Jacksonville historian and author Wayne Wood was right there when an out-of-control driver jumped a sidewalk in Times Square and drove into pedestrians along a three-block stretch, leaving an 18-year-old woman dead and at least 20 others injured, according to police.
The driver also was once a U.S. Navy sailor at Mayport Naval Station arrested in a battery that occurred on base, according to his Jacksonville arrest report.
In New York City with friends, Wood said they had just walked away from an outdoor art exhibit in Times Square “when this disaster happened” just before noon, he posted on Facebook.
In a phone interview, Wood said he was in the usual lunchtime crowd in Times Square when the man began driving down the sidewalk nearby. He said he didn’t see or hear anything until people around him began screaming, then he saw why.
“It was amazing. We were in the middle of Times Square and people started running,” Wood said. “We saw people running and walked toward where they were running from and saw people on the ground. There were people on the ground all the way down the block to our left and all the way down the block to our right.”
As he stood there, police began running up to join bystanders already helping those who were struck. He said he saw them trying to help the 18-year-old woman who was killed, seeing looks of anguish on police officers there with her.
“Police put up yellow tape and started pushing people away from the site,” Wood said. “There were all these clusters of people gathered around those lying on the ground all around. It was awful. … It is just horrible.”
The 26-year-old driver, Richard Rojas, is a Navy veteran from the Bronx, police said. He was taken into custody in Times Square by officers after his Honda Accord ended up wedged atop pedestrian safety bars at Broadway and West 45th Street, police said.
Rojas was honorably discharged from the Navy in May 2014 after receiving a National Defense Service Medal during his service, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to Times-Union news partner First Coast News.
But during his local Navy duty from 2012 and 2014, he was charged with battery and resisting arrest without violence after a taxicab driver said he was attacked outside military barracks on base at Mayport, according to the arrest report. Those charges were eventually abandoned, court records show.
But according to the original Sept. 23, 2012, arrest report, Rojas was arrested on Wonderwood Drive after a short chase, telling the officer “I beat the s — — out of that cab driver and I’ll tell you why, he said I owed him $162.” He also made threats to kill all police and military police he might see when he got released from jail, the report said.
As for Thursday, city officials said Rojas was driving south on Seventh Avenue when he made a sharp U-turn and drove onto the sidewalk. Police said he has previous New York arrests for driving under the influence, the most recent in 2015 in Manhattan, preceded by the same charge in 2008 in the borough of Queens.
Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549