The police officer screamed, and I came to an abrupt stop beneath the glowing red and yellow letters of a sign reading “Randy’s Car Wash.”
“Turn your f---ing phones off!” another officer yelled, charging past our frozen silhouettes. Then he warned:
They’ve probably got IEDs.
Look out for sniper fire.
I got low. We all did.
With weapons drawn, a handful of officers dashed around the street corner in front of us, toward the spot where the sound of gunfire had, just moments before, pierced the night air.
Not far from where we were — just two blocks to the north — lay the mangled and dying body of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Police officers had emptied their clips in an intense shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers. Stray bullets hit trees and penetrated several homes.
Watertown, Mass., sits thousands of miles from any war zone, but in the early morning hours of April 19, 2013, it was the main front in the Boston area’s battle with a then-unknown foe who had just hours earlier claimed the life of Sean Collier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus police officer on night patrol.
It had already been one of the longest weeks in Boston’s history. Three days before, the joy of Marathon Monday — which coincides every year with the Revolutionary War commemoration called Patriots’ Day, a combined celebration that is Massachusetts’ most beloved holiday — was marred by unimaginable tragedy, two bombs at the finish line. Three people were dead: restaurant manager Krystle Campbell, Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi, and 8-year-old Martin Richard from the city’s Dorchester section. More than 260 were wounded.
For my colleagues at the Boston Globe and me, the days since the marathon had been an all-out sprint — covering the chaos, the vigils to honor dead and support the wounded, and the beginnings of the recovery.
By Thursday, we were exhausted. The city was exhausted. Seeking a brief return to normalcy, a handful of reporters left the newsroom Thursday night to watch a colleague’s band perform. None of us really heard the show, though; we swayed and clapped, but it was impossible to clear our minds.
We ducked out early, and as we made our way to my car, my phone vibrated.
There had been a shooting at MIT.
The city had spent every hour of the past four days on high alert — tending to the wounded, searching for culprits, all while waiting for some new terrible thing to happen. Now it had.
A colleague headed to the hospital where the victim had been taken. I headed to the MIT campus, across the Charles River from Boston in Cambridge, Mass. It was a mess of flashing lights. Officers canvassed the area, guiding dogs and flashlights behind every bush.
The police tape had yet to go up, so I worked my way around the scene, tweeting quick updates and blurry photos as police searched for the shooter.
At the back end of a quarantined area, I met Dave Yang, a 20-something event photographer. His typical gigs consisted of taking party photos at local concerts and clubs, but when he heard about the commotion at MIT, he drove to campus to see if he could get some shots worth selling.
“No one can come any further,” one of the officers told us.
As we turned to walk away, we heard them frantically running.
I turned back just in time to see the officers dash to their cruisers, jump over the hoods of their vehicles, movie-style, and then peel out.
As they sped off down Memorial Drive, a chorus of sirens punctuated what had been a solemn crime scene.
Dave and I ran to his SUV — parked unbelievably close, also almost out of a movie — and followed the cruisers, pulling over every quarter-mile or so as another batch of responding officers sped past us.
Apparently, after allegedly killing Collier, the Tsarnaev brothers had carjacked another vehicle and led police on a high-speed chase to Watertown, a suburb bordering Cambridge, where they were pinned down and engaged in a massive gunfight.
We knew none of that. All we knew was that we were following the sirens.
“SOMETHING BIG IS HAPPENING,” I tweeted.
Moments before we arrived, Watertown officers had emptied their clips as they dodged makeshift bombs being hurled at them by the Tsarnaev brothers. Responding officers attempted to block the brothers in by closing off the block, creating a crossfire.
Tamerlan charged the officers, who wounded him and took him into custody. But as they did, Dzhokhar sped toward them in the car that they’d stolen. The police jumped out of the way. His brother didn’t.
We pulled into Watertown as the last gunshots still echoed in the air. We parked, haphazardly stashing Dave’s car behind an abandoned storefront, and ran in the direction that the gunfire had come from. Then I yelled out that we should stop and assess the situation. What was really going on?
A handful of officers with weapons drawn rounded the street corner just a few yards ahead, onto the block where the shots had been fired.
I looked to our rear, where I saw dozens of police vehicles now scattered along the sidewalk we had just run down. Leaving car doors open, lights flashing and sirens blaring, a sea of officers in the uniforms of local forces or state troopers — and some in full SWAT gear — hurried past us.
Ducking behind an abandoned police car to secretly turn on my phone and send another social media dispatch, I wondered: Is there anyone else live-tweeting this shootout? Should I call my editors? How specifically should I describe my location? If the street really does blow up, I want them to be able to find my body.
Among those standing just feet from the shootout along with us was a high-school girl, who had just found out she was pregnant, and her boyfriend. Not sure how to tell their parents, they had said they had gotten high together and then come to this gas station to grab a snack and decide how to break the news to loved ones. They now found their beat-up car trapped by a layer of abandoned police vehicles.
Also trapped with us was a Tufts dental student who had heard the gunfire and driven toward it.
“Get back, get back!” officers yelled, as they ran past our group. “And turn your damn phones off! They might have bombs! They might have bombs! They might have phone-activated bombs!”
“How far back?” asked Adnis Karageorgos, the 39-year-old student, a tall, lanky fellow who stood nearest to me as our group ducked out of the way of the charging officers.
“It isn’t safe!” an officer yelled back to him before sprinting toward the shooting. “Just go . . . run back . . . as far as you can get!”
As we worked our way away from the scene of the gunfight — pausing to watch as several residents, innocently caught in the confusion, were brought out of their homes in handcuffs — the high-school couple wondered out loud if their blocked-in car would be towed.
“Seriously, guys? Your stupid car is going to be fine!” I remember yelling.
Eventually, our small group made it several blocks back to the police tape, where a sea of journalists was now camped out. An army of officers, including canine units and SWAT teams, methodically moved from block to block in search of the remaining suspect.
In the early hours of the morning, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis appeared telling us all what we knew: The men in the shootout, the Tsarnaev brothers, were, in fact, the bombing suspects.
Sometime around 5 a.m, I had made it back to the newsroom, and then was dispatched out again. The city was shut down and Gov. Deval Patrick had ordered everyone to “shelter in place.” The manhunt wasn’t over, it was just beginning.
Friday, April 19, would lead me to the Tsarnaevs’ home in Cambridge, and then later back to Watertown, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered hiding in a boat parked in a back yard just blocks from where the shootout took place.
Police surrounded the boat. Crowds formed around the home and it became clear that this week was, finally, about to be over.
As the daylight faded, the Watertown streets seemed much less menacing than they had when I first found them, 24 hours earlier. Soon, a triumphant sound would echo through the air the way sirens and screams had the night before.
Officers emerged from the yard and declared, “We got him.” And everyone broke into cheers.
Wesley Lowery is a political reporter at The Washington Post. A year ago, he was part of the team covering the Boston Marathon bombings for the Boston Globe.