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A city on lockdown: Reporting from Boston

At about 3:30 a.m. Friday morning, I pulled into a rest station on the Massachusetts Turnpike. I checked my phone, an aunt had commented on a Facebook status I had posted earlier saying I would be helping with Digital First Media’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and reporting from  the city the next day.

“Man!! It’s pandemonium out there. Be REALLY careful. Killing at MIT, Swat teams, BPD, bomb squad and gunfire in Watertown. Something’s going down….Be safe!!” she wrote.

The TV was turned to CNN at the rest stop. “Breaking news: Shooting at MIT” flashed across the bottom. I had a gut feeling it was connected. I turned back onto the highway, blasting the air conditioning to stay awake. I was trying to get to a hotel on Massachusetts Avenue, but my GPS miscalculated and routed me through Cambridge. At about 4:00 a.m., I hit a police blockade. Radio news stations were reporting police were closing down sections of the Cambridge area. There were reports of injured victims, but no news about a motive or identities.

It was getting lighter by the time I made it to the hotel at about 4:45 a.m. The TV was on in the lobby, and I heard the anchor announcing that the marathon bombing suspects were involved. And editor met me at the double doors and immediately redeployed me to Watertown. I was rerouted a number of times while we worked to establish our coverage, and as I drove, the city was going into lockdown.

Jack Fleming, of the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the Boston Marathon, pauses at the finish line on Boylston Street between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets in Boston. Federal investigators formally released the finish line bombing crime scene to the city of Boston Monday in a brief ceremony at 5 p.m. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

I’ve lived  in Boston before. I used to commute to an internship on a crowded T, which was so packed that I couldn’t reach handrails to hold onto. When I was there, I hated trying to navigate the city. Berkley music students would jam up the sidewalks on Mass Ave,  duck boats straddled two lanes in roadways and there was never any place that I could find that was quiet.

Friday morning, I drove the wrong way down one-way streets. I ran red lights in front of police officers. I parked illegally. I broke nearly every traffic law on the books, but no one honked at me, no one yelled at me and I never heard the sound of police sirens behind me, pulling me over.

I drove up and down the Massachusetts Turnpike between our hotel and Watertown multiple times to different sites in the city. Usually, I was the only person on the road, and each time I paid my toll to the same person in the tollbooth, a middle-aged man with graying hair. If I had been him, the sight of my car approaching would have made me nervous. He had no way of knowing who was driving toward him. If he was scared sitting alone in a tollbooth amid a deserted city, he didn’t show it and gruffly accepted my $1.25 each time I drove through.

Information had slowed by mid-afternoon, and after nearly 30 hours awake, I tried to take a nap. I woke up to a phone call about 7:00 p.m. from a friend telling me officials were reporting they had found Suspect #2. I left to try to get as close to the scene as possible and was stopped at the intersection of Arsenal and Irving in Watertown. When I mapped it later, I learned I was 0.4 miles from where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody. TV crews and residents mingled on the sidewalk. After about 30 minutes, I heard, “They got him, NBC is saying the got him.”

A police car went by and a few scattered cheers went up, but people were hesitant to believe it. And soon, the crowd began to thin quietly. It was an anti-climactic end. I left shortly after to return to our makeshift newsroom. The roads were still deserted, but I heard thousands gathered on the Boston Common later that night. I met a friend at a Boston College bar that night, which was busy and dotted with people in red, white and blue. I drank a beer, holding it with both hands because I was shaking from exhaustion, hunger and stress.

On Saturday, we began to wrap up our coverage. I worked with York Daily Record reporter Ashley May, who put together a video clip about the meaning of the city’s rally cry “Boston strong.” To me, the explanation was simple: It meant the city responded with good in the face of appalling hate.

When I lived there, I never liked Boston very much. I thought it was unwelcoming, loud and brash. Things changed for me on this trip as I watched the city turn a horrific attack into a symbol of resilience and unity. And as I started to process the emotions I had suppressed in order to report, I felt an irrational fear of leaving Boston. I felt like only those people who had seen shuttered businesses and empty sidewalks would understand what I had seen covering a manhunt for a terrorist.

When I pulled back into a parking space in front of my apartment in West Manchester Township, I knew that was true. The only thing that was different here was that the grass needed to be cut. And I missed Boston.