Tragedy struck Boston, Cambridge, and MIT this year with the bombing at the 117th Boston Marathon on Monday Apr. 15 and the shooting death of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier that Friday. The events that unfolded halted Boston’s daily operations and thrust the city and Institute into the national spotlight.
Two bombs exploded near the race’s finish line on Boylston Street at 2:50 p.m. that Monday, hours after the elite groups of runners finished. The first detonated in front of Marathon Sports, a Back Bay running store, followed by the second about 600 feet west 13 seconds later.
Local emergency workers, Massachusetts Army National Guard soldiers (already at the marathon providing security), and bystanders provided the first response. According to The Boston Globe, individuals injured in the blast were then treated at 27 surrounding hospitals.
Three people, Martin Richard, 8, Krystle Campbell, 29, and Lu Lingzi, 23, were killed while watching from the sidewalk on Boylston Street. As many as 264 people were injured, 14 of whom required the amputation of limbs, according to The Boston Globe.
Police evacuated nearby buildings and declared a 15-block crime scene in which they searched for additional bombs. The Boston Police Bomb Squad dealt with many bags dropped by fleeing spectators as potential bombs. Several MIT living groups in the Back Bay offered water, outlets for cell phone charging, and other services to runners and spectators in the crowd trying to evacuate the area.
While news reports in the afternoon suggested that police officials had found and were dismantling another explosive device, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis confirmed later that night that the only devices discovered were the two that detonated. Other news reports incorrectly connected a fire at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to the bombings, although it was in fact unrelated.
MBTA services were interrupted in many locations, and the investigation of a suspicious package took place near the Harvard MBTA station an hour and a half after the blasts. At 4:50 p.m., the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a ground stop at Logan airport, allowing aircraft to land again at 5:35 p.m.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif sent a message to the MIT community in the evening confirming that no MIT students or faculty were among the casualties, although many were indirectly affected. Chris Peterson, an MIT admissions officer and Comparative Media Studies researcher, raised $47,500 over the course of the week for the family of his friend, young deceased victim Martin Richard. Both parents of Richard T. Whalley ’10 were in the ICU following the bombing, and Whalley’s coworkers helped raise $64,000 for the family by the Friday after the bombing.
Investigations by the FBI and other federal agencies continued over the following days. Authorities determined that the bombs were made from pressure cookers filled with shrapnel and hidden inside black nylon backpacks.
On Wednesday, April 17, the FBI criticized media sources for reporting based on unofficial and unsubstantiated rumors. In a press conference at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, the FBI released security images of two men it identified as the suspects. The timing of the release was partially in response to the incorrect speculation by news organizations and social media.
The suspects were later identified as brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26. They came to the U.S. in the early 2000s from Dagestan in Russia after their parents obtained asylum status. On Thursday, April 18, Dzhokhar’s friends at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth allegedly attempted to dispose of a backpack in his room containing fireworks after recognizing him in the released images.
MIT Police Officer Sean A. Collier was stationed in a cruiser outside the Stata Center Thursday night. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev allegedly shot Collier multiple times while he sat in the cruiser. After a postdoctoral student reported loud noises at 10:25 p.m., Collier was discovered with multiple bullet wounds at 10:31 p.m. by another MIT officer. Collier was pronounced dead after being taken to Massachusetts General Hospital.
Police later announced that they believed the Tsarnaev brothers, who had only one firearm, killed Collier in an attempt to obtain his gun, which they were ultimately unable to do due to a holster mechanism.
The brothers then allegedly hijacked an SUV and took its owner hostage less than an hour later near Brighton Ave. The owner escaped while the brothers were stopped at a gas station on Memorial Drive.
Soon after midnight, police saw the brothers in the stolen SUV and another vehicle in Watertown. The brothers became involved in a firefight with the police, during which hundreds of rounds of ammunition were fired, and the brothers reportedly threw homemade bombs and grenades. According to the Watertown Police Chief, Dzhokhar escaped capture by driving the SUV at police and then driving away, hitting and dragging his older brother Tamerlan in the process. This allowed police to apprehend Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was severely wounded by the vehicle and gunshots and pronounced dead at 1:35 a.m. at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.
The search for Dzhokhar continued through the night and into the morning. Fearing that he had more explosives, MBTA service was halted and Boston authorities advised residents to stay indoors. Heavy military equipment was used in the search in and around Watertown. MIT, Harvard, and other Boston area colleges cancelled classes. Parts of this lockdown were lifted at 6 p.m. before the suspect was found.
After a Watertown resident noticed a strange shape in the boat in his back yard he thought to be the missing suspect, police and SWAT teams worked to extract Tsarnaev, cautious of the possibility that he still possessed explosives. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended at 8:41 p.m. He was taken to Beth Israel Hospital in critical condition due to multiple gunshot wounds. The emergency state at MIT ended at 9:24 p.m. Celebrations spilled into the street in the Back Bay, Boston Common, and other locations.
Following the return to safety and apprehension of the suspects, the MIT community turned its focus to fallen officer Sean Collier. In an interview with The Tech, MIT Police Chief John DiFava said that “[Collier] had a sense of humor. He was incredibly charismatic. He was very, very dedicated, very hardworking.” On Monday, April 22, a statewide moment of silence and human chain on Vassar Street commemorated Collier.
Hacks also appeared around MIT in honor of Collier, including paper cranes attached to the Stata Center’s old campus police cruiser and MIT Police logos on the Great Dome and Alchemist, the sculpture of a thinking person near the Student Center. Students participated in making posters and cards and took part in other activities in memory of Collier.
On Wednesday, April 24, MIT cancelled classes and held an official memorial service for Collier on Briggs Field. Thousands of police officers were in attendance. Speeches by Collier’s brother and coworkers portrayed Collier as kind, humble, sincere, and active in his community. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden also spoke, and several MIT music groups performed.
The MIT Alumni Association set up a memorial fund in Collier’s honor and will use the funds to award the Collier Medal to those who reflect his values.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev awaits trial for “using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death” and “malicious destruction of property resulting in death,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s filing. This trial may still be as much as a year away. Officials believe the bombings were motivated by the brothers’ religious beliefs, as they apparently adopted extremist Islamic beliefs in the years and months before the attack but acted without ties to existing terrorist organizations.