Into the War Zone

I’m sure someone must have recorded it. And there are undoubtedly official recordings. But I’d really be interested to re-hear the police scanner traffic from just before midnight running about the next hour and a half late Thursday into Friday morning. Listening to it live was one of the more surreal things I think I’ve ever heard.It’s easy to overstate the scope and scale of what happened. Over the last decade we’ve had two big wars in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed with no small number in incidents depressingly similar to the urban bombing we saw in Boston on Monday. In human terms, body for body, it doesn’t compare. But for all that it was no less shocking and hard to believe while it was happening — all in a fairly sleepy town just a few miles from where I once lived.

I got alerted pretty early there had been a shooting at MIT. My first post went up about 15 minutes after the shooting was first reported on the MIT campus. So almost from the start I was listening to the police scanner for Boston and Cambridge and watching sites and twitter feeds from near the scene. Not surprisingly, some of the earliest and clearest updates came the twitter account of The Tech, the MIT student paper.

For maybe the first hour or so (I don’t have a great sense of what happened at exactly what time), it was hard to get a read of whether the shooting was tied to the bombing case or not. On the one hand, given that the FBI had just released images of the suspects a few hours before, news that a cop had been gunned down only a few miles away from the original bombing sounded extremely suspicious. On the other, there’d already been so many wild rumors, overreactions and retracted stories, caution was more than ordinarily warranted. For a decent part of that time there was even a report that the incident was tied to the robbery of a 7/11 and thus couldn’t be connected to the bombing investigation. So for a reporter and editor at a distance, it was watch, or rather listen, and read and wait.

The part that keeps rattling around my head is a period of time that probably came between 12 am and 1 am in the morning, maybe running for that whole period. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. Again, not because of the firepower involved but because of the surreal and difficult to imagine sounds of a small municipal police department moving from what must have seemed like a relatively conventional chase to something more like entering a war zone.

Let’s go back for a moment to the reports of police at the scene and building a perimeter around the scene of the shooting at MIT. At some point the focus on Cambridge (the location of the MIT campus) shifted to Watertown. All of this over the scanner, cars were scrambled in Watertown. It was clear there was a chase or at least cruisers in route to Watertown. And then suddenly gunfire, then ‘they’ve got IEDs’, ‘they’ve got dynamite’, ‘they’re throwing grenades’. ‘Withdraw, withdraw.’ Big concussions, more shooting. I’m running together things that happened and were said over minutes or tens of minutes. But each thing seemed more hard to believe than the last. And much of it was compressed together at an almost concussive speed. One of the many riveting and horrifying parts of listening was hearing these Watertown and at some point probably Cambridge and Boston police start asking themselves ‘Wait, could our cell phones set those things off?” That touch off a whole flurry of backs and forths because really, who knows? Really probably not something you get trained about if you work for a bedroom community police force.

My home office is in our bedroom. So as I was following this and writing, several times I turned back to my wife (who’d also started listening) to say some escalating version of, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Obviously, not all of those things that got shouted out over the scanner turned out to be true, which is why it was impossible to report this stuff as it happened. What’s surprising is how much of it did. Besides the mention of dynamite, which seems to have been the one thing they didn’t have, all the rest turned out to be accurate. More homemade bombs, homemade grenades, seemingly plenty of ammunition. Riddled through all that crosstalk was the expected mix of confusion, efforts to confirm or figure out what was happening by the officers on the scene and what I can only describe as a constant undertone of astonishment in the voices.

Yesterday the head of the Watertown Police Chief Ed Deveau gave a pretty detailed account of what happened in an interview with Wolf Blitzer. This piece from the Globe out this afternoon brings even more of it into focus.

A local officer spotted the brothers driving in two cars, a Honda sedan and the stolen Mercedes SUV, said Deveau. The brothers stopped, jumped out and started firing on the officer, while more police rushed to the scene, he said.

“Quickly we had six Watertown police officers and two bad guys in a gunfight,” said Deveau. At least 200 shots were fired; maybe as many as 300, he said.

This is the part that stands out to me though …

One of his officers put his cruiser into gear and jumped out of it, letting it roll at the suspects to draw fire, he said. The suspects peppered the car with bullets.

After several minutes, the elder brother, Tamerlan, walked toward the officers, firing his gun until he appeared to run out of bullets, Deveau said. Officers tackled him and were trying to get handcuffs on him, when the stolen SUV came roaring at them, the younger brother at the wheel. The officers scattered and the SUV plowed over Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was dragged briefly under the car, he said.

Putting the car in gear and jumping out to let it barrel toward the shooters? Is that part of the training? I’m really not sure. I’ve certainly seen it in movies plenty of times. But it just drives home to me what a harrowing train of events this was.