By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Jason Conti came across a hectic scene as he was walking down Elmwood Avenue Friday morning.
Conti saw two men with their hands on a Niagara Falls Police Department cruiser as officers searched them. Conti and other onlookers were quickly moved away from the scene by police officers.
"They just pushed us back," Conti said. "It was kind of chaotic."
Conti saw police searching two men from Massachusetts whose vehicle was pulled over on Elmwood Avenue early Friday amid concerns about "suspicious" packages and heightened awareness in the wake of this week's bombings at the site of the Boston Marathon.
The two visitors to the Falls were on a road trip that was scheduled to end with a visit to friends in the surrounding area, police said Friday afternoon. The black Nissan they were driving in became the subject of an investigation that occupied federal, state and local police agencies throughout the morning and into the afternoon.
Conti said the two men appeared to be cooperating with police when he saw them, an assessment consistent with statements from the authorities.
"They didn't resist at all from what I saw," Conti said.
Police described the two men as United States citizens in their early 20's, though they declined to identify the tourists. They were released after authorities spent hours searching through the car. In the end, the driver was charged with a pair of minor traffic violations.
Crowds gathered around the scene throughout the ordeal while police used a bomb detecting robotic device to sift through what turned out to be the tourists' personal belongings.
Charlene Harris was out walking her dog in the neighborhood when she came upon the site of the investigation. Like many others in the crowd earlier in the day, Harris said she was concerned given what had happened in Boston earlier in the week.
She said she had no problem with the police response under the circumstances.
"It's scary," she said, referring to the bombings. "I'm glad we got good cops here really."
Michelle Johnson, a pharmacy clerk at Pine Pharmacy and Home Care at the City Market, stood in the blustering, warm winds peering down the street at the command center police were using as a home base for the operation.
The pharmacy had been evacuated earlier and she and her co-workers were waiting to return to work.
"We're hoping to open back up," Johnson said. "A lot of people need their medicine."
Johnson said that when police first came into the pharmacy employees were moving slowly, but after being urged by police officers they realized the situation was potentially serious.
"There was certainly a rush of adrenaline," Johnson said. "I can tell you that."
Johnson considered leaving to pick her children up from school and started to think of loved ones in the area, she said.
"I did call my mom to tell her I love her though," Johnson said. "Just in case."
Yvonne Roehre, also a clerk with the pharmacy, said that the Boston Marathon bombing has the country on edge and made the Falls situation feel "surreal."
"You watch this stuff on TV, but you never think it's going to happen in your area," Roehre said.
Roehre was reassured by the police response, she said.
"You'd rather them take the precautions than not be concerned," Roehre said.
In a statement issued after the police concluded their investigation, Mayor Paul Dyster credited local law enforcement officials with their response to what police described as suspicious circumstances surrounding the vehicle.
"We are relieved that this situation ended without incident, and I commend Chief Bryan DalPorto, the Niagara Falls Police Department, New York State Police and other authorities involved for their diligent actions to protect the citizens of Niagara Falls," Dyster said. "And further thanks to our residents for diverting from the affected area while the investigation was in progress. In these times and always, our collective vigilance and care for our neighbors helps to strengthen this city.”Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257