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Headline News

April 20, 2014

Governor: Closing Boston amid bomber hunt ‘tough’

BOSTON — Several days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Gov. Deval Patrick received a call in the pre-dawn hours from a top aide telling him that police officers outside the city had just engaged in a ferocious gun battle with the two men suspected of setting the bombs and that one was dead and the other had fled.

Within hours, Patrick shut down the region’s public transportation system and made an extraordinary request of more than 1 million greater Boston residents:

Shelter in place.

And for the better part of April 19, 2013, nearly everyone did.

On what otherwise would be a normal weekday, people stayed home. Stores in Boston were shuttered, streets deserted and an eerie silence prevailed while authorities searched for the suspect and attempted to cut off escape routes.

“It was a big decision. I’m glad we made it,” Patrick reflected during a recent interview about the anniversary of the bombing.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it turned out, would not be captured until shortly after the shelter-in-place request was lifted some 12 hours later. He was found in a boat, behind a home in Watertown, a Boston suburb, blocks from where his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had died after the earlier shootout. The homeowner had ventured outside to check on his boat and, upon noticing the cover amiss, peered in and saw the bloodied teenager.

That the population of greater Boston overwhelmingly agreed to shelter in place — it was not mandatory — and that there was little second-guessing despite the inconvenience and disruption of commerce it caused, was viewed as a reflection of the anxiety gripping the region. It was also a sign of how strongly the city rallied around itself and its leaders after the bombing.

Henry Willis, director of the homeland security and defense center at Rand Corp., said he was surprised there had not been more analysis of the decision.

“It was clear the perpetrators of the bombing were armed and willing to hurt people,” Willis said. “At the same time, shelter in place created an effective lockdown of the entire city, and, if nothing else, it’s difficult to sustain such a condition in a major metropolitan area.”

Initially, Patrick said, police intended only to seal off parts of Watertown and a small portion of Boston and suspend public buses to those areas. But that would change as more details emerged in the chaotic overnight hours.

He learned that the earlier shooting of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier and a carjacking in Cambridge were believed to be linked to the bombing suspects as well. And other information, alarming though later unsubstantiated, kept pouring in: One report of a taxi going from Watertown to Boston’s South Station just before the first scheduled train of the day to New York City; another that federal agents had chased a person matching the suspect’s description in South Boston.

Patrick concluded that the suspect could have already moved far from Watertown, necessitating a broader lockdown.

“So there was all this other stuff happening and the question then was, How do you surgically shut down (public transportation) in and out of Boston? It’s impossible to do. So we suspended service for the day and we asked people in the city and in the greater Boston area to shelter in place,” Patrick said.

At mid-afternoon, Patrick took a call from President Barack Obama, who offered encouragement but also a reminder that the lockdown could not last indefinitely.

“We lifted it before we found the surviving suspect because we got to a point where we didn’t think we could sustain it anymore,” Patrick said. A house-to-house search in Watertown had also been completed.

Exhausted, Patrick headed home, first stopping to pick up Thai food for his wife and daughter who, like so many others, had spent a long day at home. It was then he learned of the capture and returned to Watertown.

“It’s a tough, tough call,” said Patrick, asked if he would recommend the same course of action to other governors in similar situations.

The advantages of such a massive lockdown, said Willis, include keeping people out of harm’s way and removing traffic and other encumbrances for police. On the flip side, it removes the eyes and ears of a million people who could conceivably be helpful during a manhunt, and there are other costs, he said.

“It also creates anxiety and fear for people,” which, Willis added, is a goal of terrorists.

Aside from the immediate area of the attack, Boston remained open in the days after the bombing.

Marc Fucarile, who lost his right leg in the bombing, said he strongly supported the shelter-in-place request, noting how dangerous the suspects were and dismissing the notion it was inconvenient.

“You know what was an inconvenience? Two bombs on Boylston Street was an inconvenience,” Fucarile said.

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