When BOSTON shook

2014-04-16 00:00

I MET the Boston bomber’s best friend four blocks from his bomb-making lab.

With the entire city locked down — a million people obeying an order to stay indoors — I had to use my bicycle to tour the seven crime scenes the brothers had created over four days of mayhem: bombing the Boston Marathon, executing a policeman, hijacking a motorist, throwing hand grenades at patrolmen in a 10-kilometre chase, and fleeing the biggest manhunt in New England history.

I stopped my bike beside two young men in hoodies on an otherwise deserted street in the university suburb of Cambridge. They were standing and peering — skulking, really — 150 metres down the road from a curious crowd at police barricades outside the home of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (19).

Peter Tenzin (20) — a fellow student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School — confessed to being a close friend and wrestling partner of Dzhokhar, and that he was worried his pal was still on the run from police. “He’s a nice guy — this is insane,” he told me.

The meeting marked four bizarre days for me in Boston since the twin bombs, which killed three and injured more than 260.

Twenty-eight South Africans ran in that already famous marathon exactly one year ago, including my friend Stuart Theobald and Umhlanga couple Lance and Leigh Corbett. The only South Africans slightly injured were two spectators.

But the reckless violence of the brothers’ actions and the unprecedented response from authorities meant that this was one crime which affected literally every person in a major city.

By Friday, for instance, it meant my housemate and I had nothing to eat. The cupboards were bare, and every single shop was closed, following a wartime-style order from the Massachusetts governor that everyone except police stay home.

Hours after I met Tenzin, my closest friend in Boston, Carmen, was visited by swat team cops who wanted to check if Dzhokhar was hiding in her house. Later, she heard the crackle of gunfire from the next street as police finally cornered Dzhokhar in a boat in a back yard.

For me, the experience started when a man, shaking with adrenaline, burst into my fellowship office on Monday afternoon.

I had studied a journalism fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and was staying on in the city.

The man — the husband of one of my colleagues — said he had just felt his underground Green Line train “shake” near the marathon in “clear explosions”, and, in a quavering voice, asked if there was any news on a friend of his who was running.

The office, based at MIT, is two kilometres from the marathon finish line, on the other side of the Charles River. I didn’t hear the blasts.

But, two days after the bombing, the brothers would murder a policeman outside our building’s main entrance — at the very spot where I would have my coffee on most mornings.

As the reported number of injured rose and rose to over 100 on Monday, the scale of the attack stunned friends I’d made in the city. At Flat Tops, my “regular” pub on the MIT campus, the small trickle of patrons who ventured out that night were visibly angry, and spoke of little else. “Domestic terrorism” was the consensus.

I dumped my black backpack under a chair near a pool table and walked outside, as I always do, only for the manager to warn me sharply, “Maybe you shouldn’t leave that there,” before adding a good-natured, “especially with you being from Africa and all!”

Police were already warning the public that bombs had been concealed in black backpacks, and I found that strangers inside were nervously eyeing mine.

At 8 pm, we all jumped and exclaimed as the room shook with a “boom”, and then shook again. It turned out to be kegs of beer dropped on the floor.

With at least one train line shut, most of us resigned ourselves to walking home, on what would turn out to be near-empty streets.

By Thursday, the mood — if not the traffic — in the city had almost returned to normal, although one woman, Sarah Dewart, told me the local UPS delivery office had seen only a single customer all day.

Talk on the street had changed to shock that the U.S. Congress had voted against basic gun controls, following the killing of 20 young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. News of the bombing had also changed to mockery of media mistakes. CNN and others had falsely reported an arrest of a suspect, and the New York Post had run a front-page picture of two “suspects” who police confirmed had nothing to do with the attack.

But it turned into fear and disbelief on Friday morning, with news of the city-wide shut-down, and of the astonishing violence of the previous night.

We learnt that the brothers had lit up the skies of three Boston suburbs with gunfire and hand grenades, during a wild 10-kilometre chase with police in their hijacked Mercedes SUV. After being repeatedly shot by police, Tamerlan (26) was then burnt by a home-made bomb on his chest, and then run over by his own brother as he tried to escape. Incredibly, Dzhokhar did escape the massed police chase, after ramming police cars and fleeing through the leafy back yards of Watertown on foot.

We Boston residents had to confront the reality that the most desperate and violent person imaginable — and a man with access to bombs — was on the loose in our city.

I shared a house in Charlestown with a software engineer from Google, called Erik. At 8 am, his laptop blared a message in a robotic female voice: “Google security alert: please stay indoors until further notification.” Earlier, the governor of Massachusetts had issued a “shelter in place” order, which required that the entire city stay home. And almost everyone obeyed, in a striking reminder of how naturally American civilians conform to chains of command in crises.

Trying to explain to his five-year-old daughter why her play date had been cancelled, Erik said: “The police are worried that a mean person might try to hurt people.”

Bunker Hill Community College, where Tamerlan Tsanaev had studied engineering, was 200 metres from my apartment; a modest technical college featured in movies like Good Will Hunting and The Town. It was all but deserted when I visited.

One student, Fatima Haddad (34), said she was turned away by security, and had no way to get home, with all public transport and even taxi cab service stopped in Boston.

One former student, Francesca de Vries (41), was telling a friend on her phone “I walked right by him! Not long ago.” De Vries said she knew Tsarnaev as a fellow student who “dressed very casually; kind of sloppily”.

De Vries was worried about a possible backlash against Muslim Americans if Islamic extremism turned out to be a motive for the bombers. “I’ve seen it myself: when I’ve put a scarf of my head at a bus stop when it was windy — and with my complexion — I got all these dirty looks. I really hope that doesn’t happen.”

Near the Tsarnaev house, Peter Tenzin told me he and Dzhokhar provided arts and crafts therapy for Down’s syndrome children after their wrestling practices in 2012.

“He was put up to this by his older brother — he got into all these violent sports like wrestling and boxing to get his respect; now this insane thing,” Tenzin said.

The brothers — one, a boxer; the other, a wrestler — immigrated from the Russian Caucasus a decade ago, he said.

Between two of the world’s leading universities — Harvard and MIT — Tsarnaev’s street was in a good neighbourhood.

On the other side of the police tape was Boston’s best specialist stores strip, including a coffee shop ominously named “Bom Café”, and Christina’s, the only place in Boston where you can find Mrs Balls chutney.

One of the onlookers, Dave Pincus, a biologist who had been evacuated from his neighbouring house, told me the shut down of the city was “crazy over-kill”, which would cost the city tens of millions. But he agreed the evacuation of his block was sensible: “These guys were lobbing improvised grenades at police last night, and they’ve killed three and wounded, what, 170 people so far with bombs, so they could have booby-trapped the buildings.”

Now, Dzhokhar faces 30 charges, including murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden hosted survivors and emergency workers in an anniversary tribute at the finish line site of the bombing, ahead of a city-wide moment of silence at 2.49 pm — when the first bomb exploded.

But the Boston Marathon itself — to be held again on Monday, April 21 — is set to be a national and international celebration of a city’s resilience, when 36 000 runners brave the same route. My friends in Boston say they’ll make an effort to cheer the runners. From Durban, I’ll be doing the same.

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