A busy border crossing near Niagara Falls slammed shut, spreading worries about terrorism as the FBI got involved in the investigation and Toronto beefed up its police presence. But now a fiery explosion at the U.S.-Canadian border is being revealed as a car crash that killed a husband and wife with no known links to extremism.
After a day of cross-border tension and snarled traffic, Canadian police reassured the public there is currently no known threat north of the border. Still, officers fanned out to critical infrastructure across the region as officials in both countries scrambled to piece together what happened around midday Wednesday.
The vehicle appeared to burst into flames just before noon south of the Rainbow Bridge, prompting the rapid closure of four land crossings in both directions just before American Thanksgiving, one of the busiest periods of the year. Despite earlier reports that the vehicle had come from Canada, most American media reports now say it originated in the U.S. Three crossings reopened in the late afternoon; the Rainbow Bridge crossing remained closed Wednesday night.
The two passengers were identified as a couple by a person briefed on the investigation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information about those who were killed.
Matthew Miraglia, the FBI special agent in charge in Buffalo, said investigators so far had found no “derogatory” information on the driver. “We’re scanning his social media. There’s nothing there,” Miraglia said.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who left question period in the House of Commons for a briefing on the incident, said officials were “taking this extraordinarily seriously,” and that “additional measures” were being contemplated and activated at other border crossings. The White House said President Joe Biden was “closely following developments.”
Surveillance footage posted to social media by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows cars moving through a row of checkpoints as a very fast-moving vehicle appears in the background and appears to be launched into the air before careering out of the frame.
Speaking to WGRZ-TV, witness Mike Guenther said he saw a vehicle speeding toward the crossing from the U.S. side when it swerved to avoid another car, crashed into a fence and exploded.
“All of a sudden, he went up in the air and then it was a ball of fire like 30 or 40 feet high,” Guenther told the station. “I never saw anything like it.”
Eyewitnesses reported seeing a vehicle travelling toward the customs kiosks at high speed before crashing in a burst of flames. Photos and video taken by bystanders and posted on social media showed thick smoke, flames on the pavement and a singed security booth. Videos showed that the fire was in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection area just east of the main vehicle checkpoint.
The blaze was so hot there was almost nothing left of the vehicle except for the engine, New York officials said, and any remaining pieces were scattered over a large scene, making for a challenging investigation.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said one of its employees was taken to hospital, treated for minor injuries and released.
A fireball so close to the border quickly fed speculation that it was an attempted terrorist attack. The rumour was initially spread by American outlet Fox News.
The threat was taken seriously by law enforcement. CNN reported the FBI was involved early in the day, and in Canada, the police presence was increased both at Pearson airport and around Toronto in what was called “an abundance of caution.”
But the idea of a major security threat was nixed hours later by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who said there was “no indication of a terrorist attack.”
“Based on what we know at this moment,” she said, “there is no sign of terrorist activity in this crash.”
On Wednesday evening, all was quiet on the Canadian side of the Rainbow Bridge, which spans the Niagara River between Ontario and New York state just upstream of the famous falls. A Niagara Regional Police car, along with several snowplows, blocked the entrance to the crossing and earlier lineups of vehicles had dispersed.
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said the closure of the four border crossings was more than an inconvenience as the bridges are responsible for the flow of billions of dollars in trade.
“Any time the border closes, that’s what keeps me up at night … It created a lot of consternation. A lot of people were stressed about it. A lot of people had to catch flights out of Buffalo,” he said.
As the Rainbow Bridge remained closed into the evening, some people were still left waiting.
Toronto residents Paola Tamang and her brother-in-law Dor Tamang had crossed the bridge Wednesday morning to process some immigration documents for him. They were inside the U.S. border security office, on the second floor, when they heard a “huge explosion.”
“The entire building rattled. It felt like an earthquake,” she told the Star in the afternoon, back on the Canadian side. “We ran to the window and we saw a huge fire and cloud of smoke — just smoke, smoke, smoke getting blacker and blacker billowing into the air. And then a fuel fire.”
A vehicle was on its side, she said, adding “the wheels were up, the trunk looked like it had been blown off.”
They told the Star they were stunned by the fireball, concerned the fire would spread to their nearby parked car, but firefighters arrived in time to put out the flames.
The two were among a group of about 15 people who were led out of the building and escorted on foot across the bridge back to Canada.
The pair spoke with the Star while seated in a Starbucks, in Niagara Falls, waiting for news about when they could cross the bridge again to retrieve their car. They planned to wait until about midnight before deciding whether to book a hotel room and try to pick up their car Thursday morning.
Dor Tamang said the experience had left him feeling sad, and was particularly traumatic because when the explosion occurred and the floor shook, it took his mind back to 2015, when his village in Nepal was destroyed by a powerful earthquake.
Also waiting on the Canadian side was Aaron Beatty of Cleveland, who’d driven with his wife, Addison, to Niagara Falls, N.Y., on Tuesday to celebrate her 25th birthday, spending the night on the American side.
On Wednesday morning, Aaron walked across the Rainbow Bridge alone — Addison doesn’t have a passport — to see the Canadian side. He figured he’d only be in Ontario for an hour, but as he was returning to the U.S. on foot, he spotted smoke billowing and assumed a car had crashed.
He was nearly across the bridge when authorities turned around everyone on it, sending them back to Canada.
“I was calm,” he told the Star in the evening, seated in a coffee shop, waiting for the bridge to reopen. “Once I found out that we were both fine, I just thought, ‘I guess I’ll have to wait it out.’”
He spent the day — his first time in Ontario — checking out the sights and having lunch by the river. “I really like it (here),” he said. “Once my wife has her passport, we’ll definitely want to come back and both see the Canadian side.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the falls, he said Addison spent the day at a casino, noting, “She won $200.”
The couple had originally planned to drive back to Ohio on Wednesday night, but Aaron said that likely wasn’t happening.
“If we do have to stay here overnight, we’ll just be in different countries, but nearby each other.”
With files from Omar Mosleh, Kevin Jiang, Isabel Teotonio and Star wire services
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