The device did no harm, and in a controlled blast, bomb technicians disabled it.
Late Sunday afternoon, authorities said whoever left it at 45th and 7th, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, meant to cause widespread harm.
"Clearly it was the intent of whoever did this to cause mayhem, to cause casualties," explained NYC Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly.
Police said the gasoline-and-propane bomb was crude but could have sprayed shrapnel and metal parts with enough force to kill pedestrians and knock out windows on one of America's busiest streets, full of Broadway theaters and restaurants on a Saturday night.
A large amount of fertilizer rigged with wires and fireworks were found with the bomb, but police said it was not the ammonium nitrate grade that can explode.
The surveillance video shows an unidentified white man in his 40s slipping down an alley and taking off a shirt, revealing another underneath. In the same clip, he's seen looking back in the direction of the smoking vehicle and furtively putting the first shirt in a bag, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
The homemade bomb was made largely with ordinary items, including three barbecue grill-size propane tanks, two 5-gallon gasoline containers, store-bought fireworks and cheap alarm clocks attached to wires.
Timers were connected to a 16-ounce can filled with fireworks, which were apparently intended to set the gas cans and propane afire, Kelly said.
He said the bomb "looks like it would have caused a significant fireball" had it fully detonated. He said the vehicle would have been "cut in half" by an explosion and people nearby could have been sprayed by shrapnel and killed.
Police had feared that another component - a metal rifle cabinet packed a fertilizer-like substance and rigged with wires and more fireworks - could have made the device even more devastating. Test results late Sunday showed that it was indeed fertilizer - but the New York Police Department's bomb experts believe it was not a type volatile enough to explode like the ammonium nitrate grade fertilizer used in previous terror attacks, said police spokesman Paul Browne.
The exact amount of fertilizer was unknown. Police estimated the cabinet - with a manufacturer-listed weight of 78 pounds - weighed 200 to 250 pounds when they pulled it from the vehicle.
The NYPD and FBI were also examining "hundreds of hours" of security videotape from around Times Square, Kelly said.
Police released a photograph of the SUV, a dark-colored Nissan Pathfinder, as it crossed an intersection at 6:28 p.m. Saturday. A vendor pointed the SUV out to an officer about two minutes later.
The license plate found on the vehicle did not belong to the SUV; police said it came from a car found in a repair shop in Connecticut.
Police had already identified the registered owner of the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder - which didn't have an easily visible vehicle identification number and had license plates from another car - and were looking to interview him. Police also were searching more video, believed to be in the possession of a Pennsylvania tourist, of the man in the alley.
Duane Jackson, a 58-year-old handbag vendor from Buchanan, N.Y., said he noticed the car and wondered who had left it there in a no-standing zone.
Jackson said he looked in the car and saw keys in the ignition with 19 or 20 keys on a ring. He said he alerted a passing mounted police officer.
They were looking in the car "when the smoke started coming out and then we heard the little pop-pop-pop like firecrackers going out and that's when everybody scattered and ran back," he said.
"Now that I saw the propane tanks and gasoline, what if it had ignited? I was like 8 feet away from the car. We dodged a bullet here," said Jackson.
Witnesses said they heard an explosion, then saw smoke coming from the car.
Browne said the bomb appeared to be starting to detonate but malfunctioned.
"It was a boom and a puff of smoke," one man said.
"I saw people running, turning tables," Paula Delarrosa said.
Monika Vakulchik of Piscataway, New Jersey wrote on the Eyewitness News Facebook page, "My husband and I were about 20 feet from the vehicle when the first 'mini explosion' occurred around 6:15pm. People were diving to the ground and taking cover behind anything they could fine. People were screaming and some burst into tears. I, literally, ran out of my shoes (got them back). Everyone thought it was a gun shot at first, then realizing that the sound came from the abandoned car."
Police officers evacuated thousands of people from Times Square, while in the truck; the bomb squad discovered an explosive arsenal.
"I think it's just a sober reminder that New York is clearly a target of people who want to come here and cause harm," said Kelly.
Throughout the day, cops continued their search for clues through security cameras around Times Square.
One on Schubert Alley caught a suspicious man running from the scene.
Eyewitness News has learned an NYPD camera down 55th Street was not recording at the time, and also at the Planet Hollywood which faces the intersection.
Management at the restaurant says the camera has been out of service for a whole year.
Meantime, it was a typical lazy Sunday afternoon in Times Square, less than 24 hours after police found a car bomb that could have caused massive damage.
Many tourists returned to 7th Avenue near 45th Street without hesitation or second thoughts about visiting New York City again.
Billy Wilkerson is a sergeant with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department.
"It's the greatest city in the world, not going to let terrorism tell us what we can and can not do, we're going to enjoy New York City, that why we are here," said Sgt. Billy Wilkerson, a tourist.
The crowds on Broadway were enthusiastic as they hustled into theaters in time for a 3pm matinee curtain; this after many witnessed a show of different kind last night.
"We were about 35, 40 feet away from the car, heard a pop and people started running," described tourist Mark Stiff.
There was a lot of information during the scare about the status of many shows on Broadway, because some police officers told people they were canceled.
"They had this place yellow taped off, you couldn't get near it," said Stiff.
Mark Stiff, like many others, missed the 8pm run of The Lion King Saturday night.
But officials now say the show did go on, the curtain went up at 8:50pm, adding there were other late curtains but no cancellations.
Mark and his wife didn't have time to see another show but did get a refund.
While much has been made by the lack of sophistication of the Time Square propane bomb, most experts agree had it ignited, no one would be calling it crude.
"If the tanks were filled to capacity and capable of being ignited would have caused significant damage and significant injury," said security expert Sal Lifrieri.
A former head of Intelligence for the Office of Emergency Management believes in the bomb components exist the clues to who built it.
"I think a homegrown born in the U.S. regular American citizen, someone whom we live next door to who has a belief or has a cause," suggested Lifrieri.
There are some similarities to the 2007 botched attack on London's theater district which involved propane car bombs that also failed to ignite.
Those behind it did succeed in driving into the lobby of the Glasgow Airport, the vehicle filled with propane tanks burst into flames and created a fireball.
The deadliest attack using propane occurred in 1983 when Islamic militants used propane to enhance the explosion of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut that killed 299 soldiers:
"This could have been a dry run first test to see how they did with this," said Former NYPD Bomb Squad Supervisor Kevin Barry.
In a Skype interview, a former NYPD Bomb Squad Supervisor suggests the terrorist may have been overreaching by using so many parts: 3 propane tanks, 2 gasoline containers, timers, fireworks and a gun locker filled with a fertilizer-like substance.
"More than likely built with info from a manual, in public libraries, jihadist groups and websites, in this country, they have nowhere to test their devices no test range for terrorists in the United States," said Barry.
A Pakistani Taliban group claimed responsibility for the failed attack in a 1-minute video. Kelly, however, said police have no evidence to support the claims, and noted that the same group had falsely taken credit for previous attacks on U.S. soil. The commissioner also cast doubt on an e-mail to a news outlet claiming responsibility.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility in a video posted on the Internet on Sunday, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. SITE, a U.S.-based terrorist tracking organization, first uncovered the video on YouTube; it later appeared to have been removed from the website.
In a copy of the video provided by SITE, an unidentified voice speaking in Urdu, the primary language in Pakistan, says the group takes "full responsibility for the recent attack in the USA." The video does not mention any details about Saturday's attack.
The militant group said the attack was revenge for the death of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and the recent slaying of al-Qaida in Iraq leaders Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who were killed by U.S. and Iraqi troops last month north of Baghdad. The video also mentioned Aafia Siddiqui, a 37-year-old Pakistani scientist who was convicted in a U.S. court in New York in February of trying to kill American service personnel after her arrest in Afghanistan in 2008.
If the claim is genuine, it would be the first time the Pakistani Taliban has struck outside of South Asia. It has no known global infrastructure like al-Qaida.
In at least one past instance, the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for an attack it played no role in. Mehsud reportedly said his men were behind a mass shooting in March 2009 at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., in April 2009. That claim turned out to be false.
There have been several other incidents in Times Square over the past couple of years.
In March 2008, a hooded bicyclist hurled an explosive device at a military recruiting center in the heart of Times Square, producing a flash, smoke and full-scale emergency response. No suspect was ever identified.
In December, police evacuated thousands of holiday tourists from Times Square after finding a white van that had been parked there for days without license plates and blacked-out windows. No bombs were found, and police later said they overlooked the van because it contained a parking placard for a nonprofit police group.
Police have spent years trying to crack down on street hustlers and peddlers preying on tourists. But there have been two major instances of gunfire in recent mnonths. A street hustler armed with a machine pistol exchanged shots in December, shattering a Broadway theater ticket window, before police fatally shot the man.
Four separate shooting incidents and more than 50 arrests on a mile-long stretch of Manhattan last month around Times Square prompted the mayor to call the mayhem "wilding."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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