Boston College freshman Evan Goldstein stayed up until 4 in the morning watching the news Thursday night. When he awoke four hours later, both his college and the city of Boston were effectively closed.
Beginning Thursday night, as the nation followed the manhunt for the suspects in last Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, students at the 53 institutions of higher education in and around Boston experienced the news in real time. Largely confined to their dormitories or houses, students relied on communication from their respective universities, network news and social media to learn what was happening during the unprecedented shutdown of a major metropolitan area.
“The nature of the situation was that it was very fluid and characterized by uncertainty,” Goldstein said. “There were so many questions unanswered [on Friday] that it was difficult to know how to feel about the way things were unfolding.”
Shortly before 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick issued a “shelter-in-place” order to residents in towns throughout the Boston metropolitan area. By that point, police were continuing a manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second suspect in the marathon bombing, that began after the fatal shooting of MIT police officer Sean Collier at 11:30 p.m. Thursday night and developed into a gun fight in the early hours of the morning. As public transportation was closed, universities across the city had already canceled classes and instructed faculty and staff to stay home. Northeastern University, for instance, issued an alert at 6:37 a.m. canceling all classes and university activities.
Friday’s tumultuous events proved a major disruption for students in Cambridge as well. Harvard administrators canceled all university activities, including “Visitas,” the school’s visiting weekend for admitted students. After receiving several university emails throughout Friday morning, some of which instructed students who had not yet begun traveling to Cambridge to remain at home, prospective students learned of the weekend’s cancellation in the early afternoon.
As a result, Harvard has offered several online resources to prospective students, including posting more videos of dorm rooms on the class of 2017 Facebook group, offering to connect students with faculty virtually and providing accommodation for students who plan to visit on coming weekends.
“Everyone was pretty understanding of the extraordinary circumstances,” said Samuel Green, who plans to enroll at Harvard in the fall. “Everyone was intelligent enough to realize that it was a one-time fluke event.”
Goldstein described a general sense of confusion, beginning Thursday night and lasting until Tsarnaev’s capture early Friday evening. Throughout the day, he said, students watched major news networks in his dormitory’s common room and checked social networks constantly.
Like other universities in the area, Boston College, located about three miles from Watertown, the site of Friday morning’s gunfight and Tsarnaev’s eventual capture, increased the presence of campus security throughout the day. According to Goldstein, students were escorted by the Boston College Police Department to the dining hall one dormitory at a time.
Not far away, in Arlington, another Boston suburb, Yale student David Ottenheimer ’14, home for the weekend to visit family, was also confined inside, although Patrick’s order did not technically extend to his town.
“The environment was very odd. We were all around the TV watching and waiting,” Ottenheimer said.
Ottenheimer, who went to high school in Cambridge, Mass., and has friends who went to high school with Tsarnaev, 19, described a sense of “disbelief” as the city grinded to a halt.
Only once news broke that Tsarnaev, who was found hiding in a boat in Watertown, had been apprehended did residents feel any sense of relief. At Boston College, Goldstein said, students crowded into his dormitory’s common room as the story of Tsarnaev’s capture unfolded.
“Everybody sensed that this was going to be a huge moment not only in the case but also in our college memories,” Goldstein said. “It was one of those ‘I remember where I was when’ moments.”
As Boston and the surrounding towns began returning to normal on Saturday, many residents, including Ottenheimer, made their way to Copley Square, the site of last Monday’s bombings that killed four and injured over 180. Flowers, cards, flags and finishing medals from the Boston Marathon and other races formed a memorial, while therapy dogs stood nearby, waiting for anyone who needed them. Men and women walked up to police officers to thank them.
“Everyone was just relieved,” Ottenheimer said.