The police discovered a car bomb in a smoking Nissan Pathfinder in the heart of Times Square, prompting the evacuation of thousands of tourists and theatergoers from the area on a warm and busy Saturday evening.
There was no explosion.
“It appears to be a car bomb left in a Pathfinder between Seventh and Eighth” Avenues on 45th Street, said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman.
The device, he said, contained “explosive elements” that included “propane tanks, some kind of powder, gasoline and a timing device.”
“This is very much an active investigation,” he said.
Mr. Browne, speaking shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, said that he did not believe anyone was in custody. “We haven’t identified any kind of a motive,” he said. “It appears to be a car bomb, but we haven’t attached a motive to it.”
Mr. Browne said the police were checking security cameras after reports that someone had fled from the car.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who attended the White House Correspondents dinner in Washington on Saturday night, received updates throughout the night. They cut short their evening plans and flew back to New York City, arriving shortly after midnight.
“It appears that a tragedy was averted tonight, that a car bomb failed to detonate in Times Square on a busy Saturday,” Mr. Kelly said through a spokesman.
The White House said President Obama had been briefed on the episode and had pledged federal assistance in the investigation.
A federal official said that domestic security officials had been informed that the event did not appear to be a terrorist threat. The official referred all requests for additional information to New York City police.
The explosive materials were discovered about 6:30 by a mounted police officer who saw a box with smoke pouring from it in the back of the Pathfinder, Mr. Browne said. The officer called for backup, and the Fire Department and bomb squad.
The Pathfinder’s back window was broken out, Mr. Browne said, and the police sent in a “robotic device” to “observe it.”
Mr. Browne said gunpowder had been found in the vehicle, but not a high-grade explosive. The timing device was a clock attached to wires. The gasoline was in cans and there appeared to be two or three propane tanks.
Kevin B. Barry, a former supervisor in the New York Police Department bomb squad, said he was told it was an improvised explosive device. But somehow, he said, the ignition source “failed to function the main charge.”
Mr. Barry said that if it had functioned, “it would be more of an incendiary event” than an explosion.
Times Square on a Saturday night is one of the busiest and most populated locations in the city, and has long been seen as a likely target for some kind of attack. The police began evacuating Times Square, starting with businesses along Seventh Avenue, including a Foot Locker store and a McDonald’s.
They eventually shut down traffic from 44th to 49th Streets between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. A maze of metal barricades kept pedestrians south of 43rd Street. In the center of Times Square, dozens of police and fire vehicles were parked on Broadway and Seventh Avenue, but in Times Square between 42nd and 43rd Streets, tourists milled or sat at tables, much as they do on any other Saturday night. On Eighth Avenue at around 11:30 p.m., people carrying theater playbills were directed west on 44th Street out to Eighth Avenue.
On 8th Avenue police officers used large pieces of orange netting to corral pedestrians and separate them from traffic.
Many people stayed to watch after being shut out of Broadway shows or prevented from getting back to their hotels, trading rumors about what was happening. It appeared that some theaters might have been evacuated. The giant Toys “R” Us store, between 44th and 45th Streets, was empty.
Some theaters were evacuated, but many were not, according to a spokeswoman for the Broadway League, the trade group of theater owners and producers. The spokeswoman, Elisa Shevitz, said she may have not all the details about how theaters were affected until Sunday.
Most Broadway shows went on in spite of the bomb, with curtains going up 15 to 30 minutes late, for people who could actually get to the theaters. Shows that started late included “Red” and “God of Carnage” — which are both playing at houses on the block of 45th Street where the bomb was found — and “In the Heights.”
Onlookers crowded against the barricades, taking pictures with cellphones, although only a swarm of fire trucks and police cars was visible.
Pota Manolakos, an accountant from Montreal, was not able to return to her room at the Edison Hotel with her husband and 6-year-old son for several hours.
She said she asked a police officer what was going on, and the officer told her: “Lady, take you kid and get out of here. There’s a threat, take your kid and get out of here.”
“We have nothing with us except for what we have on,” Ms. Manolakos said.
Gabrielle Zecha and Taj Heniser, visiting from Seattle, had tickets to see “Next to Normal” at the Booth Theater on 45th Street but could not get into the 8 p.m. show because the area was blocked off. But they made the best of the spectacle. “It’s a whole different kind of show,” Ms. Heniser said, adding, “It’s almost the equivalent of a $150 show.”
A group of people on a high school senior trip from Jacksonville, Fla., said they were stuck for about an hour and a half in the Bubba Gump restaurant at 44th Street and Seventh Avenue.
“A lot of people were getting tense who were there longer than we were,” said Billy Wilkerson, 39, a police sergeant in Jacksonville and a chaperone for the trip. “It’s so good to get out, but it was exhilarating.”
He said he was impressed by his New York counterparts. “I just sat back and learned a lot,” he said.
Fabyane Pereira, 35, a tourist from Brazil, said the episode would not deter her from another visit. “I feel sorry for America,” she said. “I’m at your guys’ side.”
In the initial hours of the investigation, much remained unclear. The license plates on the Nissan were registered to another vehicle, the police said.
A New York City firefighter who told Reuters he arrived early on the scene said that the vehicle was smoking and that he saw “a flash” from the back of it. “We put two and two together” and the evacuation was ordered, he said.
In December, the police closed Times Square for nearly two hours as they investigated a suspiciously parked van, delaying the rehearsal of the New Year’s ball drop. However, the van turned out to contain nothing but clothing.