By COREY KILGANNON and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Even in Times Square, where little seems unusual, the Nissan Pathfinder parked just off Broadway on the south side of 45th Street — engine running, hazard lights flashing, driver nowhere to be found — looked suspicious to the sidewalk vendors who regularly work this area.
And it was the keen eyes of at least two of them — both disabled Vietnam War veterans who say they are accustomed to alerting local police officers to pickpockets and hustlers — that helped tip off the authorities to the Pathfinder, illegally and unusuallyparked next to their merchandise of inexpensive handbags and $2.99 “I Love NY” T-shirts.
Shortly before 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, the vendors — Lance Orton and Duane Jackson, who both served during the Vietnam War and now rely on special sidewalk vending privileges for disabled veterans — told nearby officers about the Pathfinder, which had begun filling with smoke and then emitted sparks and popping sounds.
Over the next several hours, numerous firefighters and police officers — from patrol officers to those in specialized units — all did their part in minimizing the potential damage and handling a volatile situation.
But in a city hungry for heroes, the spotlight quickly turned to the vendors. Mr. Orton, a purveyor of T-shirts, ran from the limelight early Sunday morning as he spurned reporters’ questions while gathering his merchandise on a table near where the Pathfinder was parked.
When asked if he was proud of his actions, Mr. Orton, who said he had been selling on the street for about 20 years, replied: “Of course, man. I’m a veteran. What do you think?”
Mr. Jackson, on the other hand, embraced his newfound limelight, receiving an endless line of people congratulating him while he sold cheap handbags, watches and pashmina scarves all day Sunday in a Times Square that seemed completely back to normal despite a increased police presence and a swarm of news crews.
He told and retold his story to tourists, reporters and customers: how he heard the “pop, pop, pop” coming from the vehicle, and then detected “the smell of a cherry bomb or firecracker or something.”
The authorities said three canisters of propane and two red five-gallon cans of gasoline were found in the vehicle, rigged with fireworks and timers.
“There are a bunch of us disabled vets selling here, and we’re used to being vigilant because we all know that freedom isn’t free,” said Mr. Jackson, 58, of Buchanan, N.Y.
“All of us vets here are the eyes and ears for the cops,” he said. “Whether it’s three-card monte games or thieves, we know the cops here by first name — we have their cell numbers,” said Mr. Jackson, who said that he had been a street vendor many years.
He spoke of his time in the Vietnam War — he served in the Navy from 1970 to 1973 aboard the aircraft carrier Ranger — and how as a street vendor he tended to a table near the World Trade Center during both the bombing in 1993 and the terrorist attack in 2001.
Mr. Jackson said he pointed out the suspicious Pathfinder to Wayne Rhatigan, 46, a mounted police officer who was instrumental in clearing away pedestrians from the vehicle. Officer Rhatigan, of Holbrook, N.Y., a 19-year veteran of the department, had dinner with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Sunday night in Manhattan.
On Sunday Officer Rhatigan told reporters the vehicle “reeked of gunpowder” and seemed oddly abandoned — “a little more than just a parked car with a cigarette in the ashtray.”
Firefighters responded to a report of a car fire at the site, but realized upon arrival that explosives could be in the vehicle, said Tom Meara, a battalion chief, who was at the scene.
Lt. Mike Barvels of Engine Company 54, also at the scene, said firefighters moved people away and readied fire hoses, but then decided to leave the vehicle untouched since the popping and sparking indicated the possible presence of a bomb.
“We took a defensive position and cleared people away,” Lieutenant Barvels said.
Chief Meara said that police emergency crews were quick on the scene and that the bomb squad was called in.
“Just opening the door could make things worse,” he said.
At Mr. Jackson’s vending table, one tourist, Wayne Jackson, a self-described born-again Christian from Saskatchewan, prayed with Mr. Jackson for several minutes and asked God to “alert us to more attempts on this brave country.”
Several police officers, in bulletproof vests, shook the vendor’s hand. A woman with a British accent rushed up and said: “Are you the one who saved us? Thank you.”
“It could have been a lot worse,” Mr. Jackson told a bank of television cameras and then turned to say to a customer, “That’s $8 on the watches.”
As for Mr. Orton, he seemed to be proud of his time in the service, often wearing military fatigues and acting “very militant,” according to Carlos Liranzo, 18, a former neighbor of Mr. Orton’s in Washington Heights.
He said Mr. Orton, who no longer lives in the building, told the story of how a grenade exploded near him and left him with injuries that included a permanent limp.
When Mr. Orton left Times Square about 7 a.m. on Sunday, he did so to a hero’s reception. As he walked down the street, employees from Junior’s restaurant stood outside applauding him. He briefly entered the restaurant before heading toward 44th Street.
Using a cane and wearing a white fedora, Mr. Orton limped away and hopped a cab home to the Bronx, but not before repeating a terror-watch mantra: “See something, say something.”
This is what real national security is all about, folks. Not massive privacy-invading airport scanners and stopping every single brown person in a car to poke through their belongings and alarmist and unnuanced media rhetoric about how "unsafe we are." Real security is people being vigilant and aware, respondents investigating hard intel, and then getting the hell on with your business instead of quaking in fear and running around screaming like the world is ending. I love New York.