The immediate and logical result of the terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon that left three people dead and 264 injured was an exponential increase in security measures for this year’s race, which took place April 21 without incident.
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The long-term effects have yet to play out, for the Boston Marathon and other large events across the country, Kurt N. Schwartz, who oversaw the response to the 2013 bombing, told attendees at Tuesday’s Emergency Management Symposium organized by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
“The governor [of Massachusetts] asked me after this year’s race ‘What do we do next year?’ and I said, ‘I have no idea,’” Schwartz told a crowd of state and municipal emergency management personnel and town leaders at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and Conference Center in Cromwell. Schwartz, the Homeland Security advisor and emergency management director for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, was the Incident Commander in a multi-agency coordination center the day of the bombing and served on a Unified Command Group for the next five days. “Can we sustain this level of spending and preparation? I don’t know how major cities can support this level of security for major sporting events.”
Three days after the bombings, two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were identified by the FBI as suspects. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot several times by police during a firefight in Watertown, MA, and then died after his brother struck him with a car while escaping. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured in a boat parked in a resident’s yard April 19 after a massive manhunt that included a lockdown of Watertown and Boston.
The amount of time and money invested in planning and security for the 2013 marathon “pales in comparison” to what was involved this year, Schwartz noted. The bill for 2013 was $200,000 and for this year it was $3 million. Planning time quadrupled, as did the number of K-9 teams, which included some from other states. The 400 unarmed National Guard members who patrolled in 2013 were replaced by 400 military policemen, and security personnel were recruited from other states and federal agencies.
Prior to the 2013 marathon, the biggest worry on race day was the weather, Schwartz said. But that all changed on the race-perfect weather day of April 15, 2013, when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded 12 seconds and a block-and-a-half apart on Boylston Street near the finish line about two hours after the winner had crossed the finish line.
Schwartz joked that his wife tells him he always is at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he left his location 20 miles away from Boston a little before 3 p.m. to check on the race and arrived at one of the medical tents near the finish line just as the first bomb exploded.
While people were confused after the first explosion, the second bomb sent spectators screaming and fleeing the scene, he said. After the second explosion and seeing some of the injuries, Schwartz said he was certain bombs were involved. The exodus of so many people created another problem; abandoned bags and backpacks that had to be sniffed by dogs, as investigators wondered if there were more bombs and if so, how many, Schwartz said.
In trying to gather the heads of police, fire and other emergency departments, two other challenges arose, according to Schwartz: the volume of cell phone calls overloaded cellular services and no signals were available, and he realized no command center had been established in the event of an emergency. The quickly-formed leadership team took over the Westin Hotel in Copley Square and made that the command center, he said, while emergency medical personnel remained to take care of the people who were injured. Hundreds of medical personnel were on hand to treat any injured runners, so many of them were able to reach the wounded quickly.
And while many people understandably fled the scene, Schwartz said he was impressed by how many people chose to run toward the chaos, offering help. “There were many civilians who just did some amazing things,” he added.
Away from the scene of the attack, 7,000 runners were still on the course, and they had to be diverted away from the finish line by police, Schwartz noted.
At the same time, the search for the bombers continued to grow. Decisions had to be made quickly about whether to shut down the city’s subway system, and in the end it remained open, Schwartz said. As the search dragged on and two law enforcement officers were shot, one fatally, police from across the country began pouring into the city; at one point, 3,000 police officers were there, making oversight difficult, he noted.
The media also came out in force, numbering as many 1,200 in what Schwartz called “the hot zone.” He decided to admit reporters to a staging area, where they remained for 18 hours and were provided with food, shelter and sanitary facilities.
A presidential visit three days after the bombings boosted the city’s spirits, but was a logistical challenge at the time a massive hunt for suspects was taking place, Schwartz noted.
In an effort to help wrap up the search, a shelter-in-place directive was issued April 19 that closed most businesses and public transportation in Boston and Watertown and urged people to stay home. Almost everyone did. It worked, Schwartz said, because the state had issued a shelter-in-place order during a blizzard, and in this case, most people were “really scared,” he said.
Because of the toll the bombings and aftermath took on first responders and many other people, one of the first things Schwartz asked the president for was crisis counseling. “We had people walking around in a daze,” he said, adding that some people continue to receive counseling.
“I had thought about the possibility of IED’s (improvised explosive devices) at the Boston Marathon before,” Schwartz noted. “But when the governor asked me the next day if I was surprised by this, I said if he had asked me the day before, I would have said it would not have surprised me. But after we were hit, no one was more shocked and surprised than I was that it happened.”