A crude car bomb of propane, gasoline and fireworks was discovered in a smoking Nissan Pathfinder in the heart of Times Square on Saturday evening, prompting the evacuation of thousands of tourists and theatergoers on a warm and busy night. Although the device had apparently started to detonate, there was no explosion, and early on Sunday the authorities were still seeking a suspect and motive.
“We are very lucky,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a 2:15 a.m. press conference. “We avoided what could have been a very deadly event.”
A large swath of Midtown — from 43rd Street to 48th Street, and from Sixth to Eighth Avenues — was closed for much of the evening after the Pathfinder was discovered just off Broadway on 45th Street. Several theaters and stores, as well as the South Tower of the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, were evacuated.
Mr. Bloomberg was joined by Gov. David A. Paterson, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and other officials at the early morning press conference to give a chronology of the vehicle’s discovery, its disarming, and the investigation that has been launched. The mayor and police commissioner had returned early from the annual White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington.
At 6:28 p.m., Mr. Kelly said, a video surveillance camera recorded what was believed to be the dark green Nissan S.U.V. driving west on 45th Street.
Moments later, a T-shirt vendor on the sidewalk saw smoke coming out of vents near the back seat of the S.U.V., which was now parked awkwardly at the curb with its engine running and its hazard lights on. The vendor called to a mounted police officer, the mayor said, who smelled gunpowder when he approached the S.U.V. and called for assistance. The police began evacuating Times Square, starting with businesses along Seventh Avenue, including a Foot Locker store and a McDonald’s.
Police officers from the emergency service unit and firefighters flooded the area and were troubled by the hazard lights and running engine, and by the fact that the S.U.V. was oddly angled in the street. At this point, a firefighter from Ladder 4 reported hearing several “pops” from within the vehicle. The police also learned that the Pathfinder had the wrong license plates on it.
Members of the Police Department’s bomb squad donned protective gear, broke the Pathfinder’s back windows and sent in a “robotic device” to “observe” it, said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the police department’s chief spokesman.
Inside, they discovered three canisters of propane like those used for barbecue grills, two five-gallon cans of gasoline, consumer-grade fireworks — the apparent source of the “pops” — and two clocks with batteries, the mayor said. He said the device “looked amateurish.”
Mr. Browne said: “It appeared it was in the process of detonating, but it malfunctioned.”
Bomb squad officers also discovered a two-by-two-by-four-foot metal box — described as a “gun locker” — in the S.U.V. that was taken to the Police Department’s firing range at Rodman’s Neck in the Bronx to be destroyed, Mr. Kelly said. It was not immediately known what, if anything, was inside it.
Officials said they had no reports of anyone seen running from the vehicle. Mr. Kelly said police were scouring the area for any additional videotapes but noted that the S.U.V.’s windows were tinted, which could further hamper any efforts to identify those inside. Some of the surveillance cameras nearby were located in closed businesses, and the mayor made clear it would take time to review all available tapes.
“We have no idea who did this or why,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
Kevin B. Barry, a former supervisor in the New York Police Department bomb squad, said that if the device had functioned, “it would be more of an incendiary event” than an explosion.
The license plates on the Nissan were registered to another vehicle — a Ford pickup truck that was taken to a junkyard near Bridgeport, Conn., within the last two weeks, according to a law enforcement official. The previous owner of the Ford was interviewed Saturday night by the F.B.I., but it did not appear he was regarded as a suspect. Still, the junkyard was considered a primary target of the initial investigation.
The S.U.V.’s standard vehicle identification number had been removed, Mr. Bloomberg said, and investigators were scouring it to see if the number appeared elsewhere.
The White House said President Obama had been briefed on the episode and had pledged federal assistance in the investigation.
Around 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, the T-shirt vendor who first alerted the police returned to the scene, along with several other vendors whom he worked with.
“I’m fed up,” said the vendor, who declined to give his name, but said that he was a Vietnam veteran. “We’ve been up since 6 a.m. of yesterday morning.”
The vendor, who wore a white fedora, had a limp and walked with a cane, was swarmed by television cameras as he tried to make his way to a taxicab on 44th Street.
As he got into the taxi, he was asked by a reporter what he had to say to New Yorkers.
“See something, say something,” he said.
Times Square on a Saturday night is one of the busiest and most populated locations in the city, and has long been seen as a likely target for some kind of attack.
Most of the streets that had been closed around Times Square reopened around 5:15 a.m.; traffic on 45th Street opened at 7:30 a.m., about 90 minutes after the Pathfinder had been towed away.
For most of the night, a maze of metal barricades kept pedestrians south of 43rd Street. In the center of Times Square, dozens of police and fire vehicles were parked on Broadway and Seventh Avenue, but in Times Square between 42nd and 43rd Streets, tourists milled or sat at tables, much as they do on any other Saturday night. On Eighth Avenue at around 11:30 p.m., people carrying theater playbills were directed west on 44th Street out to Eighth Avenue.
Crowds were lined up on the south side of 43rd Street as the heart of Times Square was closed off to traffic.
On Eighth Avenue police officers used large pieces of orange netting to corral pedestrians and separate them from traffic.
Many people stayed to watch after being shut out of Broadway shows or prevented from getting back to their hotels, trading rumors about what was happening. Many guests at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel at 1535 Broadway were being kept in an auditorium at the hotel, Mr. Kelly said.
Some theaters were evacuated, but many were not, according to a spokeswoman for the Broadway League, the trade group of theater owners and producers. The spokeswoman, Elisa Shevitz, said she would not have all the details about how many theaters were affected until Sunday.
For some Broadway shows the curtains went up 15 to 30 minutes late. Shows that started late included “Red” and “God of Carnage” — which are both playing at houses on the block of 45th Street where the bomb was found — and “In the Heights.”
Onlookers crowded against the barricades, taking pictures with cellphones, although only a swarm of fire trucks and police cars was visible.
Pota Manolakos, an accountant from Montreal, was not able to return to her room at the Edison Hotel with her husband and 6-year-old son for several hours.
She said she asked a police officer what was going on, and the officer told her: “Lady, take your kid and get out of here. There’s a threat, take your kid and get out of here.”
“We have nothing with us except for what we have on,” Ms. Manolakos said.
Gabrielle Zecha and Taj Heniser, visiting from Seattle, had tickets to see “Next to Normal” at the Booth Theater on 45th Street but could not get into the 8 p.m. show because the area was blocked off. But they made the best of the spectacle. “It’s a whole different kind of show,” Ms. Heniser said, adding, “It’s almost the equivalent of a $150 show.”
A group of people on a high school senior trip from Jacksonville, Fla., said they were stuck for about an hour and a half in the Bubba Gump restaurant at 44th Street and Seventh Avenue.
“A lot of people were getting tense who were there longer than we were,” said Billy Wilkerson, 39, a police sergeant in Jacksonville and a chaperone for the trip. “It’s so good to get out, but it was exhilarating.”
He said he was impressed by his New York counterparts. “I just sat back and learned a lot,” he said.
Fabyane Pereira, 35, a tourist from Brazil, said the episode would not deter her from another visit. “I feel sorry for America,” she said. “I’m at your guys’ side.”
In December, the police closed Times Square for nearly two hours as they investigated a suspiciously parked van, delaying the rehearsal of the New Year’s ball drop. However, the van turned out to contain nothing but clothing.
Reporting was contributed by Micah Cohen, Patrick Healy, Steve Kenny, Ray Rivera and Michael S. Schmidt in New York and Eric Lipton in Washington for the NYTimes.com