20 Hours In Watertown

-By Christian Arcand

 

I was in Boston when Sean Collier died. Earlier that night, Rene Rancourt led a packed house of Bruins fans at TD Garden in a National Anthem that if not for a declaration by David Ortiz a few days later, would have been the wonderfully iconic Boston sports moment in the aftermath of the marathon bombing.  The crowd sang with strength and pitch, a truly beautiful moment as Boston collectively took one big, deep breath.

The city was on edge. Days earlier, two men had assembled bombs made from pressure cookers, gun powder, and metal shrapnel, and placed them along the marathon’s final mile. The explosions killed three people, and maimed hundreds more. The bombing was captured by countless cameras. Cell-phone videos, traffic cams, network TV cameras in the air and on the ground relayed the horror to people’s living rooms, but it was the Boylston Street security cameras that would ultimately give us our first glimpses of the cowards who scarred our city. 

 

Cantabrigians by way of several republics in the former Soviet Union, the brothers Tsarnaev had been revealed to the world. They were called Suspect 1 and Suspect 2. Black hat and white hat. A big tough-looking goon and a skinny kid. They had been misidentified several times by the internet and media alike before Thursday’s events.

On that particular Thursday night I was sitting on a barstool in Quincy Market, discussing the recently released photographs with some friends. I left the bar with a feeling of security as I headed back to my Watertown apartment. We know who these guys are now, they don’t stand a chance.

As I merged onto Storrow Drive, I got a call from my cousin Jon who was just over the river in Cambridge. A chef at a popular Kendall Sq. restaurant at the time, Jon called to tell me that the entire area was gridlocked and there were cops everywhere. Since Jon was facing a commute back to his house in Natick, I suggested he just come to my place and wait out whatever this was over there.  It seemed like a good idea at the time. 

I pulled into my driveway, just a stone’s throw from what was about to become ground zero.  Jon called to tell me that traffic was re-routed to the Mass Pike, and he was headed back to Natick. My roommate was home, I told him about Kendall Square.

While the Tsarnaevs, (with a hostage in tow) drove through Middlesex county looking for a gas station, the police had begun combing Cambridge and the surrounding areas in search of Sean Collier’s killer. The hunt was on.

As midnight approached and Thursday became Friday, the brothers were chased to the cross section of Laurel Street and Dexter Avenue.  The wail of sirens suddenly overtook sleepy Watertown, and would continue throughout the next day. Lights flashed on Mount Auburn Street, police cars raced by as the Tsarnaevs made their stand.

photo: Daily Caller

Reality set in as the sound of a homemade explosive detonating was clearly audible over the sirens. I couldn’t hear any gunshots from my window, but the bomb was loud and clear. There was no mistaking it now, these guys were in earshot, and they still had bombs.

The shootout ended with Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mangled corpse being dragged under an SUV driven by his younger brother. The good news was that they were weakened, but that bad news was nobody knew who, if anyone, was helping them. The sirens persisted as my neighborhood flashed blue and white, and the sounds of helicopters overwhelmed the sirens. My roommate came down stairs with his iPhone playing local police scanners. He placed the phone on the coffee table and we sat and listened to it like a family in the 1930s listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio. The police had set a perimeter, they were fanning out, be on look out for this type of car, an officer had been shot. My mother called. She was upset. I was upset too.

While I was on the phone with her, the sound of the helicopter gradually faded away, the fog that night had rendered its search capabilities nearly useless. The police scanner confirmed that the chopper had been called off, and they would continue to search on the ground. The chaos of the situation clouded the disturbing reality: one of the bombers had gotten away, and the police didn’t know where he was.

The news of the situation in Watertown began to travel.  Texts and calls started pouring in.  I turned my phone ringer up as loud as it would go hoping that the sounds of the TV and the audible phone alerts would overpower the sirens. I moved to my kitchen window to see if the bulkhead in our driveway leading to the basement was padlocked, a worry that doesn’t often cross the minds of Watertown residents, but on this night it was a potentially life-saving detail.  Lights flashed in every direction as I removed a butcher knife from the drawer and put it on the coffee table. My roomate was in his room talking to his girlfriend.

Jon called around 2 in the morning. His voice shook as he spoke, I wasn’t much better.  I recalled earlier in the evening when he first called me and I suggested he come to Watertown, and we laughed for the first time since the previous Sunday.

cops night

photo: AP/Matt Rourke

Sleeping was nearly impossible in Watertown that night. Everyone was scared, the lights were bright, and the sirens were loud. TV News reporters on the scene working non-stop began to slowly turn from TV people into human beings right in front of our eyes. My roommate and I broke the tension by taking a shot of whiskey every time we saw our street on TV, our phones supplying a constant barrage of worried text messages from people we hadn’t heard from in a while. False leads came in over the scanner, misinformation flowed from every outlet. The suspect was still at large.

As the sun came up, theories flew about where the younger Tsarnaev had gone. My best guess was that he had a friend pick him up and they were halfway to DC by this hour.  We wondered who else was involved, as few thought it was possible for a wounded 19 year old with no military training to evade almost the entire state police force on foot for this long. No way could he still be in Watertown, we thought.

As the morning crept along, I got a call from a former co-worker who had seen my tweets and facebook posts and wanted me to come on his radio show, the first of many media appearances I made that day. I warned him that I hadn’t slept, but he didn’t mind. He asked me questions while I stared out my window and described the tactical jeeps, SWAT teams, helicopters and long guns that were visible from my perch. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. The fact that I was seeing all of this in Watertown in the middle of a manhunt and then relaying that information to a news talk show felt like some sort of weird fever dream.

Credit: unknown

I called my radio station to tell them I would not be coming in, but that I would call in with updates from the scene whenever I could.  I continued updating facebook and twitter, thankful outlets like that existed in a time like this, when we were all desperate for both information as well as something to do.  As various members of the Tsarnaev family appeared on TV to decry their savage nephews I began wondering, what if the sun were to set again, and they still don’t have him? What then? SWAT teams combed the neighborhood, wandering through driveways and into the occasional house, but not mine. Minutes and hours ticked by, with leads coming in from all over the state of Massachusetts and eventually from down the eastern seaboard.  I took comfort in convincing myself that the future Rolling Stone cover-boy was long gone. Photographs of Boston flooded social media, the empty streets looked post-apocalyptic.

At just about 6pm on Friday, Governor Deval Patrick appeared on television. His orders were clear: the lockdown is over, resume your lives, but be vigilant. They still didn’t have him, he could be anywhere. My roommate came downstairs and told me that his girlfriend was coming over to pick him up and would I mind waiting for her to get there, since I had a car and could just leave whenever. I said no problem, I was headed to my brother’s house in Brighton, just a few minutes away.

They still haven’t caught him,” I said.

I know, f***,” he replied as we hit the 18 hour mark.

His ride came, I said goodbye and then watched them drive away from my bedroom window as I packed an overnight bag and turned off all the lights, TVs, and radios that had been on all day and night. As I walked down my stairs, the wail of sirens abruptly went from distant to blaring. Helicopters hovered directly overhead, one sounded like it was planning to land on my roof. I opened the door and watched six cruisers fly down my street.

He was here the whole f***ing time?

Following the cruisers down my street was a tank. An actual tank.  It crept along at the pace of a 1990’s South Central drive-by shooting.  I had seen tanks up close before, but in museums, I’d never seen one actually move. Two SWAT team members walked behind the tank with long rifles in hand. One of them looked right at me. I went back inside.

After retreating back to my living room, I stood on my couch, craning to see where the flashing lights had assembled.   Were they on my street? They appeared to be close, but the reflections of a springtime Watertown dusk made it impossible to tell exactly where. “Franklin Street” they were saying on the scanner, 67 Franklin. I know that house. I pass that house almost every day.  The scrawny stoner whom they had shut down the city to search for was a 2 minute walk from my front door.

A burst of gunfire was the first wave of horrifying noises, followed clearly by flash bang grenades. The helicopters continued hovering just above. On TV, reporters now delirious from lack of sleep were wandering into this poor family’s backyard, and subsequently into the line of fire.  A helicopter with a spotlight illuminated the Franklin Street rooftops as the sun disappeared.

Then, for about 20 minutes, the chopper flew away, the sirens ceased, the scanner went dark, and there was nearly dead silence. As haunting as the sounds of the lockdown will always be, I will never forget what those 20 silent minutes sounded like. Suddenly all I could hear was the wind (the wind was heavy that day) and then a man’s voice through a megaphone, though I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

The silence was broken by a sudden rush of activity on the police scanner, and just as quickly as it had begun, the manhunt was over. They had him. Alive. I called my parents, then I updated facebook and twitter.  I picked up my already packed bag and walked outside, finally free to leave.

cheering cops

photo: AP/Charles Krupa

Mt. Auburn street was lined with spectators, hoping either for a glimpse of the monster, or the brave souls who captured him. I exited my driveway, turning left onto Mt. Auburn, en route to Brighton.  As I made the turn and approached the crowd, I felt for a second like Michael Corleone in Cuba. People clapped, cheered and waved in front of the cemetery and D&D Pizza, the omnipresent flashing blue lights now representing victory.  

Mt. Auburn became Galen, then Galen became Watertown Street, the blue strobe light fading behind me.  I crossed the Pike into Brighton, glancing at the empty highway as it awaited the following morning’s undoubtedly busy commute.

 

 

 

 

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