How we stopped the NYC Times Square terror attack

FDNY Capt. Michael Barvels credits firefighters' use of training, size-up skills, instinct, and experience in preventing casualties and damage

By Capt. Michael Barvels

On Saturday May 1, 2010 at 6:35pm, Engine 54 and Ladder 4 received an alarm to respond to Manhattan Box 814, located at West 45th Street and 7th Avenue for a reported car fire. An initial size-up began with the receipt of the alarm in quarters, as car fires at that location are not a routine occurrence.

Members were immediately alerted to proceed with caution and careful in considering placement of the apparatus. Being a warm Saturday evening, large crowds were present in Times Square and within the numerous theaters and restaurants located there.

The area was congested due to heavy auto and pedestrian traffic as Engine 54 and Ladder 4 responded South on 7th Avenue. As both companies turned right onto 45th Street, officers and members observed an older model Nissan Pathfinder with out-of-state license plates.

The vehicle was parked, with hazard lights on, five to ten feet in from the corner. Some popping sounds could be heard coming from within the vehicle and white smoke was seeping from the rear area of the passenger compartment. No smoke was observed in the area of the engine compartment or under the auto. One member also observed flashes from behind the tinted windows of the vehicle that he said looked like fireworks.

Engine 54 quickly passed the vehicle, as well as two other vans parked in the vicinity of the Pathfinder, to hook up to a hydrant on 45th Street and prepare for a backstretch. Ladder 4 stopped before the vehicle in order to block further vehicle traffic from coming into the block.

As Lieutenant of Engine 54 at the time, I ordered members to stretch a hoseline and began to consult with Lt. John Kazan of Ladder 4. We asked a nearby traffic officer where the driver of the vehicle was. He told us that a witness saw the driver park the car and leave the scene.

The combination of the above circumstances led to our mutual decision to keep members and civilians from approaching the vehicle and call in the Battalion Chief as well as the NYPD Emergency Services Unit, the first tier of their response before the Bomb Squad. I ordered members of Engine 54 to stand fast with the charged hoseline behind Ladder 4's apparatus, using it as protection.

Lt. Kazan ordered his members to block pedestrian traffic as he observed the vehicle through his Thermal Imaging Camera. According to Lt. Kazan, no abnormal heat was noted indicative of a routine car fire. Lt. Kazan also asked a local NYPD officer to run the plates. In less than a minute the plates came back unregistered.

At this point, members of Engine 54 and Ladder 4 began to monitor the area with the RAD 50 and Ultra Radiac radiation detectors, maintaining a safe distance away from the involved vehicle, surrounding vehicles, and any other potential secondary device.

Local hi-rise buildings were also considered due to potential glass fallout. Radiation detector readings came back normal as Battalion 9 Chief Tom Meara arrived on scene shortly after the NYPD Emergency Services Unit. Lt. Kazan and I discussed our findings and what we had done with both the chief and NYPD ESU. Chief Meara had both companies relocate to safe areas further away from the vehicle and stand by with a precautionary hoseline as NYPD ESU called in the Bomb Squad.

As this potential catastrophic operation evolved, more FDNY units were called in to stretch precautionary handlines and assist NYPD with the evacuation of nearby restaurants, theatres, and streets. The area was continuously monitored throughout the operation and all members remained alert to the potential for secondary devices and suspicious civilians.

SKED stretchers were also made ready by FDNY members in case of detonation as the Bomb Squad continued their investigation. After the arrival of Divison 3, which assumed command from Battalion 9, it was announced that the vehicle in question contained explosive material and was indeed a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device. As more units were called in for relief, Engine 54 and Ladder 4 were relieved at approximately 11:30pm, nearly five hours after the initial receipt of the alarm.

The officers and members of Engine 54 and Ladder 4 used their training, size-up skills, instinct, and experience throughout this incident. The professional approach and exchange of critical information by all members led to an appropriate response to a potentially deadly scenario.

Through the extensive training provided by the FDNY, the constant flow of information offered by FDNY's Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness, and the dedication of the members of Engine 54 and Ladder 4, this operation was completed successfully without injury to members or civilians, and without damage to evidence crucial to the investigation.

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