Traumatic manhunt sparks a sense of togetherness in Watertown

April 20, 2013

It was the morning after the drama that thrust this small town into the national spotlight, and Holly Azzara, a 29-year-old with a pink shock of hair, four lip studs and bright tattoos climbing her arms and neck, was kneeling on the sidewalk outside her tattoo shop on the main shopping street, chalking her tribute.

“I (heart) Watertown,” she scrawled in large script, adding a Boston Red Sox logo and tiny symbols of the town’s police and firefighters.

Sarkis Ourfalian, 52, an active member of one of the town’s three Armenian churches, stepped out of his Armenian bakery next door.

“Yes! We do love Watertown!” he called, gazing at the chalk drawing.

A wave of relief and small-town pride swept through this quiet, highly diverse Boston suburb Saturday after police seized the latter of two suspected Boston Marathon bombers hiding in a docked boat behind a gray Victorian home.

The dragnet had made the town of 33,000 the focus of a vast military and police operation. It upended a community where graduate students from nearby Harvard rub elbows with working-class immigrants from Uganda, and no one ever worries about walking around alone at night.

Until this week.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. It was tough,” said Ourfalian. Like most residents, he and his family were forced to huddle indoors all day Friday as gun-toting federal agents searched nearby streets for the suspect. The family watched incredulously as TV images portrayed their town as an armed camp.

“We’re like, ‘Not in our town!’ We don’t expect anything to happen here, even though we’re close to Boston. Crime is almost nonexistent,” said Ourfalian.

Farther down Mount Auburn Street at the Deluxe Town Diner, Mason Fitch, 37, struggled to think of the last high-profile criminal event in Watertown. “In high school, in 1990, a drunk driver drove into a bank,” the longtime resident finally offered.

Despite its small size, Watertown has an outsize pedigree: Paul Revere once lived here, and the town was the seat of government for Massachusetts in 1775-76. But its 20th-century character was defined by the shoe, rubber and food factories that sprang up, drawing large numbers of immigrants from Armenia and Greece.

“Just a Regular Joe town,” said Nichols Faggas, 46, a dark-suited man with a linebacker’s build who was working Saturday for a funeral home at the Taxiarchae/Archangels Greek Orthodox Church.

In recent years, with real estate prices skyrocketing in neighboring Cambridge and Boston, an influx of newcomers arrived — students and young professionals drawn by relatively inexpensive rents, good schools and quiet streets. Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East discovered the town, too. The Armenian markets now share the downtown area with a Thai restaurant, a vegan eatery and an espresso shop.

With downtown Boston less than 10 miles away, many Watertown residents had watched the marathon on Monday. Residents were still coping with the shock of the bombings when they were stunned early Friday by a shootout in Watertown between police and the suspects, who were fleeing Cambridge.

Faggas said his wife, a nurse, had been volunteering at the medical tent at the marathon’s finish line Monday.

“She’s pretty tough, but I could tell she was traumatized,” said Faggas. “And then it comes home to your backyard. It’s scary.”

Throughout the day Friday, residents endured the nerve-racking hours by texting and calling each other and sending Facebook messages. Faggas got a flood of messages from the high-school baseball players whom he coaches, from friends, relatives and colleagues.

Finally, shortly before 9 p.m. Friday, police announced they had detained Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. Residents of Watertown poured into the streets to cheer the officers.

“It was like unity. Everyone was cheering,” said Faggas. “It made me feel proud to be an American.”

At the Deluxe Town Diner, Fitch, his wife and friends were marveling Saturday at how the town had come together in joy and celebration.

“I can’t stress enough how nice it felt,” he said, sipping from a mug of coffee. “Bostonians aren’t very friendly. And everyone we passed was saying hello to everybody. We’re not the kind of people who say hello to strangers.”

By midday Saturday, a throng of Watertown residents had gathered on Franklin Street, an avenue of pastel-colored Victorian homes where the suspect was found. Police had strung yellow crime-scene tape to close off access to the block where the arrest occurred, but many residents wanted to gaze at it anyway.

Greg McEachern, 33, the creative director for a sport apparel company, who lives four blocks from the site, said the experience would have a positive effect on the town.

“Everyone is very impressed with the togetherness,” he said, standing with his wife and two small daughters. “Ultimately it will be changed for the best.”

Marilyn Petitto Devaney, an older woman who declined to give her age, wasn’t so sure.

“I had to come down today. This is the closure. This is it. I had to see it with my own eyes,” she said. She had been paralyzed by fear on Friday as she waited out the siege alone in her home, a third of a mile away.

“It’s an experience I don’t think any of us will get over,” she said, her voice catching.

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