BOSTON (AP) — In the tight rows of chairs stretched across the Commonwealth Ballroom, the nervousness — already dialed high by two bombs, three deaths and more than 72 hours without answers — ratcheted even higher.
The minutes ticked by as investigators stepped out to delay the news conference once, then again. Finally, at 5:10 p.m. Thursday, a pair of FBI agents carried two large easels to the front of the Boston hotel conference chamber and saddled them with display boards. They turned the boards backward so as not to divulge the results of their sleuthing until, it had been decided, they could not afford to wait any longer.
Now the time had come to take that critical, but perilous step: introducing Boston to the two men responsible for an entire city’s terror.
“Somebody out there knows these individuals as friends, neighbors, co-workers or family members of the suspects,” said Richard DesLauriers, the FBI agent in charge in Boston. As he spoke, investigators flipped the boards around to reveal grainy surveillance-camera images of the men whose only identity was conferred by the black ball cap and sunglasses on one, the white ball cap worn backward on the other.
“Though it may be difficult, the nation is counting on those with information to come forward and provide it to us.”
Photographers and TV cameras pushed forward, intent on capturing the images, even as people in the lobby stared into computers and smart phones, straining to recognize the faces. In living rooms and bars and offices across the city, and across the country, so many people looked up and logged on to examine the faces of the men deemed responsible for the bombing attack of the Boston Marathon, that the FBI servers were instantly overwhelmed.
At the least, Bostonians told each other, the photos proved that the monsters the city had imagined were responsible for maiming more than 170 were nothing more than ordinary men. But even as that relief sunk in, the dread that had gripped the city since Monday at 2:50 p.m. was renewed.
If everyone had seen these photos, then that had to mean the suspects had seen them, too.
What desperation might they resort to, marathoner Meredith Saillant asked herself, once they were confronted with the certainty that their hours of anonymity were running out?
On the morning after the marathon, Saillant had fled the city for the mountains of Vermont with three friends and their children, trying to escape nightmares of the bombs that had detonated on the sidewalk just below the room where they’d been celebrating her 3:38 finish. Now, she put aside her glass of wine, reaching for the smart phone her friend offered and scrutinized the photos of the men who had defeated her city on what was supposed to be its day of camaraderie and strength.
“I expected that I would feel relief, ‘OK, now I can put a face to it,’ and start some closure,” Saillant says. “But I think I felt more doom. I felt, I don’t know, chilled. Knowing where we are and the era in which we live, I knew that as soon as those pictures went up that it was over, that something was going to happen … like it was the beginning of the end.”
There was no way she or the people of Boston could know, though, just when that end would come — or how.
Marathon Monday dawned with the kind of April chill that makes spectators shiver and runners smile — the ideal temperature for keeping a body cool during 26.2 miles of pounding over hills and around curves. By the four-hour mark, more than 2/3 of the field’s 23,000 runners had crossed the finish line, and the crowds of onlookers were beginning to thin a little. But the growing warmth made it an afternoon to relish.
Passing the 25-mile mark, Diane Jones-Bolton, 51, of Nashville, Tenn. picked up the pace, relishing the effort and the sense of accomplishment of her 195th marathon.
Near the finish line, Brighid Wall of Duxbury, Mass. stood to watch the race with her husband and children, cheering on the competitors laboring through the race’s final demanding steps.
In the post-race chute Tracy Eaves, a 43-year-old controller from Niles, Mich., proudly claimed her medal and a Mylar blanket, and took a big swig from a bottle of Gatorade.
And at the corner of Newberry Street and Gloucester, cab driver Lahcene Belhoucet pulled over, relishing the overabundance of paying passengers on an afternoon that traditionally gives almost as much of a boost to Boston’s economy as it does to the city’s spirits.
But the blast — so loud it recalled the cannon fire heard on summer nights when the Boston Pops plays the 1812 Overture — brought the celebration crashing down.
“Everyone sort of froze, the runners froze, and then they kept going because you weren’t sure what it was,” Wall said. “The first explosion was far enough away that we only saw smoke.” Then the second bomb exploded, this time just 10 feet away.
“My husband threw our kids to the ground and lay on top of them,” Wall said. “A man lay on top of us and said ‘Don’t get up! Don’t get up!”
From her spot beyond the finish, a “huge shaking boom” washed over Eaves.
“I turned around and saw this monstrous smoke,” she said. She thought it might be part of the festivities, until the second blast and volunteers began rushing the runners from the scene.
“Then you start to panic,” she said.
Back in the field, Jones-Bolton noticed runners turning around and coming back at her. Then she realized most were wearing the blankets given to those who’d already completed the race. Suddenly the race came to halt, but nobody could say why. When word began to spread, Jones-Bolton panicked at the thought of her husband standing at the finish line, but was reassured by other runners.
At the finish, Wall, her husband and children raised their heads after a minute or two of silence. Beside them, a man was kneeling, looking dazed, blood dripping from his head. A body lay on the ground nearby, not moving at all. But in a landscape of blood and glass and twisted metal, they were far from alone.
“We grabbed each other and we ran but we didn’t know where to run to because windows were blown out so another man helped me pick up my daughter,” and they ran into a coffee shop, out the back door into an alley and kept going.
Meanwhile, the instincts of Dr. Martin Levine, a Bayonne. N.J., physician who has long volunteered to attend to elite runners at the finish line, told him to do just the opposite. Looking up at the plume of smoke, he estimated it was about two storefronts wide and quickly calculated how many spectators might be located in such an area.
“Make room for casualties — about 40!,” he yelled into the runner’s relief tent. “Get the runners out if they can!” And he took off. Just then the second bomb went off. He reached the site to find a landscape resembling a battlefield, littered with severed limbs.
“The people were still smoking, their skin and their clothes were burning,” he said. “There were lower extremity body parts all over the place…and all of the wounds were extreme gaping holes, with the flesh hanging from the bones — if there was any bone left.”
Back in his cab, Belhoucet said he mistook the first blast for an earthquake. Fearing that a building might collapse, he considered running. But then people came pouring down the street and he beckoned a family into the car. He grabbed the wheel, then turned momentarily to ask where they wanted to go.
Only then did he notice the man’s face, dripping with blood.
Now, three days after the bombing, investigators had made significant headway in deciphering the method behind the terror.
Armies of white-suited agents had spent many hours sifting through the evidence littering Boylston Street, climbing to nearby rooftops to make sure no clue would go overlooked. Their efforts revealed that the bombers had constructed crudely assembled weapons, using plans easily found on the Internet, from pressure cookers, wires and batteries popular at hobby shops. But investigators still did not know why. And, more importantly, they had only the haziest idea of who to hold responsible.
It all came down to the photos, culled after a painstaking search of hundreds of hours of videotape and photographs gathered from surveillance cameras and spectators. But if they were unable to identify the men, that left the investigators with a difficult choice: They could keep them to law enforcement officers who so far had had no luck, prolonging the search and risking letting the men slip away or attack again. Or they could ask the public for help. But then, the suspects would know the net was closing in.
When they decided to release them, it would only put Bostonians further on edge.
“There was this kind of strange tension,” said Brian Walker of Boston. “You walk by people and you just kind of look at them out of the corner of your eye and check them out. I was conscious that I didn’t feel comfortable walking around with a backpack. It was like I just want to be safe here and everybody is kind of jumpy.”
But as investigated pored over tips in the hours before the photos were made public, the city, at least, was struggling to right itself.
On Monday, the bombs had exploded just a half-block before Brian Ladley crossed the Marathon finish line. But, feeling lucky to be alive, he was out at 7 a.m. Thursday to join the line at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, hoping to hear President Barack Obama speak at an interfaith service to honor the victims. The event was still hours away, but when tickets ran out, authorities spotted his marathon jacket and plucked him and some other runners out of line to watch the service in a nearby school auditorium.
“If they sought to intimidate us, to terrorize us … It should be pretty clear right now that they picked the wrong city to do it,” Obama told the crowd of more than 2,000 inside the church. “”We may be momentarily knocked off our feet. But we’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going. We will finish the race.”
After it ended, Ladley found himself shaking hands with the president, too awestruck to remember their conversation. But what meant the most was the camaraderie of the crowd.
“It was wonderful to have a moment with other runners and be able to share our stories,” he said.
Less than a mile away, 85-year-old Mary O’Kane strained at the bell ropes in the steeple of historic Arlington Street Church, imagining the sounds spreading a healing across her city — and the land. Sprinkled amid hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress,” patriotic tunes like “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” wafted down from the 199-foot steeple and over Boston Common across the street.
“I feel joyful. I feel worshipful. I feel glad to be alive,” she said. The city’s response to the bombing had revealed its strength and brotherhood, attributes she was certain would carry it through. But her belief in Boston was tinged with sadness. Now she understood a little bit about how New Yorkers who experienced 9/11 must feel.
“I mean, it happened — it finally happened,” O’Kane said. “We were feeling sort of immune. Now we’re just a part of everybody…The same expectations and fears.”
In the hours after investigators released the photos of the men known only as Suspect (hash)1 and Suspect (hash)2, the city went on about the business of a Thursday night, a semblance of normality restored except for the area immediately surrounding the blast site. Restaurants that had closed in the nights just after the bombing reopened for business. At Howl at the Moon, a bar on High Street downtown, the dueling pianists took the stage at 6 p.m., almost as if nothing had changed.