2 Dead After Vehicle Explosion At U.S.-Canada Border Crossing; Officials Say No Sign Of Terrorism

The two people who died were a married couple — the husband was driving and his wife was the passenger, U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed to CBS News on Wednesday night.

Thursday, November 23rd 2023, 12:55 pm

By: CBS News

Sources say two people were killed in a vehicle explosion Wednesday afternoon at Rainbow Bridge, a U.S.-Canada border crossing near Niagara Falls, in western New York. Officials said four U.S.-Canada border crossings in the region were closed as investigators responded to the situation. Three crossings later reopened, with Rainbow Bridge remaining closed.

Multiple law enforcement sources confirmed to CBS News two people died inside the vehicle that exploded. A senior law enforcement official told CBS News that the nationalities of the two people who died are not yet known. 

The two people who died were a married couple — the husband was driving and his wife was the passenger, U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed to CBS News on Wednesday night. The officials said the vehicle was a Bentley believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is not yet known why the car exploded, but New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a news conference Wednesday that at this time "there is no sign of terrorist involvement" in the "horrific" explosion.

FBI Buffalo on Wednesday night said it had concluded its investigation of the incident and found no explosive materials or "terrorism nexus." 

"The matter has been turned over to the Niagara Falls Police Department as a traffic investigation," the FBI said in a statement. 

Hochul said the vehicle was "incinerated" by the crash, with nothing remaining intact but its engine. She added that pieces of the car were scattered over 13 to 14 border security booths. 

There had been conflicting early reports about which direction the car was traveling, but Wednesday afternoon a senior U.S. law enforcement official told CBS News the car was coming from the U.S. side. The official said it hit the customs station.

A short clip of security camera footage posted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows the car speeding and going airborne.

Hochul said a border patrol officer who was in the customs station suffered minor injuries and was taken to a hospital, treated and released.

Preliminary federal government assessments and law enforcement sources indicate that the vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed when it hit a curb, leading it to crash through a fence and a Customs and Border Protection inspection area, where it caught fire and exploded. Witnesses have told authorities that the vehicle launched into the air when it hit the fence and then exploded when it landed, a law enforcement source tells CBS News' Pat Milton.

Scott Sweetow, the former director of the FBI's Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, said the blast may have been the result of a "fuel-air explosion," which is caused by the ignition of a fuel and air mixture.

"I am speculating that, due to the high speed of the car, and almost disintegration of [the car], that as fuel in the breached gas tank went forward under high speed, it mixed with the air and created almost a cloud of gasoline, which then ignited, creating the dramatic fireball we all saw," Sweetow told CBS News.

Officials have not yet determined whether the crash was deliberate or accidental, according to the preliminary assessments and law enforcement sources. 

"Right now we have no indications of a threat of terrorism from it," FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Matthew Miraglia said at a Wednesday evening news conference. 

He did not release any details on the people in the car, saying "We're still doing notifications for family members." He added, "We do not have any derogatory information on this person that we've identified." 

U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross said at the briefing, "We will continue to investigate, but our preliminary assessment of this situation is it was not terrorism-related, but we will continue to stay vigilant."

Mike Guenther, a Canadian resident visiting New York, said he was walking nearby and saw the car speeding towards the border crossing.

"And he was flying, over 100 miles an hour. There was a car in front of him, he swerved out, went in front of the car, hit the fence, went flying up into the air … and we just seen the fireball, and that's all we could see, there was just smoke everywhere," he said in an interview with NewsNation.

Guenther said the car was heading from the U.S. toward Canada.

Randie Wilson, a Niagara Falls tour guide, said the crash was "like a movie." Wilson said he was getting out of his car when he saw something airborne. "I first thought it was an airplane, looked like slow motion. And I said, 'My God, it's a car.'"

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a speech to parliament that the Canadian government is working in close contact with U.S. officials, and that "additional measures are being contemplated and activated at all border crossings across the country." 

"We are taking this extraordinarily seriously," Trudeau said.

Gov. Hochul said in an earlier statement that "the New York State Police is actively working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to monitor all points of entry to New York," adding that she was on her way to Buffalo to "meet with law enforcement and emergency responders."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, also said he had been briefed by the FBI. "Initial reports indicate the two people killed were in the car but nothing's been determined on their identity or motive," Schumer wrote on social media, adding that "law enforcement remains on heightened alert over Thanksgiving."

In addition to Rainbow Bridge — a popular crossing for tourists, connecting Niagara Falls, New York, with Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada — three other bridges on the U.S.-Canadian border in the region were closed following the incident: The Peace Bridge, the Lewiston-Queenston and the Whirlpool Bridge. 

Niagara Regional Police said later Wednesday that U.S. law enforcement officials were reopening the other three bridges to traffic, though the Rainbow Bridge remains closed during the ongoing investigation.

The Buffalo Niagara International Airport said it was "open and fully operational," and additional "security measures" are in place until further notice. The FAA had said on its website that Buffalo airport was closed Wednesday afternoon to departing and arriving international flights. 

In an update Wednesday evening, Buffalo airport said its heightened security alert had been lifted, though police would "continue to maintain an increased security presence during this busy travel time."

U.S. travelers during one of the busiest travel periods of the year can expect to see an increase in law enforcement and canines patrolling the transportation system, the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement. The TSA said it is "operating at a heightened level of security as a result of world events and the current threat environment."

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement, "The NYPD and our team have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Buffalo after an explosion at the Rainbow Bridge, and we've already sent NYPD officers upstate to support efforts on the ground. The NYPD and our partners have already enhanced security, and the city is on heightened alert due to the upcoming holiday, so the public will see increased security at locations across New York City."

Toronto police also said they were stepping up security, tweeting: "Due to today's incident at the Canada-US border, we will be increasing directed patrols of uniformed officers throughout the city. This is out of an abundance of caution and there are no known threats for the city of Toronto."

—Pat Milton, Robert Legare, Andres Triay, Catherine Herridge, Nicole Sganga and Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed reporting.


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