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Video: Times Square bomb hero speaks

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    >> that's unfortunate.

    >>> also ahead, the street vendor who is being hailed a hero for notifying police about that suv . lance ortman, good to see you.

    >> good to see you. he asked me do you ever get used to the cameras? and i said do you ever get used to all the crowds in times square ? he said i could have been here playing a harp.

    >> i never sit and my docs would kill me, but my leg was bothering me so i sat down. the first thing i noticed, that the sunglass hood across the street, it's already crowded and someone comes out with a disco hookup and starts blasting the music. hundreds of tourists start coming over on 45th, across the street from me.

    >> right.

    >> this is why i didn't pay too much attention to the suv at first. i sat down and i went to tie my shoe and i looked to the left. i said to myself, that looks like smoke is coming out of that vehicle. i looked around to see if anyone else noticed.

    >> was it a lot of smoke or just a little smoke?

    >> at first just a little. whoever did this, luckily they did an amateur job. first, it was just a small amount. so, again, i was distracted by the crowd. but i also was wondering why no one noticed the smoke. and then it got steadily worse and it was coming from all sides of the car.

    >> at that point, did you contact the police ? did you hail down a policeman or --

    >> actually, there was some guys behind me. i heard someone yell, listen, you see smoke, maybe you should call 911. and i'm the main vendor on the block. it's hard to get into what that is, but i said, listen, there's no sense bothering the guys for that. there's a patrolman right there on the horse, officer wayne . so i asked one of my guys. by the time i got there, something might have happened. i said get over there and grab that officer. he came over on horseback and he saw what i saw. it was getting steadily worse.

    >> and there were popping noises, little red flashes from inside that suv . when you now hear what was in that car, the gasoline, the pro pane canisters and things like that, how do you feel this morning?

    >> glad to be here.

    >> well, we were glad you were there at the time, too, for sure. when you look at the surveillance tape that shows that man taking off one shirt and there's a red one underneath, does he look at all familiar to you? i'm putting you on the spot here. i wondered if you saw anything suspicious.

    >> it's hard to say. hundreds of people go through there. they change. the camera isn't that sharp. not as nice and sharp as it is here, or maybe i could see it better.

    >> right. again, you've been in times square , working there more than 20 years, right?

    >> yes.

    >> we say it all the time. if you see something, say something. that really was a smart thing in this case.

    >> people kind of, i don't know, take it lightly or take it for granted. i had a few situations where i've told people about things, they said oh, that's nothing. it's no big deal . but you can't take that attitude the way things are these days.

    >> job well done.

    >> thanks.

    >> good for you, mr. ortman. we appreciate it.

    >>> now let's get a check

TODAY contributor
updated 5/3/2010 2:12:24 PM ET 2010-05-03T18:12:24

Sometimes, people used to tell Lance Orton not to be such a busybody, but the Vietnam veteran and Times Square T-shirt salesman can’t help it. When he sees something wrong, he has to report it.

Nobody’s complaining about Orton now, not after he alerted a mounted policeman when he noticed smoke coming from a parked SUV in New York City Saturday evening. Inside the vehicle were the makings of a crude firebomb — propane tanks, gasoline, fireworks and alarm-clock detonators. The vendor is being hailed as a hero who may have saved uncounted lives through his alertness.

“People take it lightly,” Orton told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer on Monday. “I’ve had a few situations where I’ve told people about things; they say, ‘That’s nothing.’ But you can’t take that attitude.”

Orton was wounded in Vietnam and gets around with a cane. He said he was sitting next to his wares when he saw a Nissan Pathfinder parked with its emergency flashers on and its motor running. A small amount of smoke was coming out of it.

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Video: NYC mayor: ‘Exploring a lot of leads’

The hero vendor said he didn’t see who got out of the vehicle because of a performance on the other side of the street. “I was distracted by the crowd,” he said.

Alerting authorities
But then he saw the vehicle. “I wondered why nobody noticed it,” he said.

One of Orton’s helpers suggested calling 911. Orton said he pointed at mounted police officer Wayne Rhatigan, who was on duty in Times Square.

“There’s a patrolman right there on the horse. I asked one of my guys, ‘Go over there and grab that officer,’ ” Orton recalled. “He came over on horseback. He saw what I did. It was steadily getting worse.”

When popping noises and flashing sparks came from the car, Rhatigan quickly led police in, moving pedestrians to safety and clearing traffic so that the fire department and bomb squad could neutralize the bomb before it exploded.

“Whoever did this luckily did an amateur job,” Orton observed.

Brushing off interviews
Another vendor named Duane Jackson, 58, also noticed the smoking vehicle and alerted police. Jackson ended up doing numerous interviews and having dinner with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Officer Rhatigan at a Times Square restaurant.

President Barack Obama also phoned Jackson to commend him for his vigilance and for acting quickly.

Video: DHS not ruling out terrorism in bomb scare

Orton brushed off pleas for interviews and passed on dinner with the mayor. He did agree to talk to TODAY, telling Lauer just before going on the air, “I could have been here playing a harp this morning.” Asked later how he felt, he said, “Glad to be here.”

Person of interest
Police have released a surveillance video showing a man who may be in his mid-40s taking a shirt off a short distance from the SUV, which was parked at West 45th Street and Broadway. He has a red shirt on underneath. The man glances in the direction of the SUV and walks off. Police have named the unidentified man as a person of interest.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, in an earlier appearance on TODAY, said the man is not an official suspect. Although New York police have said the bomb was not the work of the Taliban or other foreign terrorists, Napolitano said nothing has been ruled out.

“Right now, every lead has to be pursued. I would caution against premature decisions one way or another,” Napolitano said. “The investigation now needs to take its course.”

“We’ve got to be very careful,” Bloomberg said. “There’s hundreds of tapes and there’s millions of people who come through Times Square.”

Of the man in the surveillance video, the mayor spoke cautiously. “Maybe he had something to do with it and maybe not.”

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