Fiery crash kills 2 at Niagara Falls’ Rainbow border bridge. Officials say no sign of terrorism
Nov 22, 2023, 5:51 PM | Updated: 6:03 pm
(John Normile/Getty Images)
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (AP) — A vehicle speeding toward a U.S.-Canada bridge from the American side crashed and exploded at a checkpoint in Niagara Falls on Wednesday, killing two people and prompting the closing of multiple border crossings for hours.
Authorities weren’t sure what spurred the wreck but said there were no signs it was a terror attack.
Much remained unclear about the incident at the Rainbow Bridge, which stirred concerns on both sides of the border as the U.S. headed into the Thanksgiving holiday. Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were briefed soon afterward, and Trudeau excused himself from Question Period in the House of Commons to get further information, saying officials were “taking this extraordinarily seriously.”
A few hours later, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and western New York’s U.S. attorney, Trini Ross, both sought to ease fears, while cautioning that the investigation was in the early stages.
“Based on what we know at this moment,” Hochul said at a news conference, “there is no sign of terrorist activity in this crash.”
At a separate news conference with Ross nearby in Buffalo, Erie Country Sheriff John Garcia said, “We can go on with our lives.”
Security camera video released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed the car racing through an intersection, hitting a low median and vaulting into the air in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection area just east of the main vehicle checkpoint. The car flew for yards (meters), twisting, and then crashed out of the camera’s view.
Rickie Wilson, a Niagara Falls tour guide, was by his parked car nearby and turned around when he saw something in the air.
“I first thought it was an airplane. It looked like slow motion,” he said. “I said, ‘My God, it’s a car. It’s a vehicle, and it’s flying through the air.'”
The identities of those in the car weren’t released. Hochul said it wasn’t clear whether the driver — a western New York resident — was intentionally heading for the bridge, which crosses the Niagara River.
Matthew Miraglia, the FBI special agent in charge in Buffalo, said investigators so far had found no “derogatory” information on the driver.
“We’re scanning his social media. There’s nothing there,” Miraglia said.
Aaron Ferguson, a spokesperson for the city of Niagara Falls, New York, said the vehicle was traveling at high speed from that city.
Hochul said the car ended up “basically incinerated,” with nothing left but the engine, and debris was scattered across a dozen checkpoint booths.
“It’s going to take a lot of time for federal law enforcement partners … to be able to piece together the real story,” she said.
Photos and video taken by bystanders and posted on social media showed thick smoke, flames on the pavement and a singed security booth. A Customs and Border Protection worker in a checkpoint booth was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and released, Hochul said.
From inside Niagara Falls State Park, Melissa Raffalow said she saw “a huge plume of black smoke” rise up over the border crossing, roughly 50 yards (45 meters) away from the popular tourist destination. Raffalow told AP in a message that police arrived soon after, urging visitors to disperse as they began cordoning off the street.
Raghu Bhattarai said by phone that he was inside his restaurant, the Niagara Tandoori Hut, near the bridge when he heard a sound he described as a “boom.” A few minutes later, he saw black smoke rising.
The Rainbow Bridge and three others between western New York and Ontario were quickly closed as a precaution, though the other three later reopened. The Buffalo-Niagara International Airport began security checks on all cars and told passengers to expect additional screenings.
The safety measures tied up traffic at the airport and elsewhere on one of the busiest U.S. travel days of the year, ahead of the American Thanksgiving holiday.
Sanchit Chatha, his wife Reyshu and their 13-year-old daughter, Trisha, had stopped in Niagara Falls for lunch en route home to Toronto from Buffalo when they started getting news notifications about the explosion. Worried friends called, knowing the family was in the area.
Trisha was concerned at seeing the bridges to Canada shut down, her mother said.
“She has a math test tomorrow,” the mother explained as the family waited to find out when the crossings would open.
In Toronto, about 100 miles (about 160 kilometers) away, police said they were increasing patrols as a precaution. New York City police were monitoring the news from Buffalo but already had boosted security at various spots because of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday.
About 6,000 vehicles cross the Rainbow Bridge each day, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory. About 5% is truck traffic, according to the federal data.
The bridge, constructed in 1941, is just over 1,440 feet (439 meters) long and has a main span constructed of steel, according to the data.
Wawrow reported from Buffalo, and Peltz from New York. Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Deepti Hajela and Jake Offenhartz in New York; Eric Tucker in Washington; Rob Gillies in Toronto; Anthony Izaguirre and Maysoon Khan in Albany, New York; and Christopher L. Keller in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.