Reporting on terror: CBC’s David Common on covering the Boston bombing

David Common was CBC's lead reporter on the ground in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, and during an unprecedented search for the two suspects. Here in J-Source, he shares his experience following this breaking story that gripped the world.

David Common was CBC's lead reporter on the ground in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, and during an unprecedented search for the two suspects. Here in J-Source, he shares his experience following this breaking story that gripped the world.

I saw the first live images of the Boston bombing on the office television. It was 3 p.m., ten minutes after the blast. I was already heading to New York’s LaGuardia airport on a planned trip to Montreal for a conference. Needless to say, I never made it to the Air Canada counter. By the time I got out of the taxi, Boston was the new destination and I managed to get a flight to Logan airport just minutes before it was shut down in the security clampdown.

It made me the only CBC journalist on the ground. And the demands of breaking news kicked in right away.

On the way to Boston, when my plane turned from the taxiway to the runway in New York, I caught a glimpse of the new World Trade Center in the distance – a reminder of the terror threat the against which the city remains vigilant. Boston was different. No where else had been struck since 9/11. And while this bombing was not the same, it did leave stunned faces.

The morning after the blast, food remained on restaurant patios abandoned by patrons. White table clothes were stained red; they had been used to mop up blood from fleeing and injured runners.

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While doing phone hits for CBC radio and CBC News Network in the cab headed towards the blast site, I was also thinking logistics. While our crews in Toronto were working to dispatch additional teams and our own satellite truck, I realized the hotels would soon fill up. After all, the sheer size of the Boston marathon seizes up most rooms to begin with. Add on a flotilla of journalists and law enforcement and the rooms go fast. I lucked out – thanks to a travel app on my iPad, I reserved rooms reserved while on the air.

Day one ended around midnight. Rest was going to be minimal and I was back on air at 5 a.m. Our own CBC satellite truck, brought in by a superb and experienced crew from Montreal (some of the same people I’d only just seen in Newtown, Connecticut) was “hot” by 7 a.m. Finding people to talk to was easy – social media ensured we had dozens of Canadian marathoners to interview. Hundreds gathered around memorial sites and, though we wanted to give them time to soak it in, nearly all seemed open to speak.

To me, the most amazing thing was the sheer volume of video and imagery – a modern reality the bombers must have known in choosing their target. The deadly cargo in their backpacks would be unleashed before not just television and security cameras, but people’s own camera-phones.

Little wonder that their faces would emerge publicly only a couple of days later. As heads in the crowd turned towards the blast, unaware of what was happening, the bombers faces did not move. They knew. Then they left. Incredibly, they did not attempt to the leave the country. They did not immediately plant more bombs, though seem to have been capable and equipped to do so.

The manhunt was incredible – so was the treatment of the assembled journalists. Those of us who made it at 3 a.m. to Watertown, a suburb of Boston where the police activity was centered, watched as by 7 a.m. police brought in portable toilets for journalists to use. This was an operation! Never would something like that happen in Canada, and not with such speed. They even ordered bagged lunches and trucked in water. News vehicles that were running low on fuel were refilled by a police tanker. (It should be noted we were better prepared than some so we didn’t need much of what the police warmly offered – though the toilets weren’t a bad idea.)

On Friday some 10,000 police officers, the bulk of them roaming the emptied streets of Boston, guns drawn, screamed at anyone outside. But by dinner, nothing. The Governor said: “We’re no further ahead than we were Monday afternoon – except one suspect is dead.” Given the scale of the police operation, and the pictures circulating, everyone had hoped for a speedy conclusion. But it didn’t seem likely to happen.

Only 20 minutes later, the SWAT teams were pouring back in to Watertown. Hundreds of cars, high speeds and screeching sirens. Soon after, the authorities declared a stalemate and it was over.

Through the day, news conferences by police happened every couple of hours. The Governor alone came to speak three times on Friday and the police commissioner five times. Even when they had little to say – they spoke. Boston, and much of the world, held on for every word.

Of all the images from the week, I am most struck by those of the alleged bombers: one an accomplished young boxer, the other a wrestler. Both were ingrained into American life. Both were American residents for more than a decade. These were insiders and what might have made them turn against their home, and become outsiders out for blood? That's the story we must all focus on now.

But first I need a bit of sleep.

David Common is CBC's New York Correspondent. He reported previously from Paris, Toronto, Regina, Winnipeg and Fredericton. He works for all media lines of CBC, filing to the National, World at Six, World Report and other news programs.

All photos courtesy of David Common.