Photos of people with guns at a Staten Island parking lot led to a massive law enforcement reaction Friday evening and huge traffic backups during the commuter rush. Police gave the all clear just after 6:30 p.m., saying that the guns in question were believed to be paintball guns, not semi-automatic rifles, as originally thought.
The security scare led to police checkpoints and vehicle searches on bridges and major roadways on Staten Island. It was a headache for commuters, with traffic going into New Jersey backed up all the way to and across the Verrazano Bridge by 4:15 p.m. Police also flooded the area, with added patrols looking for the vehicles. Two nearby Coast Guard facilities were placed on a brief lockdown.
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It all started when authorities issued an alert to law enforcement after a retired NYPD officer captured photos of what appeared to be several people armed with weapons by two vans in a Midland Beach parking lot near the foot of the Verrazano Bridge. Authorities sent a bulletin to the FBI and area police.
Police used a license plate number on one of the vehicles to locate its owner. He told FBI and NYPD investigators Friday evening that he was planning to go paintball shooting with friends Friday, John J. Miller, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorisn, said.
Police also interviewed workers at a nearby paintball park and confirmed that the people in question had been at the facility earlier in the day. Police were reportedly at a number of paintball shops on the island investigating.
A senior NYPD official told NBC 4 New York earlier on Friday that the leading theory was that the individuals were holding paintball guns, but that nothing was being ruled out and that police were still on alert. Armed officers were stopping some vehicles at checkpoints, but others were moving through.
The Coast Guard stations at Fort Wadsworth Staten Island and Fort Hancock in New Jersey were locked down for several hours due to proximity to the sighting, but the lockdown was later lifted.
Authorities said they were investigating out of an abundance of precaution. The paintball guns looked a lot like a military-style M-16, police said.
The massive police response comes a day after four marines were shot and killed in an attack on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee Thursday morning. Gunman Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, 24, was killed after a shootout Thursday with police. Officials said Friday that the shooting was being treated as an act of terrorism.