Inside, they discovered three canisters of propane like those used for barbecue grills, two five-gallon cans of gasoline, consumer-grade fireworks — the apparent source of the “pops” — and two clocks with batteries, the mayor said. He said the device “looked amateurish.”

Mr. Browne said: “It appeared it was in the process of detonating, but it malfunctioned.”

Bomb squad officers also discovered a two-by-two-by-four-foot metal box — described as a “gun locker” — in the S.U.V. that was taken to the Police Department’s firing range at Rodman’s Neck in the Bronx to be destroyed, Mr. Kelly said. It was not immediately known what, if anything, was inside it.

Officials said they had no reports of anyone seen running from the vehicle. Mr. Kelly said police were scouring the area for any additional videotapes but noted that the S.U.V.’s windows were tinted, which could further hamper any efforts to identify those inside. Some of the surveillance cameras nearby were located in closed businesses, and the mayor made clear it would take time to review all available tapes.

“We have no idea who did this or why,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Kevin B. Barry, a former supervisor in the New York Police Department bomb squad, said that if the device had functioned, “it would be more of an incendiary event” than an explosion.

The license plates on the Nissan were registered to another vehicle — a Ford pickup truck that was taken to a junkyard near Bridgeport, Conn., within the last two weeks, according to a law enforcement official. The previous owner of the Ford was interviewed Saturday night by the F.B.I., but it did not appear he was regarded as a suspect. Still, the junkyard was considered a primary target of the initial investigation.

The S.U.V.’s standard vehicle identification number had been removed, Mr. Bloomberg said, and investigators were scouring it to see if the number appeared elsewhere.

The White House said President Obama had been briefed on the episode and had pledged federal assistance in the investigation.

Times Square on a Saturday night is one of the busiest and most populated locations in the city, and has long been seen as a likely target for some kind of attack.

Reporting was contributed by Micah Cohen, Patrick Healy, Karin Henry, Steve Kenny and Ray Rivera in New York and Eric Lipton in Washington.

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