“If this story doesn’t warm your heart, you’ll never understand New York.”

May 4, 2010, 2:56 pm

Vendor vs. Vendor: Who Deserves Credit?


Jackson and Orton
Lance Orton, right, said that he, not his fellow vendor Duane Jackson, left, deserved credit for warning the authorities about the smoking Pathfinder in Times Square.

 Lance L. Orton Sr., the Times Square street vendor who saw something and said something on Saturday night, had a lot on his mind as he spoke with reporters on Tuesday.

There was the phone call from President Obama earlier in the morning thanking him for alerting the police to the smoking Nissan Pathfinder – “It wasn’t the press secretary; it was the president himself.” There was his take on being called a hero – “I’m just an average guy.” And there was his reaction to the news that the authorities had made an arrest: “If this is the right guy, I don’t want to say in public what should be done to him.”

But Mr. Orton, 57, a disabled Vietnam veteran, wanted to make one other point crystal-clear following a news conference Tuesday at a Midtown firehouse: He was the one who first notified the police about the suspicious vehicle, not anyone else. “You can’t have 10 heroes,” Mr. Orton said.

One other street vendor, Duane Jackson, has also said he told the police about the Pathfinder, which was parked with the engine running and hazard lights flashing about 6:30 p.m. on Saturday on 45th Street near Seventh Avenue. Mr. Jackson, also a disabled Vietnam veteran, has been hailed as a hero and has also received a congratulatory phone call from the president.

At first, Mr. Jackson was the more public face of this only-in-New York slice of the failed car bombing in Times Square – the sharp-eyed street vendors who noticed the suspicious vehicle and alerted an officer on horseback.

But as Mr. Orton claims his share of the limelight, he has questioned whether Mr. Jackson had played a significant role.

“He was across the street, with his arms folded, looking around, while we were doing what we did,” Mr. Orton said of Mr. Jackson. “I don’t know what he said. I’m the one who grabbed Officer Wayne” – meaning Wayne Rhatigan, the mounted officer who was the first to approach the Pathfinder. “There can’t be two heroes. I don’t want anyone riding on my story.”

If Mr. Jackson had been the first to notify the authorities, Mr. Orton said, then he should have been questioned extensively by the authorities in the aftermath of the attempted bombing, as Mr. Orton said he and the men he works with had been.

“He was home when we were being grilled,” Mr. Orton said. “That’s the real deal.”

Mr. Jackson, 58, of Buchanan, N.Y., who could not be located Tuesday to address Mr. Orton’s claims, has said that he heard popping sounds coming from the vehicle and smelled some sort of firecracker.

“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,” Mr. Jackson told The New York Times on Sunday.

Mr. Jackson spoke with reporters and tourists on Sunday standing at his usual spot on 45th Street where he sells cheap handbags, watches and scarves, receiving endless congratulations from passers-by and customers. The next day, he granted more interviews and visited the F.B.I.’s New York headquarters.

Mr. Orton, on the other hand, avoided speaking publicly about his role in discovering the vehicle on Sunday, and he gave his first extended interview on Monday when he sat down with Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer on the “Today” show.

On Tuesday, Mr. Orton stood beside Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other city officials at a news conference at a firehouse on Eighth Avenue at 48th Street, home to Engine Company 54, Ladder 4 and Battalion 9, the first to respond.

Mr. Orton, who lives in the Bronx and has sold T-shirts in Times Square for years, said that when he noticed the Pathfinder from his sidewalk vending spot, the vehicle was smoking a little bit. Then the smoke grew steadily worse.

He said that he tried to call out to Officer Rhatigan, whom he said he knows, but that the officer did not hear him. So he had one of the three men who work with him summon Officer Rhatigan, who came over on his horse, he said.

“I said, ‘Look at this vehicle right here,’” Mr. Orton said.

Mr. Bloomberg thanked Mr. Orton, and his remarks seemed to give credence, whether accidentally or on purpose, to Mr. Orton’s version of events. The mayor told reporters: “As you know, Lance is the person who first alerted us to a suspicious vehicle in Times Square.”

Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that the first person who approached the officer was actually Wayne Robinson, one of the three men who work with Mr. Orton. Mr. Brown said in an e-mail that Officer Rhatigan “knows Wayne and recalls specifically it was him.”

Update, 3:33 p.m. | Mr. Jackson was not working on 45th Street on Tuesday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. But the plot thickened with the appearance of a third vendor, Alioune B. Niass, who said that he was the first one to notice the smoking Pathfinder. “I feel somebody cheat me,” said Mr. Niass, who said he is friends with both Mr. Orton and Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Niass, an immigrant from Senegal who sells photographs of celebrities and the New York skyline, said that he saw the car smoking and walked over to a pay phone booth at the corner to call 911. Before he completed the call, however, he told Mr. Orton, who was sitting next to the phones, to look at the vehicle. He said Mr. Orton was not aware that the car was smoking until he told him. “I saw it before he see it,” said Mr. Niass. “I’m the first person who saw it.”

Mr. Orton told him not to call 911 but to instead alert the officer, Mr. Niass said. Before he could do so, however, Mr. Robinson had already summoned the officer.

After the news conference Tuesday, Mr. Orton was surrounded by a crush of reporters and cameras. He wore a baseball cap with a United States Navy logo and had a green washcloth tucked into a back pocket. He said that he was invited to dinner with the mayor on Sunday.

“I was supposed to go, but I had to get some sleep,” said Mr. Orton, who walks with a cane.

Mr. Orton said he has been overwhelmed in recent days by the attention. He said he had planned to go back to work on Wednesday, but now he was not sure.

Asked if he was proud of what he did, Mr. Orton said that that wasn’t the right word. “I’m thankful for what I did,” he said, adding, “As I told Matt Lauer yesterday, I’d be playing a harp right now.”


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