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04/24/2013

How we covered the Boston Marathon bombings

News of the Boston Marathon bombings broke a few minutes after the first explosion last Monday, and almost immediately the Star’s foreign editor Lynn McAuley asked me to grab my passport and make my way to Boston.

We didn’t know how many fatalities there were, or if I’d be able to make it to Boston. After rumours of a possible bombing at a Boston library, the airspace over the city was closed.

In the Toronto Island airport lounge, the gravity hit home as Boston-area residents frantically juggled cellphones and laptops, trying to account for their family and friends.

After arriving in Boston, I headed for a planned candlelight vigil at Boston University. When tragedy strikes, most arriving reporters head either for impromptu memorials, typically advertised on Twitter or Facebook, or to area hospitals and blood donor centres.

I wore a windbreaker that had a small maple leaf on it, and although the vigil was cancelled, a man approached me and asked if I was Canadian.

Toronto resident Farhan Mumtaz, 18, a first-year pre-med student at Boston University, told me he’d been fielding calls all day from people afraid he might have been injured. The Pakistan native said he was praying that the bombers weren’t Muslim because life for many Muslims was hard enough in the wake of 9/11.

My editors and I debated how much of his quotes we’d use for our story, and decided that since no one had claimed responsibility for the bombings, and there were no suspects, it was too early to raise the issue of religion in our coverage.

The workday wasn't over. It was after midnight but there was still an hour or so to go to file updates for the Star's final edition. I walked as close as I could to the marathon finish line, and interviewed a few runners there who were picking up bags of clothing they had would have retrieved earlier if they could have completed the race.

In many foreign assignments logistics is a key challenge, and Boston was no different.

Each day, editors would ask whether I could chase down a string of purported developments in the case. On Tuesday, The New York Post reported a pair of Saudi nationals were guarded and being questioned in the hospital.

Later, CNN erroneously reported an arrest had been made in the case, a report that left me sprinting across Boston to a courthouse where I thought a suspect would be arraigned. (Much of downtown Boston remained closed to taxis and other vehicles throughout the week.) As CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said on air, "That's what happens in these cases.. you go with what you have."

Humvee
Downtown Boston was mostly shut off to traffic during the manhunt. (Rick Westhead/Toronto Star)

After a prank call led to the evacuation of the courthouse, taxi driver Steve Sullivan spoke for so many when he told me locals were frustrated over the incorrect media reports.

“You reporters wonder why no one trusts you these days? Because of garbage like this,” Sullivan said.

It's a fair point, and I went out of my way not to upset the hundreds of people who earlier had gathered in Dorchester, Mass., to remember 8-year-old Martin Richard, one of three people killed by the blasts. An editor once told me that the best way to approach people for quotes at times like this was to explain we want to write "tributes" about the victims.

It was good advice that helped me connect with many locals in Dorchester who eyed the TV cameras warily. I wound up with a better understanding of the blue-collar community.

As a Star colleague remarked, covering such a big story can make you feel small. In the same way that the Star would have all reporters and editors dedicated to a story of this magnitude unfolding in Toronto, The Boston Globe and U.S. national TV networks committed huge resources to coverage.

Even if we couldn’t connect with families in local hospitals (police understandably locked them down) we decided to try to use law-enforcement experts to explain how police and FBI would be pursuing their investigation.

That led me Wednesday to a string of explosions experts such as former FBI special agent Kevin Miles who explained how crime scenes are processed and how even details like the colour of the smoke from an explosion is telling.

On Thursday, the FBI released photos and video of the suspects but seemed no closer to making an arrest as the evening unfolded. I filed the last update to a story on the video footage at about midnight and planned to return to Toronto the following morning.

A few hours later, that plan changed.

At about 4 a.m. on Friday, a friend who worked for a large U.S. media company sent me a string of text messages. (He figured I might have ignored one message alone.) He said police scanners were full of chatter about a manhunt in nearby Watertown.

After a quick shower, I grabbed my bag and jumped in a taxi. The cabbie needed convincing to go to Watertown, but a fare that was about double his regular price settled the matter.

The first sign of trouble in Watertown was police tape that closed off a road near a local Dunkin’ Donuts. A state trooper stood on the other side of the tape, and said repeatedly he didn’t know anything about what was happening.

A reporter from Miami said he’d heard that the shopping mall across town was closer to the manhunt and we raced across Watertown, talking our way past several police checkpoints on the way.

For most of Friday, we were huddled in a plaza parking lot, watching convoy after convoy of police, ATF and military vehicles race past. The Boston police have media relations figured out.

At one point, they brought the few dozen reporters there bagged lunches: ham, turkey and corned beer sandwiches, apples and oranges and potato chips. They also generously offered free diesel to the TV trucks. But tensions were incredibly high. At one point, police jumped into a group of reporters and grabbed one journalist away, searching his bag.

Every hour seemed to bring a dramatic development. At one point, a local sheriff told me that an MIT police officer had been shot. “He didn’t even have time to draw his weapon,” the sheriff said, revealing some news that hadn’t yet been reported in the press.

Finally, at 6 p.m. Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick showed up at the parking lot surrounded by guards and reported the manhunt had failed.

I met up with Muna Shikaki, a U.S.-based correspondent for Al Arabiya, and headed back to Boston. But on the drive, NPR reported a gun fight in Watertown. It was like something out of a movie. We darted off the highway, and returned to the suburb.

Hours later, police relaxed the roadblocks and we made our way to the street where Dzhokar Tsarnaev was found.

Sean Finn sat on his front porch, sipping a Bud Light while his son flipped through a book of hockey cards.

It was late, but I knew Finn’s quote would surely find its way into Saturday’s story in the paper. He talked about how the boat had been hit by bullets.

“We are all feeling relieved,” Finn said. “But Dave (his neighbour) is going to be bummed. He just had that boat redone.”

FULL COVERAGE OF THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

 

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