Boston went on a roller coaster ride of speculation, rumor and evacuations on Wednesday, thanks in part to a rumor-mill stoked by national media camped in town covering the marathon bombings.
In the morning, the hunt for the marathon bomber seemed to be stalled. The one press conference with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Massachusetts authorities was called off. Activity in the crime scene seemed to be winding down, with most stores not directly on Boylston Street reopening for business.
Then, suddenly, CNN began reporting that a “dark skinned” suspect had been identified using surveillance video. Crowds began to form outside the Westin Copley Hotel where CNN was reporting live. An arrest, CNN said soon after, had been made. The Associated Press and Fox News soon put out similar alerts and reporters by the hundreds rushed to the U.S. District Court on Boston Harbor, where a suspect might be booked and arraigned. A perp walk more than 30 television cameras long formed and dozens of curious Boston locals toting smart phones swelled the crowd. On the police scanner, chatter was heard about a police arrest at a hotel off the Massachusetts turnpike.
Inside the court, court employees gathered outside the emergency magistrate’s courtroom, eager to watch what seemed certain to be one of the arraignments of the year. Rumors spread through the crowd: the FBI says no arrest has been made. But surely, others rationed, the closed parking lot in front of the court due to “heightened security” and the police and Coast Guard boats hovering in the waters on the other side of the building were proof that something exceptional was about to happen.
Before the debate could be settled the court’s fire alarm went off and a booming voice announced over the loudspeaker “Code Red emergency. Please evacuate immediately.” Court employees looked startled. “In 14 years of working here I’ve never heard of a ‘Code Red’ emergency,” one man said.
Outside, police had pushed back the ever-growing throng of journalists and gawkers 100 feet from the building as police, bomb-sniffing dogs, fire trucks and Department of Homeland Security vehicles arrived. Three news helicopters hovered above. A Coast Guard helicopter passed close overhead. Word passed amongst the crowd that there’d been a bomb threat. Another rumor said officials had found a car with two suspicious cylinders in the garage. Then came a report that at almost the same time Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where many marathon victims were still being treated across town, had also been evacuated due to similar threats at the same time. Surely, many speculated, the two incidents must be related?
Ultimately both the hospital and the courthouse were given the all clear. But the episodes show a city, a population – and a mob of journalists – on the edge, desperate that the person responsible for the bombings be found and brought to justice and scared of further attacks.
Still by the end of the day no arrests have been made. Rather than announcing a suspect arrest or a quick resolution, the FBI’s message simply appealed for calm. “Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that have been inaccurate,” the statement admonished. “Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at the early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate officials channels before reporting.” Even if there is a break in the case, in bombing investigations there are rarely neat — or quick — endings to the story.