BOSTON — Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including an 8-year-old, and injuring more than 100, 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 crossed the finish line when a bomb that had apparently been placed in a garbage can exploded around 2:50 p.m. in a haze of smoke amid a crowd of spectators on Boylston Street, just off Copley Square in the heart of the city. Thirteen seconds later, another bomb exploded several hundred feet away.
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Pandemoniumerupted 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 FBI took the lead role in the investigation Monday night, and Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the bureau's Boston office, described the inquiry at a news conference as "a criminal investigation that is a potential terrorist investigation."
The reverberations were felt far outside the city, with officials in New York and Washington stepping up security at important locations. Near the White House, the Secret Service cordoned off Pennsylvania Avenue out of what one official described as "an abundance of caution."
President Barack Obama, speaking at the White House, 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."
Obama did not refer to the attacks as an act of terrorism, and he cautioned people from "jumping to conclusions" based on incomplete information. But a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity afterward, said, "Any event with multiple explosive devices — as this appears to be — is clearly an act of terror, and will be approached as an act of terror."
''However," the official added, "we don't yet know who carried out this attack, and a thorough investigation will have to determine whether it was planned and carried out by a terrorist group, foreign or domestic."
Some runners had almost made it to the end of the 26.2-mile race when the two blasts, in rapid succession, sent them running away from the finish line.
''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 had 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."
There were conflicting reports about how many devices there were. One law enforcement official said there had been at least four: the two that exploded at the marathon and two others that were disabled by the police. The official said the devices appeared to have been made with black powder and ball bearings, but investigators were unsure how the two that exploded were detonated.
It was unclear Monday evening who might be responsible for the blast. Although investigators confirmed that they were speaking to a Saudi citizen, who was injured in the blast, several law enforcement officials took pains to note that no one was in custody.
And some law enforcement officials noted that the blasts came at the start of a week that has sometimes been seen as significant for radical American anti-government groups: it was the April 15 deadline for filing taxes, and Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, the start of a week that has seen violence in the past. April 19 is the anniversary of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
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 Oklahoma City. In the Atlanta attack, a pipe bomb was detonated near pedestrians, killing two and injuring more than 100 — similar numbers to Monday's attack.
The attack in Oklahoma City was far larger because the perpetrator used a truck packed with thousands of pounds of explosives. The device killed more than 150 people.
The attack Monday occurred in areas that had been largely cleared of vehicles for the marathon. Without vehicles to pack explosives into, the perpetrators were forced to rely on much smaller devices, which led to smaller explosions.
Officials stressed that they had no suspects in the attack. The Saudi man, who was interviewed at Brigham and Women's Hospital, had been seen running from the scene of the first explosion, a person briefed on preliminary developments in the investigation said Monday afternoon. A law enforcement official said later Monday that the man, was in the United States on a student visa and came under scrutiny because of his injuries, his proximity to the blasts and his nationality — but added that he was not known to federal authorities and that his role in the attack, if any, in the attack, was unclear.
The explosions brought life in Boston to a halt. Police officials effectively closed a large part of the Back Bay neighborhood, which surrounds the blast site; some transit stops were closed; planes were briefly grounded at Boston Logan International Airport and the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled its Monday night concert. A Boston Celtics game scheduled for today was also canceled.
Boston was bracing for a heightened law enforcement presence today, with its transit riders subject to random checks of their backpacks and bags, and many streets in the center of the city likely to be closed to traffic as the investigation continues. Gov. Deval Patrick said Monday night that "the city of Boston is open and will be open tomorrow, but it will not be business as usual."
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 an afternoon 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. The race 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 — the sidewalks of Back Bay were still thick with spectators cheering on friends and relatives as they loped, exhausted, toward the finish line.
Dr. Natalie Stavas, a pediatric resident at Boston Children's Hospital, was running in the marathon with her father and was nearing the finish line when the explosions shook the street.
''The police were trying to keep us back, but I told them that I was a physician and they let me through," she recalled in an interview.
First she performed CPR on one woman. "She was on the ground, she wasn't breathing, her legs were pretty much gone," she said, adding that she feared that the woman had not survived.
Then she tried to help a woman with an injury in her groin area, and a man who had lost his foot. Stavas said she had applied a tourniquet to the man's leg with someone's belt. "He was likely in shock," she said. "He was saying, 'I'm OK, doctor, I'm OK.'"
''Then ambulances started coming in by the dozen," she said.
The blast was so powerful that it blew out shop windows and damaged a window on the third floor of the Boston Public Library's Central Library in Copley Square, which was closed to the public for Patriots' Day.
A number of people were taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, said Dr. Alasdair Conn, the hospital's chief of emergency services — and several had lost their legs.
''This is like a bomb explosion we hear about in Baghdad or Israel or other tragic points in the world," Conn said.
Several children were among the 10 patients who were brought to Boston Children's Hospital, including a 2-year-old boy with a head injury who was admitted to the medical/surgical intensive care unit.
The police faced another problem as they tried to secure the blast scene: many spectators dropped their backpacks and bags as they scattered to safety, and investigators had to treat each abandoned bag as a potential bomb. There were bomb scares at area hotels. At one point in the afternoon, Boston police officials said that they feared that a fire at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum could have been related to the marathon bombs, but they later said it seemed to be unrelated.
The Boston police said that they were getting numerous reports of suspicious packages. Asked if they had found all the explosive devices, Davis, the Boston police commissioner, urged citizens to remain alert and said he was "not prepared to say we're at ease at this time."