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

Law enforcement officers at the scene of an explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood in New York City, on the day after the blast injured dozens.
Kena Betancur
AFP/Getty Images
Law enforcement officers at the scene of an explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood in New York City, on the day after the blast injured dozens.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Petra Mayer died on November 13, 2021. She has been remembered by friends and colleagues, including all of us at NPR. The Petra Mayer Memorial Fund for Internships has been created in her honor.

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