Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Boston Marathon

Preface: To anyone reading this, I was not a runner, and I was not there during the race. I was pretty close to everything that happened after the initial explosions, including interviewing people who knew both suspects - and not for the first time - a lot of anger directed at the heavy media presence. I empathize, as victims, the last thing they want is a stranger asking questions about such a personal and difficult experience, but everyone quickly forgets: 1) All anyone need say is: "I do not wish to be filmed, and I do not have a comment, thank you for respecting my privacy", and any decent journalist will back off, and 2) when you yourself are not the victim, you sit at home, news on, hoping for answers to those exact questions.The exception being CNN's "Who is Misha", bleh.
Finally, I am proud to say that I and my coworkers maintained the highest level of journalistic integrity, showing restraint in reporting unconfirmed news, and resisting the kind of "ambulance chasing" or harassing questions for which some journalists are rightfully disdained.


I was having a slow day at work: some daily tasks, pop by the UN to listen to a press conference, eat lunch, cab back to the office, wait for my cup of coffee to cool to a drinkable temperature -- Suddenly everyone's phones begin pinging with text alerts and one us switches the main TV over to CBS for the breaking news: Explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I remember seeing the first photo on my phone and saying "Guys, I think this here is blood", and looking up to see everyone already researching online or eyes fixed on Scott Pelley's news anchor desk. The first cell phone pictures and short videos of the havoc begin looping as more and more monitors displaying other network and 24-hour news channels begin switching to same images until a dissonant harmony takes over our wall of TVs.

Five minutes later, as I walk out of the office with my backpack and plastic bag of emergency clothing to pick up our company car, the TVs now show photos from the moments of explosions - huge, clusters of fireballs caught mid-expansion with black, crusted, smokey edges and people's bodies, twisting this way and that, mid-reaction. My mind kept returning to that image as I worked in the back seat of the car for the four hour drive. I genuinely hoped, at first, the two, relatively small explosions where an accident. A gas line, or something... But as I booked our hotel, read the latest updates, and searched for Japanese participants who might give a first hand account for our audience in Japan, the AM radio updates made it clear this was no accident. The four hour drive flew by, and as our car snaked through nearly-deserted one-way streets of downtown Boston, I worked to track down our satellite truck so our reporter could go live, from Boylston Street. with the latest update for Japan. Later we would find out that, thanks to our hustle and team work, our station ended up being the first of all Japanese channels to go live from the scene.

My reporter and back-up cameraman returned from the live spot. Our main camera had stayed to get footage of the area and send it to Tokyo. We needed to return in less than an hour before the next "live-spot", and I had scheduled an interview with two Japanese runners who were now having dinner near Harvard, but my reporter had heard that another runner, nearby, had been very close to the chaos and also agreed to an interview. We went there and as they hurried to interview him, I sent multiple apologies to the other runners. I still wonder how they were and if we shouldn't have interviewed them instead, but we shall never know.

Back to the satellite truck. This time taking Arlington from the north, we were able to park right across from the park, on the corner of Boylston, and just a few minutes' walk from the finish line, should the police have permitted us. We reported live twice more, and by that point it was past midnight, but mercifully, our second crew had already arrived from D.C. and offered to do the 3 and 4 a.m. spots while we got food, slept, and prepared for the next one.

Bright and early the next morning, we poured over local newspapers while hurrying down breakfast at our hotel in South Boston. Although we returned to the same intersection as the previous night, the corner had gone from a zombie-movie-level absence of human presence, to a media circus of television personalities, satellite trucks and production crews I have not seen since Palestine asked the U.N. for member status, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, or the literal wall of cameras outside Whitney Houston's funeral in New Jersey.
Norah O'Donnell on the left of my cameraman

My reporter, probably deep in thought, before going live next to Brian Williams
Matt Lauer and Lester Holt on Boylston St.
After a few hours reporting live on what new details had surfaced, we met up our other crew for lunch at Legal Seafoods, and then went out to to the apartment of the Saudi National taken into custody the day before. He had already been released, but with all the media in the area, it was no surprise there was no sign of him, but we only really went to check it out and report on it as "something that happened" as part of the ongoing coverage. 
Interestingly, that night after we moved with the satellite truck to a new position off of Boylston St. but technically closer to the finish line, another news producer noticed what looked like a walkie-talkie suspiciously attached to the backside of a street sign. He pointed it out to the local police (they were stationed at every intersection along the closed-off area) and they made a big show of npt knowing what it was and "carefully" climbing on top the man's satellite truck to pull it down before whisking it away inside a serious looking, gun-metal black, tactical vehicle that looked like compact-Hummer. We asked after it the next two days, but got no answer with the police, so I am left to guess that one of the other agencies brought in to help had left it there and no one knew who, when or why. I don't want to add any gasoline to a conspiracy theory, but in the interest of a full openness, here's a photo:     

The following day (or 24 hours, since I really didn't keep to any kind of "work in the day/sleep at night" schedule) was deceptively quiet, and in that lull, our D.C. crew went back to work on the many, unrelated stories breaking in Washington. That left my team more-or-less on our own - we had an additional producer fly in from our L.A. office to help out, since he knew the city well, but after driving around for a few days I began to get a feel on my own, and really it was the lack of another reporter who could write scripts and handle breaking news that continued to prevent us from forming two shifts to get some decent rest and work reasonable hours. Despite my previous comment about a "lull" there were many new developments, such as learning about those three who lost their lives (Martin Richard (8), Krystle Campbell (29), and Lu Lingzi (23)), the hospitals updating the number of victims, the FBI saying they had photographs, and the announcement that President Obama would attend a Thursday morning inter-faith ceremony. These things kept us running around, busily filming and reporting at all hours of the early morning and late night (daytime in Japan, you know), and leading toward a disastrous sense of impending collapse from exhaustion. 
Wednesday I tried to attend a FBI press conference which ended up being postponed multiple times, and finally cancelled until the following day after President Obama left town. This afternoon press conference, if you couldn't keep the timeline straight in your head, was when on the 18th and marked the police revealing "suspect 1" and "suspect 2", or their more descriptive titles "black hat" and "white hat".
Wed. Afternoon outside the Westin, where CNN was
broadcasting live with John King and Wolf Blitzer
Thursday a.m. outside the Catholic church attended by
Prez. and 1st lady Obama, Mitt Romney, and others

 By Thursday night, despite another fresh crew finally joining us, this time from L.A., they were just in time watch the news helplessly along with us, as the reports of an MIT officer, who was later identified as Sean Collier, was murdered and a shootout ensued. As soon as I heard where, my instinct was to go there, but my reporter told us all to stay put since it wasn't safe. Equally, I'm sure we would have been in the way of the hundreds of authorities flying toward the danger, and I did not object, but there was still news to follow, and live updates to give to on-air in Japan, so we were, by no means, resting. 

Many stories, like the walkie-talkie earlier, were suspicious and the decision of what to report and what not to fell on my reports shoulders. Despite have practically no sleep for almost three straight days, he did an excellent job.

This poor guy happened to be near the shootout, driving a similar car to "White hat" Dzhokhar
By Friday morning it was clear that "white hat" had gotten away. My team rushed to Kenmore Square where we heard reports of two, possibly three arrests. This, again, has yet to be clarified, or perhaps was explained after I stopped following the minute by minute and one of you can tell me in the comments, but while there, and kept a good distance from a suspicious vehicle, we did see a bomb squad do a controlled detonation of a suspicious bag. This is more fodder for conspiracy theorists, I'm sure, but the official word from a member of the Boston PD is that this was done as a precaution and out of an abundance of precaution being taken to hastily secure the area. Even still, that evening's Red Sox game was delayed to the weekend. 

I took this Friday a.m., about 10 minutes before they dragged a small bag (or box - it was hard to see from far away) into the grassy area under a tree to the left of the black bomb squad vehicle in the distance, blowing it up with a dull thud.
About this same time the FBI and Boston PD released the name of "white hat" and my senior producer, back in New York, quickly found their old home address. We drove there, arriving just in time to get close enough to be yelled at by undercover agents staking out the house. More media arrived, and eventually a perimeter formed from where we could safely film, but our backup crew came to relieve us, and we returned to our live spot to report on the mornings' findings.
On the way back we stopped on the opposite end of the secure area on Boylston Street. Friday night, after White hat's surrender, our live-spot moved here, so we were able to report the rest of the weekend with the messages of healing and the actual "Marathon Monday" finish line in the background.

There's much more I could say about our follow-up coverage, which kept me in town working hard for another four nights, but I think you can see why, in a sense, my experience paralleled the actual running of a marathon. I am in no way trying to brag or take attention away from where it is due. This is just one journalist's inside perspective for those who know me, especially my family who worried the whole time I was there. But now, for fifth time since I started writing this blog, I'm going (back) to sleep.

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