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Thanksgiving resumes, but U.S. nerves still raw after deadly Rainbow Bridge crash

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — One of the busiest travel corridors between Canada and the United States reopened in the evening on American Thanksgiving after a deadly, high-speed crash destroyed a U.S.
In this image taken from security video, a light colored vehicle, top center, flies over a fence into the Rainbow Bridge customs plaza, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The governor of New York state says there’s no apparent terrorism link to a car that hit a median at breakneck speed, soared through the air, crashed and exploded, killing two people Wednesday at a Canada-U.S. border checkpoint in Niagara Falls.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Customs Border Protection via AP

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — One of the busiest travel corridors between Canada and the United States reopened in the evening on American Thanksgiving after a deadly, high-speed crash destroyed a U.S. customs kiosk and tested the nerves of an anxious nation.

Within hours of Wednesday's crash — a car on the U.S. side rocketed toward the Rainbow Bridge customs complex, soared off a median and burst into flames inside a secondary inspection area — investigators had ruled out a terrorist attack.

But in a country in a perennial state of high alert, it almost didn't seem to matter.

"It's sad that we have to start out at that end," said Amy Bickel, a mother of six from Sunbury, Pa., visiting Niagara Falls on Thursday with her husband, James.

"I'm glad that they are taking it seriously and it's nice to know that it wasn't what they thought it was. But it's sad to think you have to think that way."

The obvious conclusion was hard not to jump to as the picture began coming into focus Wednesday: a speeding car from out of nowhere and a fearsome fireball inside an international border checkpoint at the height of U.S. travel season.

Citing an anonymous official, Fox News breathlessly declared the crash a terrorist attack, committed with a car "full of explosives" — a live report that circulated widely on social media before the broadcaster was forced to recant.

The federal Liberal government, too, opted against taking chances. Between security briefings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons that “additional measures” were being considered for border crossings across the country.

"High anxiety," read the all-caps headline on the front page of Thursday's Niagara Gazette.

James Bickel said that while the mood on Wednesday briefly conjured memories of darker days in the U.S., people have largely grown accustomed to living with the reality that their homeland is a potential target.

"I think that the country is trying to do the best that they can for when something like this happens," said Bickel, 57, who is semi-retired and drives a van for a school bus company.

Americans were far more likely to assume the worst in the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, D.C., Bickel said. But they've also learned not to dwell on it.

"I think about it, but then, you know, I'll just get on with it, you know?" he said. "It just doesn't do any good for you. I mean, it just makes you worry more."

North of the border in Ottawa, the crash was still resonating on both sides of the political aisle on Thursday.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre insisted he was merely citing media reports when he called it a "terrorist attack" on Wednesday in the House of Commons. Government House leader Karina Gould accused him of jumping to conclusions.

In a statement, Niagara Falls police Supt. John Faso called the crash a "tragic incident" and thanked local, regional and national law enforcement agencies for what he called their exemplary response.

The investigation is now in the hands of the local police crash management unit, Faso added.

"Due to the complexity of the incident, the investigation will take some time to complete," he said. "At this time, the identity of those involved is pending positive identification and notification to next of kin."

Police have not publicly confirmed media reports that the car's occupants were a husband and wife who had just left the nearby Seneca Niagara casino and may have been bound for Canada when the crash occurred.

Why it happened remains a mystery.

Security camera video released by the U.S. government showed the car racing toward the border checkpoint before hitting a low median and flying through the air into a line of booths in an area used for secondary customs inspections.

The vehicle's wreckage, which witnesses had reported seeing strewn all over the complex, was largely gone Thursday as border officials and construction crews surveyed the remaining damage.

The crash prompted the closure of three other area border crossings between Ontario and western New York for hours, along with additional passenger screenings and vehicle security checks at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport.

International air traffic was briefly halted at the airport before resuming shortly after the supper hour Wednesday. Traffic over the other three land crossings has since resumed, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission said.

A customs official who was protected from the crash by a booth received minor injuries and was released from hospital.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press