Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including a child, and injuring at least 144 as one of this city's most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams, bloody carnage and death.
About three-quarters of the 23,000 runners who participated in the race had already crossed the finish line when a bomb that had apparently been placed in a garbage can exploded in a haze of smoke amid a crowd of spectators on Boylston Street, just off Copley Square in the heart of the city. It was around 2:50 p.m., more than four hours after the race had started, officials said. Within seconds, another bomb exploded several hundred feet away.
Pandemonium erupted as panicked runners and spectators scattered, and rescue workers rushed in to care for the injured, some of whom had lost their legs in the blast, witnesses said.
The reverberations were felt far outside the city, with officials in Washington heightening security on public transit and shutting down streets near the White House. Pennsylvania Avenue was cordoned off by the Secret Service in what one official described as "an abundance of caution."
In New York, the Police Department said it was stepping up security at hotels and other prominent locations in the city until more is learned about the explosion.
"The first one went off, I thought it was a big celebratory thing, and I just kept going," recalled Jarrett Sylvester, 26, a marathon runner from East Boston, who said it sounded like a cannon blast. "And then the second one went off, and I saw debris fly in the air. And I realized it was a bomb at that point. And I just took off and ran in the complete opposite direction."
At their final briefing Monday night, officials said that the FBI had taken over the investigation. Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the Boston office, called it "a criminal investigation that is a potential terrorist investigation." But they offered no information on what they had found or what they were investigating except to say that they were bringing "very substantial federal resources" to bear.
It was unclear Monday evening who might be responsible for the blast. Although investigators confirmed that they were speaking to a Saudi citizen at a hospital, several law enforcement officials took pains to note that no one was in custody.
WBZ-TV reported late Monday that law enforcement officers were searching an apartment in the Boston suburb of Revere. Massachusetts State Police confirmed that a search warrant related to the investigation into the explosions was served Monday night in Revere but provided no further details.
By nightfall, the authorities were acting on the belief that there had only been two explosive devices that had been laid. As a precaution, the authorities had blown up several bags — which they believed were most likely left by runners — that were on the streets near the attacks.
The explosive devices used in the attacks on Monday were similar in size to the device used in the 1996 attack at the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta but were not nearly as large as the one used in the 1995 attack in Oklahoma City.
In the Atlanta attack, a pipe bomb was detonated near pedestrians, killing two and injuring over 100 — similar numbers to Monday's attack. The attack in Oklahoma City was far larger because the perpetrator packed a truck with thousands of pounds of explosives and the device went on to destroy or damage hundreds of buildings and kill more than 150 people.
The blasts came at the start of a week that has seen attacks in the past: April 19 is the anniversary of the federal raid and fire that killed 80 members of the Branch Davidians at the end of a 51-day standoff near Waco, Texas, in 1993. April 19 is also the anniversary of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which prosecutors said was conceived in part as a response to the Waco raid.
President Barack Obama, speaking at the White House, referred to the Patriots' Day holiday in his condemnation of the attack, calling it "a day that celebrates the free and fiercely independent spirit that this great American city of Boston has reflected from the earliest days of our nation."
He vowed to bring those responsible for the blast to justice. "We will get to the bottom of this," the president said. "We will find who did this, and we will find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice."
Police officials closed down a 15-block radius around the blast site, and some transit stops were closed. Landings were briefly halted at Boston Logan International Airport and the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled its Monday night concert. A Boston Celtics game scheduled for Tuesday was canceled as well.
Boston's police commissioner, Ed Davis, urged people to stay off the streets. "We're recommending to people that they stay home, that if they're in hotels in the area that they return to their rooms, and that they don't go any place and congregate in large crowds," he said at a news conference.
It had begun as a perfect day for the Boston Marathon, one of running's most storied events, with blue skies and temperatures just shy of 50 degrees. More than 23,000 runners started the race, which typically draws half a million spectators. And long after the world-class runners had finished — the men's race was won by Lelisa Desisa Benti of Ethiopia, who finished it in 2 hours, 10 minutes and 22 seconds; Rita Jeptoo of Kenya won the women's race in 2:26:25 — the sidewalks of Boston's Back Bay were still thick with spectators cheering on friends and relatives as they loped toward the finish line.
Stephanie Grammel, 26, from nearby Medford, was among them, there to watch her little sister.
"All of a sudden there was a loud boom — you felt the boom," she said, estimating that she had stood 10 or 15 feet away from the smoky blast, which she said caused bloody injuries throughout the crowd. "There was, at one point, a man with no legs — an image I never want to see again."
Runners just finishing the grueling race could not believe the scene. Nico Enriquez, 19, had just turned onto the final straightaway on Boylston Street and was looking at the ground when he looked up and saw people running toward him. "Their faces were just freaked out," he said. "I thought I was hallucinating."