NEW YORK — It was a teeming summer night typical in Times Square, with families strolling beneath the glowing screens over Broadway, vendors hawking souvenirs and audiences sitting in theaters as performances neared their end. Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Shubert Theater, was giving her final speech of the night.
Then came a booming crackle that sounded like gunfire and sent hundreds of people fleeing down side streets, huddling under neon storefronts and pounding on the doors for help outside crowded theaters.
The culprit was quickly identified as a backfiring dirt bike. But the scene of fear and chaos exposed what many saw as a new level of national unease days after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 people dead.
In Times Square the next morning, Tania Lundh, of Michigan, described what to her felt like a new normal: “It isn’t a heightened sense of fear, but of reality.”
Before police could restore calm to the surrounding blocks Tuesday night, at least 12 people were injured, ranging in age from a 12-year-old girl to a 79-year-old woman. One person had broken her wrist; another fractured his kneecap.
“People were screaming to get down, children crying, everybody grabbing hold of loved ones trying to run to safety,” one woman wrote.
Workers at Forever 21 were suddenly faced with a stampede of people running into the store, herding them to a lower floor. Diners on a patio of Junior’s Cheesecake dropped their forks and ran inside as a crowd plowed past, knocking over chairs and overturning tables.
“We were at ‘Hamilton’ when panicked civilians stormed the theater for safety,” one theatergoer wrote on Twitter. “Which caused the theater to stampede. We were crawling and hiding behind railings.”
Police and the mayor posted messages on Twitter stating that there was no active shooter.
“Times Square is safe and secure, but the panic and fear people felt tonight was all too real,” Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote. “Nobody should have to live in constant fear of gun violence.”
The incident is hardly the first case of mistaken panic and unrest in Times Square or other crowded destinations in the city. But its timing fed into mounting anxieties that seem to have reached a new crescendo since the weekend’s attacks.
As one visitor to the city posted: “The state of fear is insane.”