No. 8: Times Square Heroes

Times Square, May 1, 2010: Saturday night, and the famous New York intersection was packed with tourists. Faisal Shahzad figured it was the perfect target for a car bomb. Although he failed, the attempt struck a nerve in a city scarred by prior terrorist attacks. The bomb could easily have caused a massacre, if not for the would-be terrorist’s amateur mistakes and a few observant New Yorkers.

Shahzad drove into Times Square in a Nissan Pathfinder he’d bought, with cash, from its previous owner in Connecticut. He parked just off Broadway and hurried away, leaving the engine on, hazard lights flashing, and a full load of explosives set to a timer. But street vendors noticed the SUV leaking white smoke. They alerted a policeman, who evacuated the area.

The heroes of the evening gained instant fame. Officials, even President Obama, praised the civic-minded and sharp-eyed street vendor who first spotted the bomb and saved the day. But to whom did the honor belong? Duane Jackson was being interviewed all over the place, giving autographs, and doing a booming business selling purses, scarves, and sunglasses. Then Lance Orton, another fellow vendor, emerged. He didn’t care for publicity, but he was irked that Jackson was getting all the credit when, he said, he had been the first to spot the smoke and alert police. “There can’t be two heroes,” he declared, pointing out that investigators had grilled him and not Jackson. But if there can’t be two heroes, can there be three? Yet another vendor emerged to say that he had been first to notice the smoking car. Because he was a Senegalese immigrant who didn’t speak English, Aliou Niasse said he asked Orton to call 911. Orton decided to tell a nearby policeman on horseback instead.

That policeman was Wayne Rhatigan. Keeping people safe was all in an extremely long day’s work for him — it was into the wee hours when he got home. He caught a few hours’ sleep, then rose early to coach his 9-year-old daughter’s lacrosse team. As for his horse, Miggs was rewarded with his favorite treats: carrots, apples, and cupcakes.

Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested at JFK Airport two days after the failed bombing as he attempted to flee the country. He confessed soon after, saying he had learned to make a bomb at a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, the country of his birth, and had assembled the Times Square device in his garage. The only problem was that he’d used the wrong kind of fertilizer. The explosive type has been hard to come by since the Oklahoma City bombing. Shahzad pleaded guilty to all charges related to the attack and was sentenced to life in prison on October 5.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter who was the first hero, just that people were willing to take action. That vigilance has become more pressing, as “terrorism on the cheap,” an Al Qaeda strategy the Washington Post noted back in 2008, has become even more frugal: Operation Hemorrhage, the Yemeni mail-bomb plot, cost $4,200. (Financing for the September 11 attacks was about $500,000.) “To bring down America we do not need to strike big,” wrote editors of Yemini online magazine, Inspire. “In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect.” Standing in their way: the players on the American side.

–Cicely Wedgeworth