One Blast Injured Dozens In Chelsea. I Saw A 2nd Device Shortly Afterward

Sep 18, 2016
Originally published on September 21, 2016 2:03 pm

I was in New York for the weekend, visiting a friend who lives on West 27th Street. We'd been in at an event in Brooklyn; in the cab home, the radio had been saying something about an explosion in Chelsea, on 23rd Street between Sixth and Seventh — four blocks from her home.

The part of my brain that always wants to believe nothing's wrong said, "Oh, it's a gas leak. A transformer explosion. It'll mess up the traffic but we'll be home in an hour." I think everyone has that voice in their head, to some extent. But this time, something was wrong: The radio kept talking, something about an IED in a dumpster, dozens of people wounded.

The cab dropped us off at 29th and Sixth. We couldn't get any closer because everything was blocked off. We could see the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances four blocks down, and we jaywalked with magnificent impunity across Sixth Avenue because, hey, what was going to hit us?

Around us were people out walking on a warm fall night. The vibe wasn't so bad, we said to each other. Nothing's really wrong. This seems normal. It's all under control.

Down 27th Street, we passed a gaggle of women in skyscrapingly impractical heels milling around on the sidewalk, chatting to each other, clearly on their way to or from a Saturday-night party. And I was looking all around as I usually do in New York; there's always something to see — street fashion, an overlooked Art Nouveau carving or just a particularly spectacular rat.

In the corner of my eye, something silver sat on the sidewalk.

"Hey," I said, "there's a pressure cooker."

We paused for a moment. The part of my brain that wants to believe nothing's wrong said, "Oh, this is New York. People throw things out all the time, and you don't have room for a new pressure cooker. Leave it alone."

But something was weird about it; I looked a little closer and I realized it had been bound around with duct tape. Two crooked wires sprouted from one side of the lid, attached to something small, dark, rectangular. We looked a little closer. Then we looked at each other, and then we walked away, as quickly as we could. "We have to call 911," my friend said.

Her apartment building was only a few doors away. We were intensely aware of how close it was to her front door — and just as aware that her apartment was at the back of the building, away from the street. The part of my brain that wants to believe nothing's wrong was quickly being shouted down by a different part, the part that realizes how utterly awful it is to be calculating, on a nice Saturday night, whether or not you'll be safe if there's an explosion.

I'm a journalist; one thing I never want to be is part of the story. -

My friend called 911 and explained the situation to the police. Then, we made up my air mattress in the living room and we all went to bed, still trying, in some tiny way, to believe that nothing was wrong. Around 2 a.m. the noise of the bomb squad carting that thing away woke us up. And in the morning, the radio was breathlessly reporting a second device found in Chelsea.

I'm a journalist; one thing I never want to be is part of the story. I know we weren't the only people who saw that pressure cooker, and we weren't the only people who called it in. I don't know if it would ever have gone off — maybe it was a dud. But I saw it, I walked right past it, and that's the thing I can't quite shake today.

No one was hurt by the device we saw. The crime scene tape around this block is now down again, the Starbucks and the pet supply store and the Korean barbecue place are doing business as usual.

"My beautiful city," my friend said to me this afternoon over a desperately necessary comfort lunch. "My beautiful, beautiful city."

And it is. Whatever I think about having been 2 feet from a bomb last night, I can also think about the fact that — last night, at least — no one else in this beautiful city got hurt.

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Now, after that explosion yesterday in New York, a second explosive device was discovered, as we just told you. It was removed before it was detonated. And one of the people who saw it and alerted authorities about it was Petra Mayer, who is an editor at NPR Books. And I talked to her earlier, and I asked her how she came upon it.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: So I was up here visiting a friend. We had been at an event in Brooklyn. And we heard about the original explosion on the radio. We were taking a cab home, and we just couldn't get anywhere near because all the streets were blocked off. So we got the cab to let us off at - a couple blocks away at 29th and 6th, and we were just walking down the street. And we were only a few doors from my friend's house. And I happened to look down and say, hey, there's a pressure cooker on the street.

And we took a closer look at it. And it was bound up in duct tape, and it had wires coming out of it and what - I couldn't quite tell what the wires were attached to. It looked like a sort of rectangular, black plastic thing. And we took a slightly closer look at it, and then we walked right away and right to her house and she called 911.

MARTIN: To your knowledge, are you the first person to have - or you and your friend, are you the first people to have alerted the authorities to the presence of this device?

MAYER: It's a little bit unclear. We've heard different things from different police officers that we talked to. Some said we were the only people to call it in, some said there was somebody else, so I wouldn't be too comfortable saying that we were the first or only people. But we certainly saw it and we called it in.

MARTIN: What happened after that, after you called 911?

MAYER: We went up to her apartment, which is at the back of the building, because we wanted to get as far away as we possibly could. And so that was at about 10:30. And then the police - I'm not sure exactly when they arrived because I was pretty much hiding in the back of the building. But they brought a whole bomb disposal crew, blocked off the street, and they finally carted it away at about 2 in the morning.

MARTIN: Were there a lot of people in the area at the time walking around?

MAYER: No. No. We had passed, like, further up the block one group of people that were coming out of a party, but there was almost no one around. It was just us.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you - a little uncomfortable to ask you as a colleague because, you know, we generally aren't in the business of asking each other how we feel about things. But do you mind if I ask what's going through your mind right now or what's been going through your mind in the last couple hours?

MAYER: That's fine. I - to be perfectly honest, I'm still processing it. I'm really just grateful that the police responded and that they were able to get there before - subsequently, I found out that the thing that I couldn't identify that was attached to the top of it was a cell phone, which I presume must have been a remote detonator. And I'm just very grateful that the police were able to respond and dispose of it before it did go off. That's really all that matters to me right now.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Petra Mayer. She's an editor at NPR Books. And she is at least one of the people who reported the existence of a second device found in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood last night. Petra, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MAYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.