'We dodged a bullet big-time,' New York vendor says

The New York City Police Department has released surveillance video of a man leaving the scene near where a car bomb was found in Times Square. The man is seen taking off his shirt as he walks down the street.
By Keith B. Richburg
Sunday, May 2, 2010; 4:52 PM

NEW YORK -- Duane M. Jackson, one of the Times Square street vendors who first noticed a suspicious vehicle that turned out to hold explosives, knows something about being vigilant.

Jackson, 58, was a working as a vendor on Wall Street, in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, and vividly recalls the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. The photographs he snapped at the time show a chronology of that disaster: people gathered around his car listening to news on the radio, the second plane hitting, people running for cover, then the ash debris covering the entire area, including Jackson's car.

Now, Jackson -- who is being lauded as a hero along with other vendors who alerted police -- said he feels like he got lucky a second time. He was just across 45th Street and a few feet away from the explosives-laden vehicle.

"We dodged a bullet big-time," he said, speaking as New Yorkers and tourists lined up to shake his hand, hug him and have their children pose for pictures with him. "If one of those things had exploded, we would have had glass everywhere."

When the area was evacuated Saturday, Jackson stayed in his car -- leaving behind his cart stacked with women's handbags, some golf clubs and sunglasses. He was not allowed back until 4 a.m., and did not get home until an hour later. But he was back out on his corner at 45th and Broadway by 8:30 a.m., undeterred, with a stoic bravado that typifies this city.

"This is what I do, and I'm going to try to keep on doing it," Jackson said. "This is kind of the belly of the beast or whatever. But I'm just out here showing my colors."

While he was speaking, a woman named Bertie Trager from Queens came up, threw her arms around Jackson, and gave him a kiss. "This would have been an amazing atrocity," she said. "You saw it, you smelled it and you immediately took action. You're a good New Yorker."

Trager, a retired British Airways worker, was on Broadway with friends to catch a play, and she said they never considered canceling their plans after hearing about the latest incident. She said that continuing a routine even knowing that this city is a prime terrorist target is what makes New Yorkers unique.

"I'm a native New Yorker," she said with a shrug, as though that statement alone should explain it all. "What are you gonna do?" she said. "When you're a native New Yorker, we live our lives like this."

Jackson was on his usual corner Saturday night when he noticed the Nissan Pathfinder parked directly across from him. He could see the steering wheel, and "you could see the key inside the car."

He walked to it, and "I saw the car was running." He added, "What was funny was there was one key in the ignition, and like 15 or 20 keys tied to it."

He and another street vendor waved down a mounted policeman they knew, and then the car began smoking. Jackson said he assumed a lit cigarette was inside. And then he heard popping that sounded like firecrackers -- boom, boom, boom -- and he and the other vendors ran down the block for safety.

For Jackson, Sunday was different only because of the heavy police presence on the street, and all the journalists gathered there. "If you guys weren't out here, this would be just another day, with the Naked Cowboy out here and everything."

But Jackson and the other vendors are now being called heroes.

"He's the man who saved everybody's life yesterday," said one man, as he asked Jackson to pose for a photo with his two children.

"My family wants to take a picture with you," said another man, visiting with his wife and two children from New Jersey.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company