Deadly Rainbow Bridge vehicle explosion kills 2 people, no evidence of terrorist activity
Two people died and a border patrol agent was injured in a vehicle explosion that happened around 11:27 a.m. Wednesday morning at the Rainbow Bridge, according to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. She says at this time there is no evidence to show it was a terrorist attack.
"Based on what we know at this moment, and again, anything can change, there is no sign of terrorist activity with respect to this crash," Hochul said. She added that one of the individuals killed was from Western New York.
She said the border patrol agent was protected by the booth and only sustained minor injuries. They have been treated and released from the hospital.
The Rainbow Bridge remains closed as of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday night on both the Canadian and American sides, according tothe Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition (nittec).
The Peace Bridge, Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, and Whirlpool Bridge were all closed for several hours, but have now reopened, according to nittec.
Hochul could not confirm where the car originated from, but said it is suspected that the car came from the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino and "was most likely in that vicinity prior to the high speed, high rate of speed, extraordinarily high rate of speed — that led to the crash into the median, that sent the vehicle airborne."
She added that video captured the crash, saying "and when you see this video, your jaw will drop in disbelief at how this [vehicle] went so high, over an eight foot high fence. It's rather extraordinary."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweeted a video shortly after 5 p.m. that shows the vehicle, which appears to travel at a high rate of speed towards the U.S. border crossing, before hitting a median, being launched into the air, flipping mid-air and crashing into the ground.
CBP is working closely with @FBI, federal, state & local partners in response to a vehicle explosion at Rainbow Bridge which remains closed. Out of abundance of caution, CBP temporarily suspended inbound/outbound traffic at 3 other Buffalo crossings that have since reopened. pic.twitter.com/pTXyUsavRB— CBP (@CBP) November 22, 2023
While at this time it is not believed to be a terrorist attack, the exact details of why this happened have not yet been determined, and the investigation is expected to take days according to Hochul.
"I won't call it an accident, it has not been determined to be an accident. You don't know whether the intent the driver was intentional in how they drove. We do not know that. All I know is there was a horrific incident, a crash, an explosion, loss of life. But at this time, no known terrorist connection," Hochul said.
She says that the Rainbow Bridge will remain closed while the investigation continues and they check the structural integrity of the border crossing booths.
"If you can imagine, this vehicle basically incinerated, nothing is left, but the engine. The pieces are scattered over 13, 14 booths," Hochul said. "So, it is a large scene and it's going to take a lot of time for our federal law enforcement partners, who are with me here today and I'll identify, to be able to piece together the real story, to identify the make of the car. Obviously there is not a license plate."
You can watch Hochul's entire 5 p.m. briefing here:
U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross will also present an update at 5:30 p.m. with officials from the FBI, Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security.
This is a developing story we will update as more information becomes available.
If you're traveling after the explosion
You can check which land border crossings are open and their wait times on nittec's website, by clicking here.
You can check if the airport still has additional security checks in place onthe Buffalo Niagara International Airport's website, by clicking here.
You can check Amtrak service issues and line terminations on Amtrak Northeast's X (formerly known as Twitter), by clicking here.
What witnesses saw
There was a lot of confusion Wednesday afternoon about exactly where the explosion happened.
The Office of the Mayor of Niagara Falls said in a press release early in the afternoon that the vehicle was heading into the United States. At 5 p.m. we learned from Governor Hochul that the incident actually happened on the U.S. side of the border.
Some witnesses were quick to tell WBFO at the scene that early reports claiming the vehicle was coming from Canada to the United State was incorrect.
Niagara Falls, New York resident Rickie Wilson is a seasonal tour guide who said he came downtown just to "shoot the breeze" with a sales guy when he witnessed the explosion. He says he was about 50 feet away from the explosion, across the street at the One Niagara Welcome Center on the American side.
He says the explosion happened when a black vehicle, possibly an SUV, collided with a concrete structure sometime around noon. The vehicle flew into the air, before crashing just before the border crossing building, went underneath it and exploded.
"It hit that cement thing. I'm assuming it hit the cement because I seen all the debris. But I mean, how did it get up there? I mean, this thing was up in the air. It's - I know it sounds like I'm crazy. But the car was airborne. And not three or four feet. I mean up there," said Wilson
The FBI came to Wilson's house to interview him after the incident.
"They didn't say not to talk to anybody. But I'm seeing all this stuff that's inaccurate. This is exactly what I saw. There is cameras, I informed them on some of the One Niagara inside and they should be able to play footage back," he added.
Joe Grenga was also at the One Niagara Welcome Center and works there doing graphic design and social media. He witnessed the immediate aftermath of the incident from a window of the welcome center that overlooks the international border booths.
"So we all kind of ended up congregating into that corner of the property, the window, and just this huge plume of smoke as they're putting out the fire and just this overwhelming smell," Grenga said. "Very shortly they got the fire putting out but we didn't see anything, but we could see where the car had ended up."
Grenga says there did not appear to be much left of the vehicle, and the only identifying piece of debris was the car door.
“That was it. Everything else was ash. The booth that the car was next to was still mostly intact just looked like it was - I don't, I couldn't see what the other side looked like. But the inside was pretty, pretty charred from what you see," Grenga said.
Grenga said this happened at about 11:40 a.m. and they were evacuated from the welcome center within 20 minutes.
What you need to know
- Service did not stop at the Buffalo Niagara Airport but increased security checks were put in place following the incident. If you are traveling, you may want to get to the airport early.
- The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force was brought in to monitor the situation.
- Thanksgiving Turkey Trot organizers are working with local police to ensure a safe race on Thursday.
- Buffalo City Hall and Erie County government buildings closed early Wednesday out of an abundance of caution.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) , who runs the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, said Wednesday they are increasing security system-wide. Cars coming into the Buffalo airport will be subject to security checks and if you are flying you can expect additional screenings. Both Buffalo and Niagara Falls airports are open and fully functional. If you are traveling, you should plan additional time.
As of 6:30 p.m. the website for Buffalo's airportstill warned of additional security checks for both cars entering the airport and travelers.
Governor Kathy Hochul tweeted at 1:41 p.m. Wednesday afternoon that she directed the New York State Police to work with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force to monitor all points of entry to New York State.
She added that "I am traveling to Buffalo to meet with law enforcement & emergency responders & will update New Yorkers when more information becomes available."
The FBI says they are currently investigating and coordinating with local, state and federal law enforcement. They added in a statement, "As this situation is very fluid, that's all we can say at this time."
The YMCA, who organizes the yearly Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving released this statement Wednesday night: "Organizers of the Turkey Trot continue to maintain active conversations with City of Buffalo Police and other local authorities to ensure the safest race possible. The YMCA will share additional updates as they become available."
Sources told WBFO that Buffalo's City Hall closed at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday "out of an abundance of caution." At the sheriff's recommendation, Erie County's Rath Building, Old County Hall and Family Court closed early on Wednesday afternoon, according to a tweet from Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. He added "There are no known risks/threats, just doing out of caution."
The Canadian Border Services Agency released the following statement at 2:53 p.m.: "The health and safety of the public and our officers is of utmost importance to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). We are aware of an evolving situation at Rainbow Bridge. We are liaising with our U.S. counterparts on this matter. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is leading on the ongoing investigation."
WBFO had reporters on scene at different ports of entry
WBFO's News Intern Angela Caico was at the Rainbow Bridge
2:30 p.m. Update: Caico reports that media are being kept back a far distance from the scene. She reports that a police officer told people standing outside that all hotels in the vicinity have been evacuated and people cannot return to the hotels even if they are staying there.
3:30 p.m. Update: Caico provided the following photos of police activity at corner of 3rd St and Niagara St in Niagara Falls, just 0.6 a mile (15 minute walk) away from the Rainbow Bridge.
4 p.m. Update: WBFO's Grant Ashley has joined Angela Caico in downtown Niagara Falls where they met witness Rickie Wilson who described what he saw.
WBFO's Thomas O'Neil-White was at the Peace Bridge
2:30 p.m. Update: O'Neil-White reports that "trucks and cars are backed up around the loop onto Niagara Street from the 190." There is also a heavy police presence; both Buffalo Police and US Customs and Border Patrol are at the scene.
3:30 p.m. Update: "Motor vehicles remain at a standstill at the off ramp to the Peace Bridge. Traffic is backed up on the 190 North from downtown Buffalo. This is creating traffic on the main roads in downtown and parts of the West Side. There remains heavy law enforcement presence with Buffalo Police Department officers and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol on Busti Avenue and State Police directing traffic as best they can on the 190 North near the Peace Bridge exit from the Peace Bridge."
WBFO's Grant Ashley was at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge
2:30 p.m. Update: Ashley reports that the last mile of the highway before the bridge is blocked off. He reports that they are diverting traffic off the last exit of the bridge.
Grant Ashley, Thomas O'Neil-White, Angela Caico, Holly Kirkpatrick, Alex Simone, Angelea Preston, Dallas Taylor, Suha Chowdhurdy, and Brigid Jaipaul-Valenza contributed to this report.