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FBI Investigating Vehicle Explosion At Rainbow Bridge U.S.- Canadian Border Crossing Near Niagara Falls; 2 Dead In Car Explosion On Bridge At U.S.-Canada Border. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired November 22, 2023 - 14:30   ET



EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Again, right now, what we know is that this vehicle was coming in and was directed to a secondary screening point there at the border. And there was -- it appears to be an acceleration that happened.

It's not clear why that was, whether it was intentional or the person tried to speed through the secondary screening or whether there was an accident or, as we were just talking about just now, whether there was some kind of a medical incident that could have caused this.

Again, there are a lot of questions the FBI is still trying to get to the bottom of, Homeland Security, the ATF, everybody is there. They'll be examining the vehicle to see what caused that explosion.

Was it something that happened after the car crashed into the object -- into the infrastructure there at the border post or whether there was something on board the car that would have been triggered and caused an explosion?

Again, those are all the questions that the investigators are still trying to work out.

But at this point, we do know -- at least the initial part of the investigation indicates that there were two people, two occupants in the vehicle and that they're both deceased.

This investigation gets a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult because there's nobody there to question or ask about exactly what was the motive or what was the reason why this crash happened and why this explosion happened.

Obviously, they're taking all the -- the abundance of caution is, you can see it everywhere, right, they've closed all the border crossings and the Joint Terrorism Task Force is being activated, they're there.

We can't draw any conclusions from that. But obviously, they would be there when you have an incident like this to figure out why it happened -- Boris?


Evan, please stand by. I do want to go to Josh Campbell again.

Josh, Evan brings up a very good point that you had alluded to just moments ago about investigators potentially interviewing those involved in the incident.

Now that we've learn the two men in the car are deceased, how does that complicate investigator's efforts?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's so important because that rules out the ability for authorities to hear directly about what their state of mind was, what was happening in the call.

Again, was it some type of medical incident? Was it an accident, some type of mechanical issue?

That means this other type of evidence will be so much more important, including CCTV. We're talking about a border check point blanketed with security cameras. They'll be going back to look at all of that footage.

And I would suggest, even within Canada -- this is why those international relationships are so important.

On that side of the border, authorities want to track back, where were the individuals coming from to establish some type of pattern, direct evidence about where they were, again, to try to understand what was taking place in the moments leading up to this.

I will say also, Boris, for all of those -- all of us watching right now, this is something we want an answer to, as far as whether this was terrorism.

I can tell you, based on experience covering these stories with the suspects -- I keep saying suspect -- the individuals now deceased, I think that means it's going to take much longer for authorities to come out and say, we have ruled out terrorism.

Again, at this point, they have to do their due diligence in order to try to gather information at the scene, understand the full picture of who these people were.

But the fact that they don't have that direct ability to interview them, I think patience is going to be key because authorities have a lot of work to do behind the scenes.

I don't think we'll see them come out anytime quickly now with these individuals to say we've ruled this out. But obviously, those are questions we'll continue to ask.

SANCHEZ: Patience of the utmost importance here as we get details piece by piece about what happened and try to paint a picture without making any assumptions about what happened.

Josh, please stand by.

We want to go to Andrew McCabe now. He a former FBI deputy director. He's a CNN senior law enforcement analyst.

Andy, overall, your read on what you're watching unfold right now?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Yes, it's really fascinating, Boris. I think there's a number of things that cause us immediate concern. Obviously, the involvement of a national border during a time of elevated crisis around the world when we know that the FBI was ramping up focus on international terrorism as a result of events in the Middle East. So this immediately raises a lot of real concerns.

But the narrative that we've heard so far -- and we have very limited information. We certainly can't draw any conclusions yet.

But the narrative we've heard about a vehicle going -- proceeding from an initial screening to possibly a secondary screening at accelerated speed and resulting in a crash doesn't clearly point to an intentional act or certainly of an intentional act of terrorism until we know more facts.


So I think we're at that awkward point of the beginning of a situation where we just don't have quite enough detail to look in one direction or the other.

However, we know the FBI's significant response with the JTTF out of Buffalo, augmented by resources from other surrounding field offices in New York City and Albany, others, I'm sure are available to support if they can.

A very close relationship with the Canadians, Canadian intelligence and law enforcement through the FBI JTTF, Joint Terrorism Task Force infrastructure. I'm sure those sides are linked up very closely.

It should be just a matter of time before we start hearing some informative updates.

SANCHEZ: We'll keep an eye on any statements made by officials, whether Canadian or American.

Andy, please stand by.

If you're just joining us, there's been an explosion at the Rainbow Bridge crossing that connects the United States and Canada near Niagara Falls. It's been shut down now.

You're looking at live images from a camera focused on that crossing.

We've learned that two men in that vehicle were killed when the car exploded as it was trying to get through the crossing.

We have CNN's Brynn Gingras who has been following the latest details on all this.

Brynn, walk us through what you're learning. BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Boris, and as we're

hearing from the panel that you've been talking to, there's still so much information that needs to be gathered on the scene.

The federal authorities there from the ATF, the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force on the ground there trying to answer those questions.

But what we know at this point, there are four land crosses that are shut down in response to this explosion that happened at the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, the cross entry between the U.S. and Canada.

Authorities on both sides working this, trying to get those answers.

And from our understanding, what John Miller has been learning, is that a car went at an accelerated rate of speed, at some point during the check point process and then, as it's been described, exploded.

We know from Evan Perez that two people inside that car are deceased. So as Evan pointed out earlier, it might be hindering a little bit

this investigation.

Certainly, not able to get questions answered from those people who were the occupants of the car.

But unclear what the motive was. Was someone doing this as a sinister act? Was this a medical incident that happened? All of those are questions that are still needing to be answered on the ground.

But as we've been saying, authorities are notifying Justin Trudeau. We just saw him talking on the floor there. He's getting updates. We know that the governor of New York is getting updates.

We know that the vice -- rather, the president is getting updates about this ongoing situation while he's vacationing with family in Nantucket.

Of course, we also know that, currently, right now, the threat environment at this time in this country is at a high level. We've been talking about this, not only just because of what's happening in the Middle East, but also of course the holiday.

We know that authorities have sort of raised the risk assessment and we know there's, in that area at least, a systemwide security uptick. That means for the airports in that area, for cars traveling through that area.

Certainly, there are going to be more check points. There are going to be more screenings of cars. There's going to be more screenings of individuals getting on and off planes. So certainly, there's an uptick in security in that area.

So again, much of this information still getting relayed to us from sources up there on the ground and we'll continue to update you.

SANCHEZ: Brynn, stand by and please bring us the latest you get from your sources on the ground.

I want to go back to Andy McCabe for a moment.

Andy, ultimately, one of the key questions investigators will try to answer is whether or not there was an explosive device that was on the vehicle.

Walk us through the process of what it's like to gather that kind of evidence? And what are they testing for when they go through a scene like this?

MCCABE: Sure. So part of the initial response will undeniably include bomb technicians. The FBI refers to them as special agent bomb techs. They're trained to do exactly this work.

They'll -- of course, as soon as it's deemed safe to go forward and review, to get close to that vehicle, they will, using all source of pieces of bomb technology, they'll do, conduct a visual inspection of the vehicle.


But then they'll also test that vehicle for residue of explosive materials, evidence of devices, explosive devices that might indicate that the vehicle was being used as an explosive device itself, like an IED.

And that kind of -- the result of that initial search will tell us a lot.

Whether or not -- the primary question right now is whether or not the explosion was caused by the accident or was caused by some intentional detonation of an explosive device.

That's really the first big fact I'm looking for here, Boris. And hopefully, we'll get that upfront as soon as we get some information from the authorities.

But those bomb technicians are an absolutely essential part of this response. And they should be able to tell pretty quickly whether or not there was an explosive device in that vehicle.

If the answer is no, and this is entirely the result of either an intentional or an inadvertent vehicle crash, that will tell us how quickly they can restore service to that side of the bridge, right?

For physical reasons, they'll review the engineering to see if there's been any compromise to the structure.

But once they can cap off that area in which they're working, they may, in fact, be able to open other lanes to allow the border to continue operating as close to normal as you can.

That's the initial threshold we need to get over to have the bomb techs make the determination was there, in fact, an explosive device in the car or did it explode, burst into flames as a result of the collision with the structure there.

SANCHEZ: One of the key questions to where we stand right now.

We want to pivot to CNN's Pete Muntean, because he's live from Reagan National Airport in the nation's capital on the heightened state of security that we're watching.

Pete, obviously, you've seen enormous lines. Obviously, it's the Thanksgiving holiday. All day. People trying to get to celebrate and enjoy the holiday with their loved ones.

When something like this happens, obviously, security ramps up. What's it like where you are now?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: There's a lot of things you can see at the airport, like the dogs put in place here and they've been sweeping the airport all day, but also many things you cannot say.

The TSA has entered this heightened state of security after this incident.

We heard from the Buffalo airport and the Niagara Falls frontier transportation authority, which oversees the airport. They say all cars coming into the airport will be screened.

They will be doing that because they entered a heightened state of awareness there. They're trying to make sure things are getting out to the public because so many people are traveling today.

And 2.7 million people is estimated by TSA to pass through airports nationwide. The airport of Buffalo relatively busy. It's a pretty significant impact.

I want to read you the statement from the TSA.

It says, "The TSA and the Department of Homeland Security are in close and ongoing touch with all partners and continue to monitor the situation and may adjust security postures as or when necessary."

So, we are only seeing this now develop just in this moment. The TSA is essentially telling us we may see more things develop at airports nationwide.

Right now, at Reagan National Airport, things seem roughly normal. We've been through ebbs and flows all day of huge traffic volume.

Now we're about to be on the precipice of the afternoon rush. Around 3:00 p.m. is when things start getting going again.

And we'll see the impact here as it unfolds as so many people are trying to get where they're going on this big day before Thanksgiving, the biggest day for holiday travel.

SANCHEZ: Pete Muntean, thank you so much for that update.

We want to go back to Josh Campbell.

Josh, just given your general impression of what you're seeing, you mentioned previously that this doesn't necessarily fit the profile of what traditional terror attacks have looked like. Is that a fair assessment?

CAMPBELL: Yes, I'm not seeing it yet. I worked terrorism a long time. When you think about what terrorism is, most terrorists, cells, individuals, their intent is to cause mass loss of life, as much loss of life as they can.

The very nature that you have two individuals in a vehicle at the same time, that's not usual. I mean, typically, if you have two terrorists, for example, they would select different targets in order to maximize the harm.

Again, we're in the grim business of these national security issues. That's just the reality.

You know, again, you look at the actual incident, what happened at the bridge, this isn't a place where a terrorist coming at a high rate of speed -- if their goal was to attack border guards, for example -- this wouldn't be the way to cause that maximum harm that most terrorist groups and extremists attempt to do.


So again, a lot we don't know right now. Any time we're dealing with an emerging-type situations, you start looking at, what are the characteristics and what was the potential target, if it was that. Again, I'm just not seeing it yet.

I will say that that could change, obviously, on a dime if authorities get any indication there's some type of incendiary device residue at the scene. That would change this completely.

That's something they would be trying to rule out. Was it an incendiary device or a vehicle going at a high rate of speed? Vehicles have gasoline that can cause explosions when there's a collision.

That's something they would be trying to rule out. If there's no incendiary device, that would obviously be telling to them.

Again, they're not going to send out an all-clear especially with the two suspects -- I shouldn't say suspects -- these two individuals now deceased. They're not going to send out an all-clear anytime soon.

They have a lot of work to do behind the scenes. But I say, based on working terrorism cases, I'm not seeing it yet based on the little we know so far.


Let's get more details from John Miller.

John, you've been on the phone with sources in law enforcement that have been looking closely, reviewing some of the footage. What are you learning?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT & INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: This is Buffalo joint Terrorism Task Force from the FBI field office there. This is the Customs and Border Protection people who operate the security cameras on the bridge. This is the Buffalo agencies, including the sheriff, which has the bomb squad.

They've been going backwards looking at this from different angles. The most telling piece of video they have shows the car on a local road, on the U.S. side in Niagara Falls, suddenly, begins to accelerate.

And then moving towards the check point at a high rate of speed and then striking a curb and then flying over a barrier, crossing over to the other side of the road and then landed in a secondary inspection area and then disintegrating and bursting into flames on impact.

What we have here now is a very active investigation, but we're past the first version that a car exploded at the secondary check point after being referred there. It actually flew there after impacting the curb and the barrier and then exploded upon impact after landing.

That could mean an accidental acceleration. It could mean a motorist who suffered a medical issue with his foot on the accelerator. It could mean a ramming attack, which is intentional, where he got up to a high rate of speed and struck the barrier.

But what we again have here is we are far away from being able to call this a terrorist attack or even an attack.

And we need a lot more information from the forensics at the scene, the identity of the person in the car, and what that tells us about that person and whoever was with them in terms of background.

SANCHEZ: John, I wanted to go back to a point you made, the surveillance video reveals this video was on a local road on the U.S. side, is that correct?

MILLER: That's right. So it starts on a local road on the U.S. side and begins to accelerate and then on the road towards the check point.

And now at an extraordinary high rate of speed there. They're estimating somewhere in the 80 to 100 miles an hour speed, strikes the curb, then the barrier, then goes airborne and ends up at the check point, the secondary check point.

SANCHEZ: John, please bring us any new details you get from sources, and alert us as soon as you get them.

Let's go back to Andy McCabe.

Andy, as you're hearing these details from John Miller, the vehicle accelerating to roughly 80 miles an hour before hitting the curb and becoming airborne before bursting into flames on impact.

What does that say to you? MCCABE: Well, the first thing, Boris, is that that detail about being

at a high rate of speed, being airborne and bursting into flames on impact, that's something that any car could do.

You don't have to be a car intentionally packed with explosives to end up as a fiery mess after putting it through that sort of a situation.

So I think that's one indicator that points away from the possibility of this being an intentional vehicle-borne incendiary device. I think there's a lot of circumstances that point in that same direction.

As Josh Campbell was saying a few minutes ago, from what we know about terrorist operatives and the way they stage attacks, if you had a vehicle that was loaded with explosive that you intended to detonate, you wouldn't crash the car and then detonate the explosives.


You would wait. You would take the car in an unintrusive way, unremarkable way, as close as you could possibly get to the target, and then you would intentionally detonate it. And that doesn't seem to be -- that doesn't fit the circumstances that we're aware of so far.

We also know that there are many people that are stopped at the border or interdicted at the border every day who are trying to slip through for one reason or another, right?

If you were a fugitive or someone with a criminal record and you were trying to sneak back into the United States, you might do something rash or make poor decisions or try to speed your way through the border to evade law enforcement. So there's a lot of possibilities there.

So just think that, when you look at the low likelihood of the first thing we were worried about, that being the IED scenario, and a possibility of all of these other potential drivers, it's just -- it seems to be pointing more and more in that direction.

But as John said, the video is probably the most powerful indicator we have so far. We need to see where that develops.

SANCHEZ: The other detail that stands out to me, that I clarified with John, is that, apparently, this vehicle was on a local road on the U.S. side. That changes the characterization that I think we had officially that this was a vehicle trying to get into the United States, right, Andy?

That perhaps changes the perception that this is some kind of an attack.

MCCABE: It certainly does, right? It starts to look more like trying to potentially, you know -- two people trying to essentially push their way across the border because they're afraid of getting stopped if they tried it in the lawful way. So that's a possibility.

But we can't rule out the fact, Boris, that this could have been two people trying to make some sort of a statement that ended up, unfortunately, in a life-taking way for themselves.

So there are -- there are all sorts of -- it's a very gray area of what was their intent and were they simply trying to get to the other side and slip through in an area where they normally would have been caught and detained?

Were they trying to make a statement almost like an act of suicide or protest? We just don't know at this point.

But I think that the less likely answer to these questions is that it was some sort of an intentional terrorist attack, with a vehicle bomb, especially.


Andy, please stand by.

I want to get a read on this from former Boston police commissioner, Ed Davis, who has been standing by.

Ed, your thoughts on the latest details that we got from John Miller? How do you see this?

ED DAVIS, FORMER BOSTON POLICE COMMISSIONER: I would totally agree with Andy's assessment of it. This changes the whole scenario.

There's not a lot of terrorists that are in the United States that are trying to get into Canada to do something, right? It would just be the opposite.

This information, I just viewed some video of the explosion, and I'm not an expert on this, but it could have been a saddle tank on a vehicle or something that caused that level of explosion. It wasn't a -- it didn't appear to be a huge truck laden with explosives.

This could very well be some type of medical situation or accident. And it's really that critical piece of information that the vehicle was on the U.S. side going the other direction I think changes everything.

SANCHEZ: Josh Campbell is still with us as well.

Josh, you sort of talked about how there are a lot of different players investigating this and overseeing the investigation.

Does it complicate it at all that it's two separate governments, the U.S. and Canada, that are now coming together to look at what happened at this border crossing?

CAMPBELL: That relationship, both at a law enforcement level and an intelligence level, at a government-to-government level is strong.

You have FBI agents that are assigned to Canada. You have Canadian intelligence and law enforcement personnel assigned to the United States. These agencies are talking to each other daily on a host of issues,

everything from national security issues, counterintelligence, typical crime, border smuggling, those types of things.

Those relationships exist for situations just like this, when you need to share information, and so that would be happening very quickly.

Again, obviously, Canadian authorities want to know why this vehicle was attempting to enter their country. And if these individuals were from Canada, that would be information that, obviously, the U.S. authorities would want to know.


And so it is seamless when you're talking about the U.S. and that Canadian relationship.

And, you know, in the U.S. as well, there's the Joint Terrorism Task Force that every FBI field office has that -- speaking of relationships, has a number of law enforcement personnel from various different agencies assigned to that JTTF, for the very same reason.

When something happens, you want to be able to bring to bear all of the resources of those different agencies, their computer databases.

And you think about state, local, federal government. There's so much value to investigators when they're trying to identify an individual person.

And as I was mentioning earlier, the U.S. intelligence community, they don't publicize their role in a lot of these things. But their databases would also be searched.

If there's some kind of identifier, the name of the individual who was driving, the name of the passenger, that would all be run against the databases, again, just to try to determine is this someone that we, the U.S. government, knows is has some kind of connection to terrorism.

Just because it doesn't show up in the U.S. intelligence database doesn't mean you rule it out. But it is certainly very helpful in order to try to determine is there interrogatory information that's out there.

That would be happening both at the U.S. level involving multiple agencies but then that government-to-government level between the U.S. and its Canadian partners -- Boris?

SANCHEZ: Josh, thanks so much for that perspective.

I do want to let our viewers know that the two Senators from New York, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have released a statement saying they're closely monitoring the situation in Upstate New York.

Again, if you're just joining us, an explosion at the Rainbow Bridge crossing that connects the United States and Canada at Niagara Falls, near Niagara Falls. Two men that were in that vehicle have been found to have been deceased.

We've learned from John Miller that the vehicle was apparently on the U.S. side of the border, on a local road, and then accelerated, reaching speeds of up to 80 miles per hour before crashing into the border crossing and bursting into flames on impact.

We'll, of course, keep you up to speed with the very latest details on this.

We're going to take a short break. Stay with CNN. We're back in just moments.