BOSTON – Several days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Gov. Deval Patrick received a call in the pre-dawn hours from a top aide telling him that police officers outside the city had just engaged in a ferocious gun battle with the two men suspected of setting the bombs and that one was dead and the other had fled.
Within hours, Patrick shut down the region’s public transportation system and made an extraordinary request of more than 1 million greater Boston residents:
Shelter in place.
And for the better part of April 19, 2013, nearly everyone did.
On what otherwise would be a typical weekday, people stayed home. Stores in Boston were shuttered, streets deserted and an eerie silence prevailed while authorities searched for the suspect and attempted to cut off escape routes.
It was a big decision. I’m glad we made it, Patrick reflected during a recent interview about the anniversary of the bombing.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it turned out, would not be captured until shortly after the shelter-in-place request was lifted 12 hours later. He was found in a boat, behind a home in Watertown, a Boston suburb, blocks from where his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had died after the earlier shootout. The homeowner had ventured outside to check on his boat and, upon noticing the cover amiss, peered in and saw the bloodied teenager.
That the population of greater Boston overwhelmingly agreed to shelter in place – it was not mandatory – and that there was little second-guessing despite the inconvenience and disruption of commerce it caused, was viewed as a reflection of the anxiety gripping the region. It was also a sign of how strongly the city rallied around itself and its leaders after the bombing.
Henry Willis, director of the homeland security and defense center at Rand Corp., said he was surprised there had not been more analysis of the decision.
It was clear the perpetrators of the bombing were armed and willing to hurt people, Willis said. At the same time, shelter in place created an effective lockdown of the entire city, and, if nothing else, it’s difficult to sustain such a condition in a major metropolitan area.
Initially, Patrick said, police intended only to seal off parts of Watertown and a small portion of Boston and suspend public buses to those areas. But that would change as more details emerged in the chaotic overnight hours.
So there was all this other stuff happening and the question then was, how do you surgically shut down (public transportation) in and out of Boston? It’s impossible to do. So we suspended service for the day and we asked people in the city and in the greater Boston area to shelter in place, Patrick said.
At mid-afternoon, Patrick took a call from President Barack Obama, who offered encouragement but also a reminder that the lockdown could not last indefinitely.
We lifted it before we found the surviving suspect because we got to a point where we didn’t think we could sustain it anymore, Patrick said. A house-to-house search in Watertown had also been completed.
Exhausted, Patrick headed home, first stopping to pick up Thai food for his wife and daughter who, like so many others, had spent a long day at home. It was then he learned of the capture and returned to Watertown. It’s a tough, tough call, said Patrick, asked if he would recommend the same course of action to other governors in similar situations.