NEW YORK – Police cleared the streets around Times Square on Friday and called in the bomb squad to dismantle what turned out to be a cooler full of water bottles. Earlier in the day, police were called in to check a suspicious package that turned out to be someone’s lunch.
Since a Pakistani-American tried unsuccessfully to set off a car bomb in the heart of the city last weekend, false-alarm calls are up dramatically, nerves are jangled, and media and law enforcement are rushing to the scenes to make sure the reports aren’t something bigger.
More than 600 calls came in since Saturday’s attempted car bombing of a busy street near Times Square – about 30 percent higher than normal, police said.
“This is something that happens fairly regularly,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday. “I think to a certain extent, people are becoming more suspicious, more vigilant. … We understand that’s what happens, and we’re prepared to respond.”
Bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad remained in custody and did not appear in court Friday.
On Friday, cable news channels went live with images of the false alarm on Times Square, focusing in on the light green cooler as police officials hauled it away from the area. Police don’t know who left the cooler behind. The streets opened within an hour, and workers weren’t told to evacuate.
“It was exciting, but it seemed a little silly, after all – a cooler that somebody left there,” said psychiatrist Thor Bergersen, of Newton, Mass., who watched the drama from the eighth floor of the Marriott Marquis hotel.
But Times Square vendor Walter “Candyman” Wells said the constant scares aroused more suspicion.
“I think they’re testing us, whoever is doing this,” Wells said Friday, sitting on a stool near his table of T-shirts. “They’re playing chess with us right now, but they ain’t gonna win. ’Cause we’re the Bobby Fischers.”
A day earlier, authorities pulled an Emirates airlines plane back from the runway after spotting a passenger’s name they mistakenly thought to be on the “no-fly” list. Two passengers were released within an hour. On Wednesday, the bomb squad looked at an empty truck reeking of gasoline on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge; nothing dangerous was found inside.
The city also has ramped up security on its sprawling subway system, checking bags and stationing more officers there.
The jumpiness has even spread to events only tangentially connected to New York, such as a false-alarm bomb scare in Portsmouth, N.H., on a Maine-to-New York bus. Authorities responded by blocking off streets, evacuating homes and businesses, surrounding the bus with police, and calling in sharpshooters and an armored vehicle.
“We have a bus that’s en route to New York City. We have an incident that occurred in New York City not too long ago. I think it was an appropriate, measured response,” Portsmouth Police Chief David Ferland said.