The Boston Marathon Bombings

Apr 21, 2014 - by J. Patrick O'Connor - 0 Comments

The Boston Marathon bombings were the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the World Trade Center catastrophe on September 11, 2001. That the suspected bombers are immigrants of Chechen heritage who had been nurtured for over a decade in Cambridge made it all the worse.

by J. Patrick O’Connor

The conditions were ideal for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon. Under partly sunny skies, with the temperature in the 50s and minimum wind, the most venerable of all U.S. races began shortly after 9 a.m. on April 15, 2013. Some 23,342 starters, representing 92 countries, converged in waves at the starting line at Hopkinton Green. The elite women went off at 9:32 a.m., followed at 10 a.m. by the elite men. By noon over a half-million spectators lined the fabled course.

A year after the modern Olympics resumed in Athens in 1896, John Graham, a member of the Boston Athletic Association and the team manager for the inaugural U.S. Olympic team, organized the running of the first Boston Marathon. Fifteen runners participated in the inaugural race, with 10 finishing. The Boston Athletic Association, which still runs the event, set the date as April 19 in honor of Patriot’s Day – a regional holiday commemorating the beginning of the Revolutionary War when shots “heard ‘round the world” were fired at Lexington and Concord on April 19,1775.  If Patriot’s Day fell on a Sunday, the marathon was moved to the following Monday. In 1969, Patriot’s Day was officially designated to be the third Monday of April.

For the first 12 years the marathon consisted of 24.5 miles from Irvington Oval in Boston to Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland. In 1908, to comply with Olympic standards, the marathon’s distance was increased to its current length of 26.2 miles.  The route was basically reversed, beginning now at Hopkinton Green and ending at Copley Square in the heart of downtown Boston, alongside the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church.The course follows winding roads on various state routes through Boston’s western suburbs of Ashland, Framingham, Natick, reaching its half-way point at Wellesley College, where hundreds of co-eds cheer on the runners through “Scream Tunnel.” From there the course begins its ascent, covering the four hills of Newton that culminate in Heartbreak Hill, a span that runs for four-tenths of a mile between mile 20 and 21. The last five miles weave through Brookline and into Boston where the route then turns left onto Beacon Street continuing to Kenmore Square, and then follows Commonwealth Avenue inbound. The course turns right onto Hereford Street – against normal traffic flow – then left onto Boylston Street, finishing near the John Hancock Tower in Copley Square.

The Bombings

Long after the winners and elite runners had crossed the finished line, thousands of marathoners were still on the course; over 5,500 runners had yet to make it to the half way marker, but a steady trickle of runners appooached the finish line. And then the unthinkable happened: A home-made bomb exploded at 2:49:43 p.m. on the left side of the finish line, followed 13 seconds later by a second detonation. The bombs were hidden inside dark nylon backpacks that were deposited about 100 yards apart on the sidewalk. The bombs – designed to kill and maim – were housed in ordinary kitchen pressure cookers, filled with nails, ball bearings, BBs, and black powder – triggered by egg timers.

The blasts were so powerful that debris could be found 12 city blocks away.

Despite the fact that there could have been a number of more bombs set to go off in short intervals, many of the people around the finish line, including some of the runners, ran toward the carnage and danger instead of away from it. Bystanders were seen immediately kneeling on the pavement, removing belts or bits of clothing to fashion makeshift tourniquets to stanch the bleeding of numerous people who would have otherwise bled to death before help could arrive. One runner, a pediatric resident who was approaching the finish line, jumped over police barricades to aid the victims. These quick, decisive, brave actions undoubtedly saved numerous victims from bleeding to death before professional medics arrived.

The medical tent directly behind the finish line – set up to treat dehydrated runners – was instantly transformed into a triage station. Within minutes, ambulances arrived to treat the most grievously wounded and ferry them to nearby hospitals – all of which were now on full alert and prepared to receive mass casualties. Some of the wounded would be in surgery within a half hour of the explosions.

Three persons were killed by the blast and over 260 were wounded. Fatally injured were Martin Richard, an 8-year-old who was at the finish line with his mother and sister, both of whom were gravely injured; Krystal Campbell, 29, of Arlington, a restaurant manager who rarely missed attending the marathon; and Lu Lingzi, a 23-year-old Chinese graduate student at Boston University. The injured ranged in age from 7 to 71. Doctors performed 18 amputations on 16 victims – half of the amputations were above the knee. “It sounds grotesque, but if could imagine, it’s like putting your leg into a garbage disposal,” said Dr. William Creevy, an orthopedic surgeon at Boston Medical Center where five amputations were performed.

One of the above-knee amputees, 35-year-old Marc Fucarile, a delivery truck driver from Stoneham, Massachusetts, said the burns he sustained on his remaining leg are so painful that he thinks life would be easier if he had lost it too.

“Many victims survived with injuries that might well have killed them were in not for an army of medical professionals and quick-thinking volunteers at the marathon finish line – and several top notch hospitals nearby,”The Wall Street Journal reported on April 29.

The Hunt for the Terrorists

It would be difficult to imagine that whoever placed these bombs had any intention of going undetected. The finish line during a Boston Marathon is one of the most photographed and tightly cropped areas in the world. In addition to all the cellphones, TV station cameras, and digital cameras recording and memorializing the marathon, many of the retail establishments in the area provide 24-hour closed-circuit TV coverage. It would only be a matter of time before police investigators reviewed these surveillance tapes and spotted something out of the ordinary.  

There were over 13,000 videos and 120,000 still photos taken during the marathon, most of these by people with cellphones as the runners entered Boylston Street heading for the finish line. Thousands of these images were flown to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia. Twenty-four hours after the bombing, one of the injured bystanders, Jeff Bauman, told police when he stabilized after double-amputation surgery that he had stood next to someone he thought was one of the bombers and gave a description.

By Wednesday morning, the FBI had photo images of two bombing suspects, but no idea who either one was.One photo showed the men standing together – one wearing a white cap and the other a black one. What the videos and photos showed were two young men entering Boylston Street, coming from Gloucester Street, at 2:38 p.m. toting black backpacks. These two were designated by the FBI and the police at “Bomber No. 1” and “Bomber No. 2.”

Bombing Suspects (Photo released by the FBI)

Video from a Lord & Taylor department store camera showed Bomber No. 2 wearing a white baseball cap turned backward. At 2:42 p.m. the video camera at the Forum restaurant shows Bomber No. 1 walking past, in the direction of the finish line. At 2:45 p.m. Bomber No. 2 is taped in front of the Forum restaurant placing his backpack on the sidewalk. He is shown remaining in place for about four minutes, occasionally checking his cellphone and even appearing to take a picture with it. Then he seems to check his cellphone again, speaking into it.

A few seconds after he finished the call, the large crowd of people around him can be seen reacting to the first explosion about 100 yards away. The first bomb was placed outside of a Lens Crafters shop. It blew out the store’s windows, two windows directly above and the ground floor windows of the Marathon Sports store next door. Many victims in this area suffered injuries to the backs of their legs as they viewed the finish line from behind a security fence.

Everyone in the crowd outside the Forum restaurant, other than Bomber No. 2, turns to the east – toward the finish line – and stares in shock and alarm at the carnage unfolding. Bomber No. 2 is then shown walking away in the opposite direction without his backpack. As he makes his way toward Fairfield Street, one of the marathon runners who had finished the race snaps a photo of him in his white cap worn backwards. Seconds after that the second bomb explodes outside the Forum restaurant.

The Boston police and FBI debated whether to release the images of the two suspect bombers to the public, with the FBI against it on the grounds that it would alert the suspects to flee, and the Boston police commissioner, Ed Davis, arguing for the release on grounds of public safety.  Davis was afraid the two would set off other bombs in Boston if not apprehended. The debate was not settled until the FBI agreed to release the images to the media around 5 p.m. on Thursday. From his hospital bed, Jeff Bauman informed the police that one of the men pictured – the one in the black cap – was the man he saw. 

Every TV station in Boston and all the cable news networks rushed to display the photos of the two bombing suspects and urging anyone who recognized the suspects to call the police. The coverage was incessant. Shortly after the photos began airing, Robel Phillipos, a student at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth was on the phone talking with fellow student Dias Kadybayev when he saw a photo of another student, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, flash on the screen. After he told Kadybayev about the resemblance, Kadybayev texted Tsarnaev that he looked like one of the bombers. “LOL,” Tsarnaev texted back. “If you need something in my room, take it.”

Kadybayev and two other friends went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room. His roommate told them he had left several hours earlier. As they waited for him to return they watched a movie. One of them spotted Tsarnaev’s backpack and noticed it contained fireworks mortars that had been emptied of their powder. With the empty mortars clearly implicating Tsarnaev, Kadybayev and friends went into cover-up mode, taking the backpack and Tsarnaev’s computer to Kadybayev’s off-campus apartment. The backpack was tossed into a dumpster there.

Catching Themselves

Five hours after the FBI released photos of the bombing suspects, MIT campus police officer Sean Collier was shot to death from behind as he sat in his patrol car waiting for his shift to end 30 minutes later at 11 p.m. The apparent motive of the attack was to steal the 27-year-old officer’s gun which was secured in a triple-lock holster the assailants could not force open.

No one knew if the murder of the MIT officer was related to the Boston Marathon bombers, but the killing of a police officer brought scores of police from around the metro area to Cambridge. Just before midnight a 911 call reported a carjacking, claiming the hijackers were the marathon bombers. A man with a gun had forced the driver of a Mercedes SUV to drive to another location where another man awaited. The two men then loaded something into the trunk. Back inside the car, the two men took $45 and a bank card from the driver and told him to drive to a Shell gas station nearby. When the two men went into the gas station’s food mart, the driver fled on foot across the street to a Mobil gas station, rushed through the door and yelled, “Call the police. They have bombs. They have a gun. They want to kill me.”

The Mobil store attendant thought the man was drunk, but when the man ran behind the counter and into a back storage room and locked himself in, the attendant knew he was serious and dialed 911.

“I tried not to look outside at anything,” the attendant, Tarek Ahmed, said. “I wanted it to appear as if nothing was wrong. I was hoping the suspects didn’t see where he went. At the same time, I told the police what happened. As I’m talking to the police, I back up slowing and knock on the storage room door, and I handed him the phone.”

Tamerlan and Dzkokhar Tsarnaev

The two carjackers did not attempt to pursue the escaped hostage. Instead they drove away in the Mercedes, heading in the direction of Watertown. Police were able to track the SUV’s movements by monitoring the carjacking victim’s cellphone that remained in the car.

When police caught up with the SUV on a residential street in Watertown, the men in the Mercedes threw at least two pipe bombs out of the car and shot several rounds at the seven Watertown police arriving at the scene. An intense firefight broke out. More police arrived, encircling the SUV, creating a dangerous crossfire situation.  Over 200 rounds were fired by the police, including one critically wounding a transit police officer during the gunfight.

About 20 minutes into the firefight, one of the men in the SUV exited the car. As he fired at the police a bullet sent him to the ground. As police attempted to drag him to safety, the other man in the SUV then drove straight ahead, barely missing one of the officers but running over the body of the fallen shooter and dragging the body under the car a few yards. After that the SUV struck a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority office, seriously injuring him. Somehow the SUV threaded through the parked police cars and disappeared into the night.

The man on the ground was dead. From his fingerprints the police learned that he was 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a long-time immigrant from the Russian region of Dagestan who had been living in Cambridge since he was 14 years old. Police also now knew that his brother was 19-year-old Dzkokhar Tsarnaev, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012 and had lived in Cambridge since he was 7 years old. 

Abandoning the SUV and smashing both of his cellphones, Dzkokhar searched for a place to hide. Bleeding from gunshot wounds he sustained in the firefight, he took up refuge in a 22-foot long motorboat parked in a backyard a few blocks away. There he spent the night and the following day as police from all over the metro area combed the Watertown area in a house-by-house search. State officials had put the entire metro area on lockdown Friday morning, shutting off all public transit and ordering residents to remain inside their homes until further notice. This directive was called “Shelter in Place.” One of American’s largest cities was paralyzed by the search for one teenaged terrorist.

Shortly after 6 p.m. on Friday, the curfew was called off and people were allowed to leave their homes. When Dave Henneberry stepped outside his Watertown house around 7 p.m. he noticed that the tarp covering his motorboat – aptly named The Slip Away II– was not fastened down all the way. He went to his garage and got a ladder and laid it up against the boat. Three steps up the ladder he noticed blood on one side of the deck and wondered if he had cut himself the last time he was on the boat. Then he saw blood on the other side of the deck. Looking over the rest of the boat he saw a body.

“I levitated off the ladder,” Henneberry said later. He returned to his house and told his wife, “Lock the doors,” before calling 911.

A massive phalanx of law enforcement converged on Henneberry’s back yard. A SWAT team with heavily armored vehicles approached the boat. At least two concussion grenades were tossed inside the boat and multiple rounds of gun shots were fired at the boat. Although Dzkokbar had made no threatening moves or even shown himself, police feared he might ignite another pressure-cooker bomb or some other explosive device. They also feared he was armed. A state police helicopter using thermal imaging technology showed where the suspect was hiding in the boat; a robotic arm attached to a police vehicle pulled the tarp back exposing the insides of the boat. After FBI negotiators made verbal contact with him, Dzkokhar surrendered without incident around 8:45 p.m. There was no gun or any explosives found in the boat. The gun Tamerlan had used at the Watertown shootout was recovered at the scene.

“Fuck America”

Inside the dry-docked boat, Dzkokbar, who friends would later describe as a “copious pot smoker,” had scrawled various messages during his 18 hours hiding out. “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians”; “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished…We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, your hurt us all”;“Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop;” “Fuck America.” He also wrote that he did not “like killing innocent people” because “it is forbidden by Islam,” but wrote that because of what had been done to Muslims such violence “is allowed.”

Critically wounded, Dzkokbar was taken by ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, one of the hospitals where numerous marathon victims had been and many were still being treated. He had sustained numerous gunshot wounds to his legs and hands as well as having been shot in the mouth and head. The shot to his head fractured his skull. It also damaged his pharynx, middle ear and cervical vertebra. The bullet that struck him in the mouth exited through the left side of his lower face. Trauma Surgeon Ray Odom called that wound “A high-powered injury.” The more serious wounds had been most likely inflicted while he lay sprawled in the motorboat. It was a miracle he was still alive.

Dzkokbar underwent extensive surgeries on Friday night and Saturday. On Sunday a special team of interrogators was dispatched from Washington to question the prisoner.  In interviewing him, the Obama administration invoked the “public safety exception” to the Miranda rule which permitted them to question him without reading him his right to remain silent or his right to have an attorney present. The interrogators wanted to determine if he had any possible connections to other Islamic extremists. Dzkokbar, who could only communicate by writing his responses because of the wound to his throat, wrote that he and his brother had acted alone – that no one else had been involved in the attacks. He also told the investigators that the bombings were masterminded by his brother and that they were motivated by their Islamic fervor and anger over the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He also informed them they had learned how to make the bombs by logging onto and English-language magazine produced by an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen called Inspire. The magazine inaugural issue came out in 2010 and contained bomb-making instructions in an article entitled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”

At the request of his three federal public defenders, Judy Clarke, a nationally prominent death-penalty attorney from San Diego, agreed to join Dzkokbar’s legal team on April 29. In the past she has represented Susan Smith, who was convicted of drowning her two children; Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Jared Loughner, who killed six people at an event held by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, where the congresswoman was shot in the head and grievously wounded.  All of these defendants escaped the death penalty and received life sentences.

On the Monday after the bombings, Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler, after reading Dzkokbar his Miranda rights, charged him with using a weapon of mass destruction that resulted in three deaths and injuries to over 170 people. Three public defenders assigned to defend him were present at his bedside in ICU as were two U.S. attorneys. Earlier the White House had stated that the younger Tsarnaev could not be tried as an enemy combatant. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said it was illegal to try an American citizen in a military tribunal. The Military Commission Act of 2009 specifically forbids military trials of U.S. citizens. An “enemy combatant” is defined as one who is a foreign national associated with al Qaida and associated groups.

A week later, Dzkokbar was transferred to the Federal Medical Center Devens, about 40 miles west of Boston at Ft. Devens Army base. The medical center is a mixture of high-security prison cells with hospital rooms. The men-only prison hospital houses just over a thousand inmates and about 130 others at an adjacent minimum-security camp.

Dzkokbar, pronounced Jo-Har, is confined to a small, one-person cell with a steel door and observation window and a slot for passing food and medicine. He is not allowed to mingle, speak or pray with other prisoners. He may leave his cell for one hour a day to go to an isolated small open space to exercise, but does so infrequently. He has no access to radio or TV, but is allowed some books and selected reading material. The newspapers and magazines he have been stripped of classified ads and letters to the editor, a precaution the government takes to prevent coded messages reaching him. The only visitors allowed are a mental health consultant, his legal team, and members of his immediate family. While members of his legal team have been to see him about every other day, his two older sisters are his only family in the Boston area and they rarely visit. His parents live in Dagestan.

The arraignment in federal district court in Boston on July 10, 2013, marked the first public appearance for Dzkokbar since his arrest. He had come a long way since winning a $2,500 scholarship from the City of Cambridge to attend college in 2011. At the time of the bombings, Dzkokbar owed $20,000 to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and was failing many of his courses. His friends said he had become a “copious pot smoker,” and was dealing in dope to survive. His brother, whom he idealized, had made a worse wreck of his own life.

About three dozen victims and family members attended the arraignment. Dzkokbar appeared in an orange jumpsuit, his face swollen and his hand bandaged. His left forearm was in a cast. The New York Times reported that he seemed “drowsy or tired and he wiped his mouth and his nose several times, rubbing the back of his neck and grabbing at his jumpsuit, his curly hair flopping over his forehead.” Represented by Judy Clarke and Miriam Conrad, he pleaded not guilty to the 30 counts against him. Seventeen of the counts carry the death penalty. The hearing lasted eight minutes. As soon as it concluded, federal marshals bound his hands and led him out. As he left he smiled at his two sisters and made a kissing gesture toward them.

The trial, which the prosecution estimated would last up to three months, is scheduled for November of 2014. The fact that the defense has hired a mental consultant may indicate that the defense intends to put on a mental illness defense – that he was under the domination of an out-of-control older brother who took him off the deep end.


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