Day After Chelsea Blast, New Yorkers Invariably Turn to Talk of 9/11

No indication blast linked to international terror, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says after 29 injured in Manhattan neighborhood, 'but it is very, very early in the investigation.'

Federal Bureau of Investigation officials mark the ground near the site of an explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 18, 2016.
Rashid Umar Abbasi, Reuters

The day after the explosion that wounded 29 people in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, 23rd Street remains closed. Police guard the barricades, occasionally taking them down to let in NYPD, crime scene investigators and black government Jeeps.

A father takes a photograph of his daughter with one of the policemen guarding the street, who lets her pose with his hat.

In the crowd of worried New Yorkers and confused tourists who are huddled near the barricades, staring at empty 23rd Street, the conversations invariably turn to the September 11 attacks which rocked the city – and indeed, the world – just over 15 years ago.

Jessica Green, a film producer who lives on 23rd Street and who was in New York on September 11, 2001, tells Haaretz that ever since then the possibility of another attack on New York has been in the back of her mind.

"But when it becomes reality it is scary in a different way," she says, adding, "Of course, we don't yet know what happened here, and our mayor is right, we have to live our lives.”

“New Yorkers are resilient, and I guess this is the new reality. It has been in other big cities,” she says. “We were just lucky we didn't have another attack since 9/11. But I just wish that Americans living elsewhere, in smaller cities, will think of New Yorkers, who have a bullseye on their backs, when they make their decisions in the upcoming election.”

Hans Hammer, a businessman in town from Germany, is smoking as he watches the empty street. "Unfortunately, we just have to get used to things like that. I don't feel nervous walking in New York," he shrugs.

Chris de Matteo, 21, from New Jersey, stands on the corner of West 23rd and 5th Avenue with a sign that reads: "9 11 - inside job."

'No links to international terror'

Investigators on Sunday sifted through blast remnants, examined video and scoured the scene of an explosion, attempting to establish if there were any links to international terrorism.

The explosion on a commercial and residential street in New York City's Chelsea district on Saturday night sent a deafening roar and a powerful shock wave through several blocks, wounding people with shrapnel and flying glass. All 29 victims were released from hospital, officials said on Sunday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio pleaded for any witnesses to provide tips and promised a security presence that would be "bigger than ever" for the United Nations General Assembly bringing together world leaders in Manhattan for six days starting on Tuesday.

FBI investigators will examine remnants of the bomb plus an unexploded device found four blocks away as well as a pipe bomb that exploded about 80 miles (130 km) away in New Jersey on Saturday to see if they were connected, officials said.

Police recovered video from both scenes in Manhattan including images of the explosion itself, New York Police Commissioner James O'Neill said.

New York police, the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives converged on the site for their first daylight view of the site of the explosion, cordoning it off and placing dozens of evidence markers on the ground. Police closed several surrounding blocks to traffic.

"We are in the middle of a very complex post-blast investigation," O'Neill said.

Although no international group had claimed responsibility, New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo said detonating a bomb in New York City "is obviously an act of terrorism."

But the mayor on Sunday resisted when reporters pressed him to call the blast an act of terrorism, saying investigators had yet to determine if there was a political motivation.

"It was intentional. It was a violent act. It was a certainly a criminal act. It was a bombing. That's what we know," said de Blasio, flanked by high-ranking officials of the FBI and the city police and fire departments.

"It could have been something personally motivated. We don't know yet," de Blasio said.

The mayor and the governor both promised New Yorkers would not be cowed and that apart from the street closures life would continue as normal. New Yorkers who endured the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and the devastating Hurricane Sandy in 2012 said they were generally unperturbed.

Three devices probed

A sweep of the neighborhood following the blast turned up another device four blocks away consisting of a pressure cooker with wires attached to it and connected to a cell phone.

Pressure cooker bombs were used in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260.

The New Jersey explosion came from a pipe bomb, officials said. A U.S. official familiar with information circulating inside the government said the motive remained unknown and insufficient evidence had been gathered to link the two New York bombs. There was no evidence to connect them to the New Jersey blast, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Almost anybody could have fabricated these bombs and used cellphones as timed detonators," said another U.S. official familiar with the inquiry. "There are instructions all over the internet, and the crudity, positioning, and relative ineffectiveness of these does not suggest that a more sophisticated group played any role in this."

The FBI would examine all three devices at its special crime laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, Cuomo said, but city officials said the police bomb squad still had possession of the unexploded device as of midday on Sunday.

The blast hit around 8:30 P.M. on 23rd Street, a block lacking any obvious political targets.

"When you see the damage," Cuomo said, "I think we were fortunate that there were no fatalities." 

Reuters and AP contributed to this story.