Covering the Boston Marathon Bombings3
My phone lit up with a news alert. I saw the words “Boston Marathon” and “explosion,” and I ran to the nearest television. At first I thought I was looking at footage from an attack in a foreign country. But then I noticed people in running gear. “How do you turn the volume on?” I asked. Soon, the volume was up and a crowd of people hovered around the television. Phones started ringing. The newsroom became alive.
I called up my office in DC and let them know I was there to help. But working out of the Los Angeles office meant I couldn’t be further away from what was happening. It didn’t make sense for me to report on the explosions. As a reporter, it’s hard to ignore a major news event.
I called the police and sheriff’s departments in LA to find out whether they were concerned about an attack here. I did a quick radio report and then told myself to re-focus on my work. But no one was returning my calls.
A few days later, there was an explosion in the city of West, Texas. Around 9 pm I got the call. I had to go to West. I grabbed my “go” bag (and had to pack since I had just gotten back from Vegas a few days before) and I took off to the airport.
It was short, overnight flight. I arrived in Houston, rented a car, and drove nearly 4 hours to Waco where I did a series of live shots for CCTV English. The program broadcasts from Beijing. I worked with an AP live crew to report from the hospital where more than 100 people were taken with injuries.
I figured I’d be there for a few days, at least. No one knew how many lives were lost. You could see the shock on people’s faces. They were tired, worried, and extremely saddened. People donated blood, and clothes, and food, and toys. It hadn’t been 24 hours and already the community had come together to help each other.
Stories like these always touch my heart.
I worked through the night, doing live shots, and putting together video. At about 4 a.m. I checked into my hotel and about 30 minutes later I was asleep.
The phone rang at 6 a.m. There had been a new development in Boston. The city was on lockdown. A police officer was dead. I had to get up there right away.
I drove back down to Houston and caught a plane to Boston. As the plane landed I noticed there were hardly any cars on the road. A man sitting next to me said he lived in Boston, and he had never seen the city on lockdown like this. It was eerie.
I had to hit the ground running. I met up with my Feature Story News colleagues, Nathan King (New York office), Stephen Fee (New York office), and Nick Harper (DC headquarters). We worked as a team. Nathan would do a live shot from one location. Nick would be at another. Me and Stephen would venture out to get video. Then we would all swap.
The first place I went was Watertown. We had heard police may have located the suspect. We were less than a mile from where the arrest would take place. A helicopter circled overhead. A dog barked. Was it a bomb-sniffing dog?
It was night. But the sky was not dark. It seemed that every light that could be on, was on. The streets were barricaded. Officers from different divisions patrolled, and military-looking vehicles made their way along the main road. Police in neon yellow jackets held giant black assault rifles. I wouldn’t say everyone was on edge. But there was definitely a feeling of anticipation.
Once it had been announced the suspect was captured, there was relief. Although there were reports that police clapped, and people cheered, I didn’t see that from where I was standing. Instead, I saw special police forces arrive in the parking log. They were taking off their tactical gear. They were packing up their tools. We all wondered whether it was really over.
I uploaded a photo to Instagram and felt good about getting this comment:
Soon, a news conference was held. I sat in the very front with my iPhone as my colleagues did live shots. The mayor, the governor, the FBI, the US Attorney, the police commissioner, and others all spoke. They gave us more details than we would have time to report.
The next morning we headed back to Watertown and got as close as we could to the home where police arrested the suspect. Neighbors were out, eager to talk about what they heard and saw. It had sounded like a battle erupted in their sleepy town. The mood was happy. These people seemed to have felt pride that their town helped end one of the largest manhunts on American soil.
Boston is one of my favorite American cities. Birthplace of freedom, is what license plates say. A couple of years earlier I had visited for a day, stopping by Paul Revere’s home and getting a look at the USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides.” You can’t get much more American than Boston. So you can imagine just how important baseball games are.
Me, Nick, and Stephen (Nathan had traveled back to New York), went to Fenway Park and interviewed people attending the Red Sox game. I was struck by what two women told me. They said they were worried about going to the game because so many people were in once place. And now they knew it would make an ideal terrorist target. They hadn’t ever thought of that before. This is one of those moments when, as a reporter, I realize just how much this one event has impacted people. And they will never, fully, get over it.
Here is a panoramic picture I took at the makeshift memorial:
In the coming days, we would attend the funeral of Krystle Campbell. There were hundreds of people lined up to attend the mass at her Catholic church, but they had to be turned away because it was full. I had never seen so many flowers at a funeral before. It was beautiful and extremely sad.
I don’t ever include my religion or religious views in my reporting. But when I attend a funeral such as this, I do take a minute to pray. When I shut my eyes to say the Lord’s prayer in my head, I felt an overwhelming sensation. I had just attended the funeral for my Yia Yia (Greek for grandma) a few weeks ago, and that overwhelming sadness and sense of peace rushed over me once again. I looked up at the faces of the family and saw tears. I looked up even higher at the cross and noticed a streak in the sky. Yes, it was a plane, but for some reason, I felt it was significant.
Our team also attended the moment of silence at the makeshift memorial. I went to the public memorial service for Chinese National Lingzi Lu. I came with my camera, because I had lined up an interview with a member of the Chinese student association. Many people don’t realize that during an event like this, there are a limited number of cameras allowed into the service. News agencies participate in what is called a “pool feed.” That means I had to use photos from the Boston Globe, which had a photographer allowed in, and we get video from one news organization that was allowed inside. We all have to share. So I watched the memorial service form a closed-circuit television in a makeshift media room at Boston University.
As the week progressed, Stephen went back to New York, and Nick went back to DC. Nina-Maria Potts then arrived and we worked together as a team.
She went with me to the hospital to shoot an interview with Dangling Zhou. She wanted to talk on camera from her hospital bed. She had been standing next to Lingzi Lu when the bombs went off. I sat with her. I told her she didn’t have to answer any question she didn’t want. But she did answer every question and went into detail.
She was seriously injured in the second blast. She described looking at her limbs to make sure they were there. She noticed her belly had been split open and she told me she tried to push it all back in. I can’t imagine what that was like.
She said her friend Lingzi did not look very hurt. As Dangling went through surgery after surgery, she would ask about her friend. She was told Lingzi couldn’t be found. Eventually, she learned her friend had died.
But the reason she wanted to talk on camera was to thank everyone that had helped her. She must have talked for five minutes straight, trying to name everyone that helped her. The doctors, nurses, counselors, the US and Chinese governments, and on, and on, and on. I made sure to include as much as I could in the story.
Her mother was there, as was her cousin. The US and Chinese governments rushed to get them visas so they could be at her side. Her mother is planning to stay in the US for a few months to help her daughter recover. Dangling does not know whether she’ll stay in Boston or go back to China.
Parents in China often send their children to the US to get a good education. They expect their children to be safe. And then something like this happens. What makes it even worse is that China has a one-child policy. And traditionally, these children are expected to care for their parents as they age. When Lingzi died, her family lost their only child and likely the means to support themselves in old age.
I talked with a couple of Chinese students a few days after the suspect was caught. They told me their parents were very worried about having them study in US, but both said they thought things would get better and that an education at Boston University was important to achieve.
After a few days, the spotlight was once again on the surviving suspect. He was being treated at the same hospital where many of his victims were recovering. Their families are now demanding he be moved out. A judge visited him bedside and he was charged with federal crimes and could face the death penalty.
But what I found most interesting was what was happening to his older, deceased brother. In the years following 9/11, Americans started to hear that Islamic extremists thought it was okay to kill innocent people that did not believe in Allah. Well, mosques in Boston seemed to want to change that perception. I spoke with one of the most prominent Imams in Boston, Imam Talal Eid. He said the elder brother was going to hell for killing innocent people. Eid said he is refusing to perform Muslim burial rituals for the suspect. Other Imams have taken the same stance. It doesn’t mean the suspect will go without a Muslim burial, but it means a great deal when Imams decide to publicly state that they won’t participate.
I also visited the Islamic Society of Boston. It is a beautiful, hand-painted building in Cambridge. In many ways, it reminded me of the mosques and palaces in India. This is where the brothers would occasionally worship. The older brother had been asked to leave for disrupting sermons. In retrospect, there were signs that he was extreme. But no know knew him personally, and a spokeswoman says no one could have imagined what the brothers had planned.
Lawmakers are starting to point fingers at US intelligence agencies for failing for monitor the older brother, even after Russia requested he be questioned. Now, investigators are flying the suspects parents to the US. The mother claims her boys are innocent and were framed.
Another difficult thing about reporting these kinds of stories, are how a very small number of outsiders spend their energy trying to twist the truth. I had to stay up late one night deleting video links from the comments section of my Facebook page. It was a series of conspiracy theories. Some seemed to claim that those injured were faking it.
In the US, there’s free speech. But when it comes to my personal Facebook page, I don’t think it proper to allow someone to spread lies. Especially when it was me that sat down next to a victim in the hospital as she explained her horrific experience.
As I prepared to leave Boston, Boylston street re-opened. The blood had been scrubbed off the sidewalk, and the pavement had been repaired. I saw one restaurant still boarded up. In front of it is where one of the blasts happened.
I’m a runner. I’ve run the Marine Corps Marathon. Next time I run a race, I will definitely be thinking of the Boston Marathon. I’ll never forget.