In Wake of Bombing, New Yorkers Increasingly See Threats in Trash Left on the Streets

NEW YORK (Los Angeles Times/TNS) -
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the  explosion in Chelsea. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the explosion in Chelsea. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

One of the suspicious objects turned out to be a typewriter. Another was a bundle of cardboard tubes from rolls of paper towels. There was a battery charger. A discarded modem. A stool. An empty suitcase.

Then there was the strange object found on 27th Street that was made out of a pressure cooker. That one actually was a bomb.

Unnerved by recent terrorist attacks, people are inundating police with reports of suspicious objects — bombs, real and imagined, lurking in piles of garbage.

The phenomenon is happening throughout the United States, but appears to be most pronounced in and around New York, where suspected terrorist Ahmad Khan Rahami allegedly planted a number of bombs the weekend of Sept. 17–18. Three of the bombs exploded, including one in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan that injured 39 people.

William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, said the proliferation of bomb scares reflects Americans’ high level of anxiety about terrorism.

“Terrorism punches above its weight. It makes an imprint on the psyche,” said Braniff, citing a study conducted in 2013 that found Americans more likely to worry about terrorism than being a victim of violent crime or having to be hospitalized, both of which are statistically more likely.

The New York City police department said that as of Monday afternoon, it had received 2,183 reports of suspicious packages since the bombings, up from 353 in the same period last year.

“We do get a lot of calls that end up being trash or empty bags. … People are more cautious after what happened,” said Sophia Mason, an NYPD spokeswoman.

Times Square was partially evacuated on Sept. 21 after the discovery of an empty suitcase in front of a McDonald’s. At rush hour that same evening, a portion of an expressway through the Bronx was shut down because of a discarded pressure cooker — that turned out to be, well, just a pressure cooker.

On Monday night, part of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital had to be evacuated after the discovery of a suspicious package outside. That one turned out to be a deliberate hoax — made out of cardboard tubes that had been taped together to look like dynamite with a digital display from a computer board taped on top. A man who was seen on surveillance video near the fake bomb was arrested.

At a ferry terminal on the Hudson River, a suspicious object found under a tree turned out to be a makeshift stool used by ferry operators to rest between shifts. In South Bound Brook, N.J., a few miles from Linden, where Rahami was captured last week, a resident alerted police after spotting a case marked with the word “Royal” left next to an electrical transformer. The state bomb squad arrived and with an x-ray determined that somebody had discarded an old typewriter.

For 15 years, signs have been posted in the subways and buses of New York City urging people to report anything suspicious. “If you see something, say something,” goes the ubiquitous slogan.

Law enforcement experts say they encourage the reports, even if most suspicious objects turn out to be benign.

“Of course, there is the potential to inundate the system with false alarms, but on balance, it is really valuable in helping the law enforcement community extend its ability to observe public space,” Braniff said.

One reason that New York stands out in the reports of suspicious objects is that it has been so frequently targeted by bombers, whether they be the suspected Italian anarchists who attacked Wall Street in 1920 with a bomb in a horse-drawn carriage, Puerto Rican nationalists or, in more recent years, Islamic terrorists.

In addition, New York sidewalks hold a bounty of discarded items, which often attract the interest of artists, students and others looking for objects that might be useful, decorative or merely amusing. It is no coincidence that in at least two recent cases, the homeless played a role. A man living in a shelter, identified as Kenneth Jackson, won praise from police for reporting the suspicious package near Columbia Presbyterian hospital, even though the item proved to be a fake.

On Sept. 18, a homeless man in Elizabeth, N.J., discovered five genuine pipe bombs inside a discarded backpack that he picked up from the top of a trash can.

“I knew right away that something wasn’t right,” said the man, Lee Tyrone Parker, in a telephone interview last week. “This was a matter that had to be rectified.”

Another undetonated bomb was found the day before on West 27th Street in Chelsea, four blocks from the bomb that exploded. That was the bomb made out of a pressure cooker. The woman who noticed and reported it, Jane Schreibman, a photographer, said she initially thought it was a discarded science experiment.

Since finding the bomb 10 days ago, she has become something of a local celebrity, appearing on numerous talk shows, repeating her message.

“This has become my mission in life — to tell people that they should keep their eyes open. If they see something, say something,” said Schreibman, who says she has always looked at garbage.