But across the Charles River in Cambridge, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother Dzhokhar, 19, were arming up.
Later, friends and relatives would recall both as seemingly incapable of terrorism. The brothers were part of an ethnic Chechen family that came to the U.S, in 2002, after fleeing troubles in Kyrgyzstan and then Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia’s North Caucasus. They settled in a working-class part of Cambridge, where the father, Anzor Tsarnaev, opened an auto shop.
Dzhokhar did well enough in his studies at prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin to merit a $2,500 city scholarship for college.
Tamerlan, though, could be argumentative and sullen. “I don’t have a single American friend,” he said in an interview for a photo essay on boxing. He was clearly the dominant of the two brothers, a former accounting student with a wife and son, who explained his decision to drop out of school by telling a relative, “I’m in God’s business.”
It’s not that Tamerlan Tsarnaev didn’t have options. For several years he’d impressed coaches and other as a particularly talented amateur boxer.
“He moved like a gazelle. He could punch like a mule,” said Tom Lee, president of the South Boston Boxing Club, where Tsarnaev began training in 2010.”I would describe him as a very ordinary person who didn’t really stand out until you saw him fight.”
But away from the gym, Tamerlan swaggered around his parent’s home like he owned it, those who knew him said. And he began declaring an allegiance to Islam, joined with increasingly inflammatory views.
One of the brothers’ neighbors, Albrecht Ammon, recalled an encounter in which the older brother argued with him about U.S. foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and religion. The Bible, Tamerlan told him, was a “cheap copy” of the Quran, used to justify wars with other countries. “He had nothing against the American people,” Ammon said. “He had something against the American government.”
Dzhokhar, on the other hand, was “real cool,” Ammon said. “A chill guy.”
Since the bombing, the younger brother had maintained much of that sense of cool, returning to classes at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and attending student parties.
On the day of the bombing, he wrote on Twitter: “There are people that know the truth but stay silent & there are people that speak the truth but we don’t hear them cuz they’re the minority.”
But by Tuesday, when he stopped by a Cambridge auto garage, the mechanic, accustomed to long talks with Dzhokhar about cars and soccer, noticed the normally relaxed 19-year-old was biting his nails and trembling.
The mechanic, Gilberto Junior, told Tsarnaev he hadn’t had a chance to work on a Mercedes he’d dropped off for bumper work. “I don’t care. I don’t care. I need the car right now,” Junior says Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told him.
Now, with the photos out, it was time to move. Already, one of Dzhokhar’s college classmates had taken to studying the photo of Suspect (hash)1 — nearly certain it was his friend, although others were skeptical. It wouldn’t take long for others to notice.
The call to the police dispatcher came in at 10:20 p.m. Thursday: shots fired on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge. Ten minutes later, when police arrived to investigate, they found one of their own, university officer Sean Collier, shot multiple times inside his cruiser at the corner of Vassar and Main.
The baby-faced 26-year-old, in just a year on patrol, had impressed both his supervisors and the students as particularly dedicated to his work. Just a few days earlier, he’d asked Chief John DiFava for approval to join the board at a homeless shelter, in a bid to steer people away from problems before they developed. Now he was being pronounced dead at the hospital.
Witnesses reported seeing two men. Fifteen minutes later, another call came in of an armed carjacking by two men, not far away on Third Street. After half an hour, the carjackers had let the owner go, but not before using the victims’ bank card to pocket $800 from an ATM and telling the man they’d just killed a police officer and that they were responsible for the bombing, Watertown Police Chief Edward Deveau said.
Investigators had their break.
The carjacking victim had left his cellphone in the Mercedes SUV, enabling police to track its location via GPS, Deveau said. It was past 11 p.m. now, and as the car sped west into Watertown, one of Deveau’s officers spotted it and gave chase, realizing too late he was alone against the brothers driving two separate cars. When both vehicles came to a halt, the men stepped out and opened fire. Three more officers arrived, then two who were off-duty, fending off a barrage. When a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officer, Richard Donohue, pulled up behind them, a bullet to the groin severed an artery and he went down.
“We’re in a gunfight, a serious gunfight,” Deveau said. “Rounds are going and then all of the sudden they see something being thrown at them and there’s a huge explosion. I’m told it’s exactly the same type of explosive that we’d seen that happened at the Boston Marathon. The pressure cooker lid was found embedded in a car down the street.”
In the normally quiet streets of Watertown, residents rushed to their windows.
“Now I know what it must be like to be in a war zone, like Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Anna Lanzo, a 70-year-old retired medical secretary whose house was rocked by the explosion.
As the firefight continued, Tamerlan Tsarnaev moved closer and closer to the officers, until less than 10 feet separated them, continuing to shoot even as he was hit by police gunfire, until finally he ran out of ammunition and officers tackled him, Deveau said. But as they struggled to cuff the older brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev jumped back in the second vehicle.
“All of the sudden somebody yelled ‘Get out of the way!’ and they (the officers) look up and here comes the black SUV that’s been hijacked right at them. They dove out of the way at the last second and he ran over his brother, dragged him down the street and then fled,” he said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A few blocks over, Samantha England, was heading to bed when she heard what sounded like fireworks. When she called 911, the dispatcher told her to stay inside, lock the doors and get down on the floor. She reached for the TV, trying to figure out what was going on.
“As soon as they said it on the news, that’s when we started to freak out and realize they were here,” England said.
But after all the gunfire, the younger Tsarnaev had vanished. Officers, their guns drawn, moved through the neighborhood of wood-frame homes and cordoned off the area as daylight approached.
At Kayla DiPaolo’s house on Oak Street, she scrambled to find shelter in the door frame of her bedroom as a bullet came the side paneling on her front door. At 8:30 a.m., Jonathan Peck heard helicopters circling above his house on Cypress Street and looked outside to see about 50 armed men.
“It seemed like Special Forces teams were searching every nook and cranny of my yard,” he said.
Unable to find Tsarnaev, authorities announced they were shutting down not just Watertown, but all of Boston and many of its suburbs, affecting more than 1 million people. Train service was cancelled. Taxis were ordered off the streets. Filming of a Hollywood movie called “American Hustle” — the tale of an FBI sting operation — was called off. In central Boston, streets normally packed with officer workers turned eerily silent.
“It feels like we’re living in a movie. I feel like the whole city is in a standstill right now and everyone is just glued to the news,” Rebecca Rowe of Boston said.
But as the hours went by, and the house-to-house search continued, investigators found no sign of their quarry. Finally, at about 6 p.m., they announced the shutdown had been lifted.
At the Islamic Society of Boston, Belhoucet, the cab driver who’d fled the bombing scene, arrived for evening prayer only to find it shuttered. But he told himself the city’s paralysis could not continue much longer. “Because there is no place to hide,” Belhoucet said. “His picture is all over the world now.”
Across Watertown, people ventured out for the first time in hours to enjoy the day’s unusually warm air. They included a man who took a few steps into his Franklin Street backyard, then noticed the tarp on his boat was askew. He lifted it, looked inside and saw a man covered in blood.
He rushed back in to call police. And again, the neighborhood was awash in officers in fatigues and armed with machine guns. Hunkered down inside the boat, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev traded fire with police for more than an hour, until at last, they are able to subdue him.
Just before 9 p.m., police scanners crackle:
“Suspect in custody.”
On the Twitter account of the Boston police department, the news is trumpeted to a city that has been holding its collective breath over five days of fear: “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won.”
With that, Boston pours into the streets. In Watertown, officers lower their guns and grasp hands in congratulation. Bostonians applaud police officers and cheer as the ambulance carrying Tsarnaev passes. Under the flashing lights from Kenmore Square’s iconic Citgo sign, Boston University sophomore Will Livingston shouts up to people hanging out of open windows: “USA! USA! Get hyped, people!”
But on Boylston Street, where the bombing site remains cordoned off, there is silence even as the crowd swelled, and tears are shed.
“I think it’s a mixture of happiness and relief,” said Matt Taylor, 39, of Boston, a nurse who drove to Boylston Street as soon as he heard of the arrest.
Nearby, Aaron Wengertsman, 19, a Boston University student, who was on the marathon route a mile from the finish line when the bombs exploded, stands wrapped in an American flag. “I’m glad they caught him alive,” Wengertsman says. “It’s humbling to see all these people paying their respects.”
They include 25-year-old attorney Beth Lloyd-Jones, who was 25 blocks from the bombings and considers them deeply personal, a violation of her city. She is planning her wedding inside the Boston Public Library, adjacent to where the bombs exploded.
“Now I feel a little safer,” she says. But she can’t help but think of the victims who suffered in the explosions that started it all: “That could have been any one of us.”