Jeff Bauman was in the crush of spectators massed around the marathon finish line in Boston on Monday. It was around 15 or 20 minutes before 3pm. Waiting for his girlfriend to complete the race he saw a man wearing a cap, sunglasses, a hoodie and a dark jacket drop a bag to the ground. The man looked Bauman in the eye. Minutes later, the bag, which contained a home-made explosive comprised of a pressure cooker and ball bearings, exploded.
Bauman, from Concord, New Hampshire, lost both his legs below the knees. A picture showing him being wheeled away from the scene, his face spattered with blood, became one of the defining images of the disaster.
In the days after the attack, Bauman’s memory of the man in the cap might have been the critical clue that led investigators to the Tsarnaev brothers – 19-year-old Dzhokhar and 26-year-old Tamerlan – who are suspected of mounting the twin bombings that killed three and wounded more than 170.
Still in intensive care, Bauman “woke up, under so much drugs, asked for a paper and pen and wrote, ‘bag, saw the guy, looked right me,’” his brother, Chris, revealed yesterday.
After the tip came the photos. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in conjunction with local and state authorities, had been sifting through images and videos around the blast site since Monday. Runners and spectators had been asked to send in any record of the time before the bombings.
On Thursday, at a press conference in a downtown Boston hotel, the FBI agent in charge, Richard DesLauriers, a veteran counterintelligence officer, drafted in the public’s help: grainy images of the two as yet unnamed suspects, along with a video showing them carrying bags on their backs as they made their way through the marathon crowd, were released. “Somebody out there knows these individuals,” agent DesLauriers said.
But even before the FBI had the chance to properly chase up the flood of tips that followed, the authorities had a stroke of luck.
Five hours after the images were released, at around 10.20pm, the police received reports of shots being fired on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston. Ten minutes later, an MIT campus police officer was found in his car with multiple gunshot wounds. The officer, 26-year-old Sean Collier, was killed in the attack.
The shooting began when Officer Collier responded to a report of a robbery at a 7-11 convenience store on campus. By sheer chance, the two bombing suspects were in the store when the robbery was taking place. They were not involved in the robbery, the police said last night.
As Officer Collier was being taken to Massachusetts General Hospital – the same place where so many of the wounded were rushed to on Monday – the police were alerted to a car-jacking in the Third Street area of Cambridge, within walking distance of MIT.
The suspects, it turned out, had taken the car. They also taken a hostage, who was released around 30 minutes later at a petrol station on Memorial Drive, a road that runs along the Charles, connecting Cambridge to the small suburban community of Watertown. Before they let the hostage go, they are said to have told him that they were behind the Boston bombings.
As they raced along the water, pursued by police, the Tsarnaev brothers began firing back and throwing explosives at the chasing police cars. At some point they stopped, got out of the stolen car and exchanged fire with police, critically injuring an officer from the transit division.
Tamerlan was killed in the exchange. Dzhokhar is reported to have jumped back into the car and driven over his brother, who was found with an explosive device strapped to his body. A stony-faced doctor would later emerge from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre to tell reporters that he had been pronounced dead, with several gunshot injuries and blast wounds to his torso.
Official reports in the early hours did not explicitly link the mayhem playing out in Watertown to the Marathon bombers. But shortly before 4am Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis confirmed what everyone suspected – that they had their men. “One suspect dead. One at large. Armed and dangerous. White hat suspect at large,” he wrote on Twitter.
Sitting west of Cambridge, roughly six and half miles from the site of the marathon blasts, Watertown is a community of around 32,000 people. Many residents can trace their origins back to Armenia. “This is a small community, mostly Armenians and Greeks. Everyone knows everyone by name,” Kris Hagopian, who owns Coolidge Liquors, a store in east Watertown, said yesterday. “Nothing happens here.”
But that changed in the early hours of Friday morning, when an army of officers drawn from various local police forces, the FBI, the Massachusetts National Guard and other agencies sealed off an area spanning some twenty blocks. By sunrise 9,000 officers were reported to be combing Watertown’s streets for the “white hat” suspect.
In the gloom, everyone on the street was a potential suspect. Pictures would later emerge of terrified residents lying prostrate on the road, guns trained on their bodies. One man was stripped naked by police, presumably fearful that he, too, was strapped with explosives. Many residents were asleep. But some did hear gun shots, with one telling reporters that it sounded like “firecrackers” had gone off on his street. Mobile phone footage shot from a Watertown window confirmed the description, a volley of bullets ringing out amid the flashing lights of the squad cars.
Soon things quietened down as Swat teams moved from house to house, checking every corner, and every property, for Dzhokhar. As the sun rose, the only sounds in Watertown were the sirens. Military jeeps could be seen patrolling the streets and by late morning military helicopters could be heard hovering overhead. Several buses full of policemen could be seen going into the exclusion zone, as the local and federal government marshalled their men to track down suspect No 2.
While Watertown was the centre of the search, the dragnet extended far beyond, with authorities shutting down the public transportation system that connects the different parts of the Boston metropolitan area, a region with a population of well over four million.
At 9am the area around MIT was practically deserted, as it was around Harvard University. In Watertown police asked residents to remain indoors, and so-called “reverse 911” calls were made to every house advising residents, many of whom were just waking up, to stay put.
In Cambridge a bomb squad descended on Norfolk Street, where the Tsarnaevs lived. Later, it emerged that officials would mount a controlled explosion close to their home. Over in Connecticut, concern that the suspect might have boarded a New York-bound train led authorities to stop one heading south towards Westport. At the same time, Connecticut state police was briefly altered about the possibility that the suspect might be in a Honda CRV heading in their direction.
In Watertown, Mr Hagopian could not get home. He was at his mother’s house, just beyond the cordon, when the police closed off the area with his wife and children inside. He spent the morning calling and sending texts telling them to stay indoors. On Monday, he was on Boylston Street, near the site of the bombings. “Now, look, its come to my town,” he said.