Back to the frozen zone: PIX11 returns to where the hunt for Dzokhar Tsarnaev unfolded

Posted at 4:23 PM, May 02, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-02 16:23:57-04

WATERTOWN, Massachusetts (PIX11) — After being the only station to broadcast live inside the so-called frozen zone — the Watertown, Massachusetts neighborhood where SWAT teams searched all day for  Dzokhar Tsarnaev after he his brother Tamerlan got into a gunfight that led to Tamerlan’s death — PIX11 News returned to the area.

Nearly two weeks after cops set up the frozen zone, people who were directly affected by the search for the accused Boston Marathon bombers told stories that were very personal, prophetic and which could indicate some deeper issues for them, even as the Boston area returns to normal.

It’s hard to forget the images and sounds of Friday, April 19th. Watertown came to be known worldwide that day when, around 12:45 A.M., the Tsarnaev Brothers got into a gun battle with police that left Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, dead, and from which Dzokhar Tsarnaev,19, fled, first in a car he and his brother are accused of having stolen, and then on foot.

That escape from the 200-bullet shootout on Laurel Street in Watertown is what set off the manhunt for the college student.  It all came after the brothers had fatally shot an MIT police officer the night before and set off two pressure cooker bombs at the marathon on Monday, April 15th.

It’s one thing to read about the shootout.  It’s another to have lived it.  Andy Fehlner lived it in a big and dangerous way.  His home is about 40 paces from where cops say the Tsarnaev brothers shot off their rounds at officers. Fehlner pointed out to PIX11 News eleven different pieces of masking tape on the side of his home.  Each square of tape covered a bullet hole.

“All of them were in my kids’ room,” said the father of a three-year-old girl and two-year-old boy.  “So yeah, there were bullets flying above my kids’ bed.”

The Tsarnaev brothers also tried to detonate six explosive devices on scene in Watertown, according to police.  For hours, Fehlner, his wife and toddlers hid in their home as far away from the explosions and gunfire as possible, until police let them evacuate.   They weren’t able to return home for a day-and-a-half.

Now, however, said Fehlner, “It is getting back to normal.  It wasn’t for 21 hours, but I’m very glad it’s getting closer to it now,” he said.

For most of those 21 hours, the search was on for Dzokhar.  Where he ran to first from the shootout isn’t clear, but a resident who lives three short blocks away from the gun battle may have had a close encounter with the most wanted man in America.

“I opened the door at 6:30 in the morning,” said Jenny, who declined giving her last name for fear of retaliation by people she described as the Tsarnaevs’ accomplices.  “I usually come out here to smoke,” Jenny said, pointing to the bottom of an exterior staircase behind her apartment on Nichols Avenue, “And the blood was right here. Right there.”

She called 911 about the small pool of fresh human blood she’d encountered, and the result of that phone call was the first major manhunt response from SWAT, Homeland Security, National Guard and K-9 teams.  They turned out in force out of the same concerns she’d had.

“I was afraid that [Dzokhar] was here, and that there were bombs, either in my basement, in this parking lot, or around the yard,” Joanne told PIX11 News.

Each of those places is where investigators searched, in detail.  The scene unfolded live on PIX11 News, but in the end, there was nothing conclusive on the scene.

“I was told [Dzokhar had] probably sat there and was wounded.  That’s all I can say that was said to me,” said Joanne.  She added in our interview last week that she had a hunch about the Tsarnaevs.  Detective work since then has proven her instincts correct.

“Maybe they had friends in this town,” she told PIX11 News.  “And I do believe that there are people from Chechnya or wherever their group is coming from, in this town.”

It wasn’t necessarily in Watertown, but on Wednesday police arrested three of Dzokhar’s friends from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, both from Kazakhstan, and Robel Phillipos, a U.S. citizen.  Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov were charged with conspiring to obstruct justice.  Phillipos was charged with making false statements to federal investigators. All of the charges involved their alleged roles in helping to destroy key evidence that could have been used to investigate Dzokhar Tsarnaev after he and his brother carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, according to law enforcement.

Another perspective on the manhunt for the accused bomber comes from two of the four people SWAT team members pulled out of a home in the Frozen Zone where they suspected he might have been hiding.

“Somebody came and banged on the door,” said a man who would only identify himself as Kevin, “and I went to open the door, and all the guns [pointed at me], and I was like, ‘Okaaaay…’”

He and his wife Emily were rushed out of their two-family home on the corner of Quimby Street and Willow Park around 8:40 that Friday morning.  Another couple, who live upstairs from Kevin and Emily, were also spirited out of the home quickly, while more than a hundred officers and detectives, many of them in full combat gear, stood with their guns and rifles at the ready, trained on Kevin and Emily’s home.

“What the officer told me,” Kevin told PIX11 News, “is that they had a report of a person with a hooded sweatshirt in our backyard, and they had suspicions that that could be true.”

Dzokhar had last been seen in a gray hooded sweatshirt, the same top he was wearing when he would be arrested in Friday evening.  However, when the major show of law enforcement strength was made outside of Kevin and Emily’s home that morning, “[I was told that] the call that was originally sent to them [about Dzokhar] was dated,” Kevin said.  “It had come in several hours earlier.”

Within an hour or so after scores of police on foot, in armored personnel carriers and in a helicopter surrounded their house, the couple was allowed back home, and the manhunt focused elsewhere.  That meant that the rest of the frozen zone began to also learn firsthand what it was like to live in an armed camp.

Rosa Grigoryan’s family had a SWAT team call them to their door, where the family had to make a full accounting of who was inside.  “I got really afraid,” Grigoryan said to PIX11 News, “because I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t know what their reason was that they were coming through was.  They told us they just wanted to make sure everyone was safe.”

That was Friday evening, less than an hour before Dzokhar Tsarnaev was found.  He was, of course, captured alive, about 3/4 of a mile outside of the frozen zone in a boat behind the home of the boat’s owner, who’d noticed something amiss with his vessel’s white cover.

Tsarnaev, along with his brother, killed four people, injured more 200, and left thousands in danger, according to police.

“When they captured Suspect Number 2,” said Susan Munford, referring to Dzokhar, “I had a physical reaction — nausea, I threw up.”

Munford is a police supervisor in suburban Kingston, Massachusetts, but when the Boston Marathon bombing happened, she was working as head of the security volunteers posted next to the Finish Line Medical Tent.  She was just a couple of dozen steps away from the cameras that recorded the first bomb going off.  Much of her family worked the detail with her, as volunteers, and they were put in danger, which she resents.

She told PIX11 News that she is not alone in having lingering anxiety over the bombings, the shootout and the manhunt, even though most of the locations in Boston and Watertown where the action happened look very much as they did before the bombings.

The trained crisis negotiator said that the crimes of the third week of April and their aftermath took an emotional toll which everybody directly affected by them is still dealing with.

“It’s important to reach out and talk with people,” Munford said, “in any kind of crisis that you’re going through, and reaching out to others.”