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Christina Wilkie Headshot

Media At Boston Bombing Manhunt Had Ringside Seat, But No View

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BOSTON -- The series of shootings, explosions, and ensuing security clampdown and eventual street parties here will always be talked about by those who lived through the tumult on Thursday and Friday.

For two HuffPost reporters, it was a surreal 24 hours spent chasing a big story. Getting the job done meant staying awake for nearly two days, subsisting on water and a brown-bag lunch donated by police, while trying to follow the unfolding events from inside a fenced-in lot.

Around 10 p.m. on Thursday, after reports that an MIT police officer had been shot, HuffPost's Michael McLaughlin arrived at the Cambridge campus to find the police investigation taking shape.

No immediate connection was drawn between the killing of Officer Sean Collier and Monday's fatal explosions at the marathon, but with so many national and foreign journalists in town, the press turned out in droves. As reporters milled around, a frantic report came over the police scanner: "Grenades being used. Long guns. Shots fired."

Police cruisers sped across town, with the press corps close behind. An out-of-town photographer gave one HuffPost reporter a lift, along with another photographer and an editor from another outlet. The driver made a few wrong turns on Cambridge's confusing streets, but compensated by flooring it. Red lights didn't apply, at least not on this night. "If you see anyone who might hit us from a side street, let me know," he said.

On the western side of the Watertown crime scene, Christina Wilkie arrived in time to see officers putting a naked, handcuffed man into a cruiser at around 1:30 a.m. The chilly night air was filled with lights and sirens, and the officers patrolled on high alert. Officers shouted "Get the f*** outta here!" at various intrepid cameramen who tried to cross the yellow crime scene tape.

Through the next hour, the police were joined by thousands more members of law enforcement with sophisticated weapons: S.W.A.T. teams in armored vehicles, helmeted FBI agents and several helicopters joined the uniformed officers.

Drunk people and police officers made for a combustible mix. One young man wearing a backpack got too close to the crime scene and found himself cuffed against a car. Another man careened towards a group of officers -- he ended up on the ground, cuffed and cursing.

Reporters quickly learned that leaving the group was a bad idea. Along an unbarricaded side street, an officer spotted Wilkie. "Put your hands up!" he yelled. "Put your f***ing hands up!" She did. "Now get outta here. Run!" She did.

Police eventually decided it was too dangerous to allow anyone out on the streets. Residents were sent back to their homes, and at around 3:30 a.m., members of the press were herded into a shopping mall parking lot, where they would spend the next 15 hours.

Also stranded on the blacktop were a handful of locals unable to get to their homes inside the sealed-off section of town. They included a few tipsy, bleary-eyed partiers, a father and his daughter with a new puppy, and one unlucky MIT student -- all of whom would subsequently be asked to give dozens of interviews over the next day to their temporary neighbors from the media.

For HuffPost, a white rented Hyundai became Command Central. There was no coming or going, so whatever a person had brought with them was all that they had for the day. Battery power was carefully rationed for phones and laptops, and drained at an alarming speed.

Sustenance was also in short supply. For the first six hours, there was nothing. Around 10 a.m., a few boxes of bottled water were dropped off. Egg salad sandwiches arrived at noon in brown paper bags, and later, Boston Kreme donuts from Dunkin' Donuts, courtesy of the Massachusetts State Police.

Every hour or so, word of an upcoming press conference would rally the scores of confined reporters from their parking spots to the corner of the strip mall, where they would pile breathlessly on top of one another, hungry for updates.

Although reporters were positioned right at the edge of the search, getting a good picture of what was going on just beyond police lines was nearly impossible. Between briefings, the only thing to see was the seemingly endless parade of armored vehicles into the security perimeter.

With authorities warning the search would continue indefinitely, HuffPost's reporters abandoned the media camp around 7 p.m. and drove through deserted streets looking for a better place to write the day's news.

But the day was far from over. Within minutes of arriving in Cambridge, the police wires were buzzing with word of shots fired in Watertown, and the sleepless reporters who'd spent the night and day there headed back.

Unlike the previous night, when Watertown's streets teemed with onlookers, few were about outside after Friday's bursts of gunfire. Unable to get within a half-mile of 67 Franklin St., where authorities discovered Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in a boat, reporters peered down the dark surrounding alleys, trying to catch sight of what was going on.

Raucous applause and cheers announced that police had arrested a seriously wounded Tsarnaev. Almost instantly, residents of all ages poured out of their homes onto Mt. Auburn Street, while some rushed to move aside the orange road blockades that had become a symbol of a city under siege. And the siege was over.

Driving home through the city took longer than expected because of road closures, but this time, due to a celebration.

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