The 911 call came in to the police around 7:30 a.m. on Monday: A car was stopped in the middle of the circular ramp at the Queens Place Mall parking garage, leaking fumes, with wires and a gas tank inside.
It was an alarming call for a city and nation already on edge, after an entire block in Nashville was leveled on Christmas morning by a homemade explosive packed into a recreational vehicle.
Within minutes, New York City police officers began evacuating the mall and nearby stores and streets, fearing the vehicle — which had Nevada plates and appeared to be stolen — was an improvised car bomb.
The report turned out to be a false alarm. By 11:30, the police had determined the strange collection of materials seen inside the car — wires, a fuel tank and cords — was not an explosive device. The car, a Tesla, looked as if someone may have been living in it, officials said, and a husky dog was found sitting calmly in the back seat.
Still, John Miller, the deputy commissioner of the Police Department’s intelligence bureau, said the appearance of the materials in the car was concerning enough that the department’s bomb squad treated it as an bomb.
“When you looked into the back of the car, you could see a tank — a gas tank — that had wires coming out of it,” he said. He added that investigators were eventually able to determine it was not an explosive device, but “based on their expertise, it appeared to be.”
Mr. Miller called the materials a “hoax device” and said investigators were operating under the theory that someone had left the car where it was, in the state that it was in, with the intention of causing panic.
Helicopters circled overhead as officials blocked off and redirected traffic in the area, where more than 20 emergency vehicles were parked along the streets. Dozens of police and fire officials were gathered outside the mall and near the parking garage.
Rattled customers and mall employees waited outside in Queens for more than two hours, until the bomb squad determined the vehicle was not a threat.
Umme Sheuli, who works at a pharmacy near the mall and was evacuated around 9 a.m., said the morning had been scary, particularly in light of the bombing in downtown Nashville, where Anthony Quinn Warner detonated an RV full of explosives, injuring several people and causing damage across a city block.
“You just never think something like this will happen here,” Ms. Sheuli said.
The incident also comes amid heightened political tensions on the eve of the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., which law enforcement officials have warned for months could be a catalyst for civil unrest.
Supporters of President Donald J. Trump are expected on Wednesday to gather in Washington to protest the congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election, which Mr. Trump has falsely claimed was fraudulent.
Mr. Miller said several handwritten signs were found inside the vehicle, but he did not describe what they said or say whether any of them were political in nature. A computer and food were also discovered in the clutter. The police were still seeking the driver of the van on Monday afternoon.
“Traffic was tied up, stores were denied their ability to enter, a medical facility had patients with appointments who had to wait,” Mr. Miller said. “A great deal of inconvenience was incurred by an act that seems deliberate to cause that inconvenience and expense. I’m very confident we will identify the people behind this.”