Suspect in custody after NYC subway explosion; local man describes chaotic scene

Police block off a sidewalk while responding to a report of an explosion near Times Square on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK (NBC) — A suspected terrorist detonated a potentially deadly “improvised low-tech explosive device” inside a New York City subway passageway during Monday morning rush hour, injuring himself and three other people and causing chaos at one of the city’s key traffic hubs.

Virginia Beach resident Paul Holley tells 10 On Your Side he was just around the corner getting coffee.

“All this commotion started happening and people were running, and the next thing I know people are telling us to get out of the way. Hundreds of police cars and first responders started coming from everywhere.”

Holley says he could see smoke from the area and noticed a bad odor in the air.

“You could smell it in the air. Being from Virginia Beach you don’t ever experience that kind of thing, but it was crazy, it was wild.”

The device went off in the 42nd Street passageway between 7th and 8th avenues, and the suspect, later identified as Akayed Ullah, 27, was taken into custody, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said.

The incident happened at about 7:20 a.m. in the busy underground tunnel near both the Times Square subway station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. None of the injuries were considered life-threatening, according to the Fire Department of New York.

Ullah was wearing a pipe bomb-based device that was affixed to his body with Velcro and zip ties, NYPD deputy commissioner John Miller said. Officials said Ullah was taken to Bellevue Hospital on Manhattan’s East Side with burns and other wounds.

Earlier, law enforcement officials told NBC News that the suspect was the only person hurt and that he had sustained a minor injury.

Ullah is a former taxi driver who was licensed from March 2012 to March 2015, according to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. No other information about his background was immediately available.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the explosion an “attempted terror attack” and said there were no additional known incidents.

“Thank God the perpetrator did not achieve his ultimate goals. Thank God our first responders were there so quickly to address the situation,” de Blasio said. He called the situation “incredibly unsettling” for New Yorkers, nearly 6 million of whom rely on the subway for their commutes every weekday.

Law enforcement officials said the device either went off prematurely or only partially detonated.

Former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton said preliminary information indicated that the explosion was carried out in the name of the Islamic State. O’Neill, the current commissioner, told reporters he couldn’t delve into an ISIS connection at this point.

“He did make statements, but we’re not going to talk about that right now,” O’Neill said.

The incident, in the heart of the city, wreaked havoc for morning commuters. Emergency vehicles that stretched for blocks rushed to the scene, causing major evacuations in the massive transit hub. Subway lines were thrown into disarray, with at least 10 bypassing the Times Square and 42nd Street/Port Authority stops.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said an explosion in a subway station is “in many ways, one of our worst nightmares,” but said “the reality turns out better than the initial expectation.”

“We’re not going to allow them to disrupt us,” he said. “That’s exactly what they want, and that is exactly what they’re not going to get.”

With the area around Port Authority closed off, streets that would normally be bustling with commuters were eerily empty. Bystanders took photos with their phones as police and fire vehicles whizzed by.

The explosion rattled New Yorkers. Two students said they were about to enter the subway on their way to school when they heard the noise.

“I was about to swipe in my card and out of nowhere, we heard a really loud bang. Everyone said, ‘Get out, get out!'” Ali, 18, who declined to give his last name, said.

His friend Saidou Choudhury, 19, said the explosion “sounded like it was deep inside.”

“I was traumatized,” he said.

Another commuter, Isham Chowdhury, was on a bus bound for the Port Authority when the explosion went off. He said he got to the terminal about 10 minutes later.

“They were closing the entrance due to the attack. Everyone was calm, but we knew it wasn’t normal,” Chowdhury said. “The escalators were shut.”

Simon Zamon, of Queens, sells coffee and pastries from a food cart several blocks from Port Authority, starting at 5 a.m. each day. He said many of his daily customers didn’t stop by Monday morning.

“I lost a lot of customers today. My regulars come from New Jersey, Long Island, and Queens,” he said.

The incident came a mere six weeks after a truck driver deliberately drove down a bike path in lower Manhattan, killing eight people in the deadliest terror attack in New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal is the nation’s largest, with about 230,000 passengers passing through it on a typical weekday, its website says.

President Donald Trump was briefed on the incident, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.