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Locked Down in Watertown :: A Firsthand Report

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Tuesday Apr 23, 2013

The third week in April will forever feel like the longest week in history for Bostonians. On April 15, -- known as Patriots Day in Massachusetts -- people from around the world participated in the city’s iconic Boston Marathon. But the 117th race was marked with tragedy after two bombs went off on Boylston Street in Boston and killed three innocent people and injured hundreds.

News of the attack sent shockwaves throughout the nation and impacted the closely-knit community in the Boston area. My phone was flooded with texts from friends and family making sure I was unharmed. I was fine at my home in Watertown and nowhere near the attacks. The bombings occurred miles away from my home, but only blocks away from where I work, but I was still deeply shook.

For the next few days, I tried to balance feelings of fear with everyday life. While I spent hours pouring over Reddit’s photos that analyzed the race, I spent the other half of my time trying to pretend things were A-OK. I did this by working, seeing my friends and indulging in my hobbies; namely keeping up with music news and reading blogs.

On Thursday, French dance music titans Daft Punk announced they were releasing their long awaited single "Get Lucky" off their highly anticipated fourth album. The track was scheduled to appear on iTunes on April 19 at 12:01 a.m.

The rest of Thursday continued as normal like any other day of the year. I finished work and had dinner with my best friend/roommate. I had put Monday’s horrific incident in the back of my mind.

Later that night, I checked Facebook and saw a few friends sharing articles about a Massachusetts Institute of Technology security guard had been shot and killed. I told my friend about it before she turned in for the night and we both questioned whether the murder was linked to the marathon bombings or an isolated incident.

I didn’t think much about it after that and passed the time until midnight approached. After refreshing iTunes countless times, Daft Punk’s song finally appeared. I purchased it, downloaded and listened. And listened and listened. I glanced at my clock and realized it was already 12:35 and time for me to hit the hay. I decided to play the song one last time, as I was shutting my laptop down and plugging my phone to charge, but as I was jamming to the funky-fun track, an unusual boom made me press pause.

"Fireworks?" I thought. It was one of the warmest days of the year, so I figured some neighbors were just jumping the gun with summertime festivities. I hit play and continued to listen to "Get Lucky" but the same noise went off about 30 seconds later.

"That can’t be fireworks. It’s way too loud," I thought. I’m prone to paranoia and just like clockwork, I started to freak out - especially since Monday’s tragic events were sitting fresh in my mind.

My roommates, best friend and boyfriend had all gone to bed, so I flipped open my laptop, went on Facebook and messaged whoever was on. Since it was nearly 1 in the morning, not too many people were signed on, but I did notice one friend.


The Nightmare Begins

"omg. r u still awake?" I asked her via Facebook chat. "i seriously just heard a HUGE explosion. although it could be fireworks? i keep hearing shit going off. i heard another one. i hear sirens. holy shit wtf."

"Yr prob ok," my friend impassionedly replied.

"im not exaggerating," I said.

"I know. I’m falling asleep. B safe," she said sarcastically and signed off.

I then went to Twitter and my stomach dropped after reading the slew of tweets: "BOMBS WENT OFF IN WATERTOWN" "GUN SHOTS HEARD IN WATERTOWN" the tweets read.

I looked out the window and I heard the large boom again. Seconds later, what sounded like firecrackers echoed through my otherwise quiet neighborhood.

I logged on to a music/off-topic message board I frequent to see if anyone knew anything else. Members of the forum wrote similar posts to the tweets I read. My heart sank.

Waves of police and ambulance sirens and low-flying helicopters pierced my ears and I knew something was terribly wrong. I looked out my window to check if I could see anything but all I saw was the orange night sky.

Since I don’t have cable, I went back online to find a live feed of a local news channel. The newscasters were frantic and said police were in a standoff with men who had grenades and automatic weapons. The news wasn’t satisfying my paranoia, so I searched for a link to a police scanner and could hear the Watertown Police’s private dialogue.

"They have explosives," one officer shouted. "Retreated! Retreat!" another yelled. My fear shot up to 11. It then increased to 20 when I found out the shootout took place just two bus stops away from the stop I use to get to work five days a week.

I didn’t want to be alone dealing with what was going on and debated whether I should wake up my roommates. I eventually decided against it and let them peacefully sleep the night away while I kept my eyes glued to the streaming news and ears on the police scanner.

At this point, the news said the MIT shooting and the Watertown shootout were not connected to the marathon bombings. I didn’t buy it though. What are the odds that something like this would happen just hours after the FBI released imagines of the suspects who were believed to be responsible for the attack?

The hours passed and major media outlets were reporting the incident. Soon, I saw the town I lived in plastered on CNN, the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe, the New York Times and countless others publications. It was bizarre to see my neighborhood - the streets and stores I see everyday on my way to work - make international news. Being a journalist, I realized I was at the center of one of the biggest news stories of the year.

I passed the rest of night falling into a news wormhole and taking in anything and everything I could. I scanned Reddit for information the news wouldn’t report and flipped through pages of tweets to see if anyone knew something I didn’t. I glanced at the clock and it was already 5 in the morning and just then the local news station confirmed the Boston Marathon bombers were in fact, connected to the shooting in Watertown. I also learned that one of the men was dead but the other at large. I promised myself I wouldn’t go to sleep until he was caught or found dead.


Locked Out of the Manhunt

As the day went on, I explained what went down during the night and called my family to let them know I was fine - I knew my mother already pegged me for dead. She had suggested I quit my job, move home and take a job in Springfield (which isn’t remotely near where I grew up in Worcester).

I told them that the authorities have put Watertown, Boston and surrounding towns on lockdown. We were not allowed to step outside our house until further notice.

I spent most of Friday refreshing news sites and listening to the live stream for any updates. I was hypnotized by the same facts the news cycle spewed and I waited for any new nugget of information to be revealed. Finally, at around 3 p.m., there was a substantial announcement: authorities were going to check every single house in a 20-block radius.

My roommates and I waited about an hour until what looked like a SWAT team drove up my quaint street in military vehicles. When they got to the top of the street, next to my house, the box-like tanks opened up and about 25 military men jumped out all wearing helmets, camouflage, boots and carrying automatic weapons.

In my delirious state (I had been awake for well over 24 hours now) I grabbed my iPhone and began snapping photos and recording videos of the law enforcement officers. They came into our house and asked if we were OK and then searched our backyard. It was one of the strangest things I’ve seen: men that look like they belong fighting a war overseas were poking around in my backyard in Watertown.

Around 6:30, not long after the LEOs raided my neighborhood, local officials announced that we were free to leave our homes. They also said that suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was still at large. Still, I didn’t think it would be wise to leave the house, though one of my roommates did. He and his girlfriend packed up his car and hightailed it to New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, my other two roommates and I decided to make dinner. I left my phone in my room to charge and started to boil pasta. While I was waiting for the water to boil, I ran into my room to check if anyone called or texted me. As I approached my room, I could hear loud voices coming from the streaming news station I left open on my laptop. My phone was also ringing and I knew something was up.


Caught!

I picked up my phone and my mom was yelling "THEY CAUGHT HIM!" I was ecstatic and rushed to tell my roommates. I brought my laptop into the kitchen and we all huddled around the glowing screen.

My mom was wrong, Tsarnaev had not been caught but they did find him hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard. He was only about a half mile away from my house and I could hear the gun shots go off during the small standoff.

Tensions were high and my roommates and I were spooked after hearing something right outside the house. We decided to sit in the hallway, away from windows, and wait until police either killed Tsarnaev or captured him.

Not long after we made our way into the hallway did the news say it was official: the 19-year-old alleged Boston Marathon bomber was in custody. He was alive but in serious condition. The nightmare was finally over. Though I had been up for a day-and-a-half, I felt an ease come over me and took a deep breath. I called my mom and my boyfriend to make sure they knew Tsarnaev was no longer hiding out in the streets of Watertown. They knew and were just as happy as me.

The news showed people lining up on the sidewalk of Mt. Auburn Street (the main road in Watertown where the first shootout took place). They cheered and clapped as the ambulance carrying Tsarnaev drove by them. Watching, I got flashes of supporters on the sidelines cheering on runners during the Boston Marathon.

My best friend and I stepped outside in front of our home for the first time in nearly 24 hours. It was unseasonably warm and the air felt wonderful on my skin. We could hear the shouting and cheers coming from Mt. Auburn Street. We looked at each other and my friend asked, "Now what do we do?" We wondered what would happen in the coming weeks and when would things go back to normal.

I went back inside into my room. I turned the news back on for a final time that day and watched as Gov. Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino thanked police for their incredible work. Tsarnaev was caught and I finally fell asleep.


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