The Boston Bomber Stakeout

Boxed lunches, doughnuts, hot coffee: Staking out and so much more.

The Boston Bomber Stakeout

When I say I’m a reporter for the Huffington Post, people frequently ask me if I get paid. (Yes, I do—we’re not all blogging for free.) Not only am I gainfully employed, but I covered what is probably the biggest breaking news event I’ll ever see firsthand: the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.

The two years I’d worked as a stringer for the New York Daily News came rushing back. Back then, car crashes, fires and other forms of mayhem constituted a huge portion of my assignments. I learned to be comfortable in chaos and how to respectfully interview people who’d just been through a traumatic event. But the marathon bombing dwarfed all previous stakeouts.

HuffPost dispatched me to Boston the day after the bombing. I was staying with a friend near M.I.T. when a police offer was fatally shot on campus. A collective gasp sucked the air out of the greater Boston area as everyone wondered if the cop killing was tied to the deadly explosion days earlier at the marathon’s finish line.

Like any other stakeout, this one became an endurance test. It had already been a long day when I saw Twitter light up with reports of the shooting at M.I.T. Only a few journalists got to the crime scene before me. No one knew yet that the officer’s killers were allegedly the marathon bombers, but a few dozen of the hundreds of reporters, photographers, and camera people who were in town to cover the bombing’s aftermath rushed from their hotel rooms to see what had happened.

The media abandoned that scene upon hearing police scanner chatter about gunfire and grenades in Watertown. An editor from Bloomberg News and I hitched a ride with two photographers. Adrenaline surged through me on this white-knuckle car ride as we sped through red lights and into oncoming traffic.

We scattered out of his truck onto the main drag of Watertown to find someone, anyone, who could tell us what they’d seen or heard. It was late at night and lots of people were gathered outside of homes and bars. Reporters asked residents for tallies of the gunshots and explosions and for their best impressions of what the salvos sounded like.

Police began informing the media that we had to relocate to a shopping mall parking lot. Getting us off the streets was essential—they didn’t want to be concerned about our safety, or to have journalists hinder their search for a suspected cop-killing bomber by tweeting about their movements, equipment and arms. So, in the middle of the night, a caravan of journalists and a handful of stranded Watertown residents pulled into the parking lot. It was time to get comfortable. We’d spend much of the next day huddled on this blacktop.

Because of the heightened security risks, we were surrounded by state troopers. The police were there to make sure we didn’t wander off into town to get a closer look at their militarized door-to-door search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They were also there to make sure that no one, and in particular no terrorism suspect, came our way.

Unlike the typical stakeout, providing for our basic bodily needs was relatively simple. When journalists are camped out in one spot for an extended period of time, identifying the nearest public bathroom is vital. But in this case, the authorities hauled in a couple of port-a-potties for the 100 or so members of the media who’d coalesced in the middle of the night.

Boxed lunches, doughnuts, hot coffee and water were also dropped off, courtesy of Massachusetts’s finest.

There was even a cute, humorous human-interest story there for the writing. A dad and his elementary-school-age daughter had returned from Logan International Airport with their new puppy, who’d arrived by plane, to discover they were blocked from their house and needed to remain inside the lockdown zone. So they cheerfully recounted their ordeal to every member of the press who wanted an interview, including my HuffPost coworker and me.

The hours passed quickly. Being confined to one spot made it tough to develop unique angles. The best I came up with was to interview people on the phone who were living inside the lockdown zone for descriptions of what it was like be under siege. (The British news station Sky News interviewed me on camera.)

In the evening, officials speaking at a press briefing made remarks suggesting that the search might not end any time soon. Security had loosened, though, allowing members of the media to leave the parking lot. My coworker and I decided to go to my friend’s nearby apartment. Our plan was to get dinner, freshen up and write an article. But we’d barely gotten inside the apartment when other reporters began tweeting about a volley of gunfire in Watertown.

We packed up our gear and headed back. We milled around, but couldn’t get close to the block where Tsarnaev was shot and arrested. Cheers were heard moments after his capture was announced electronically. People emerged from their homes and a street party took shape instantly. Locals applauded a stream of ambulances, police cars and other official vehicles proceeding through town. Using their P.A. systems, the police and emergency responders thanked the public. The feeling of relief was palpable.

Stakeouts and the Huffington Post don’t usually go hand in hand. HuffPost’s philosophy is to break away from the pack and find a unique angle to investigate. But there are times when a HuffPost reporter gets caught up in the mix and finds himself filing stories from a rental car and tweeting updates from impromptu press conferences, and that just might have been the best way to contribute to coverage of an event of that magnitude.