PEABODY — When Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended Friday night hiding inside a boat in a Watertown backyard, Peabody police officer Mark Saia was close enough to hear his voice.
“We heard him screaming,” said Saia, a SWAT team member from the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, a regional force. “When they were trying to get him over the side of the board, he was saying he was hurt — ‘It hurts. ... It hurts.’”
The dramatic arrest ended a nearly 24-hour siege that began with the fatal shooting late Thursday night of MIT police officer Sean Collier, a Salem State graduate. It included a carjacking, a wild shootout with police in which grenades and a homemade bomb were tossed, a lockdown of Watertown and surrounding communities, and a house-to-house search of Watertown neighborhoods by hundreds of police officers, including members of the NEMLEC SWAT team.
When it all began, Saia was at home getting ready for bed after working long SWAT team shifts in Boston in the wake of the marathon bombing last Monday that killed three people and injured more than 180. He saw the news on TV and started making phone calls.
“Get rolling,” said Lt. Steve Chaput of Dracut, the NEMLEC SWAT team commander.
Saia, 49, headed to the Peabody police station, where he met SWAT team member Al Scotina, a former Peabody officer who now works in Lynnfield. They drove to Boston with lights flashing, siren blaring and in constant contact with SWAT team members at the scene.
They arrived at the location in Watertown where Tsarnaev had abandoned a vehicle and fled on foot.
“We had pretty much the whole team there within maybe 30 minutes,” the Peabody officer said.
After putting on about 60 pounds of gear — body armor, helmet, night-vision goggles, a Colt M4 Commando rifle and extra magazines — the NEMLEC SWAT team members joined the search. In addition to Saia, there are more than 30 specially trained officers from a number of communities in Essex and Middlesex counties.
Members of NEMLEC’s rapid response team, another specially trained unit, helped secure the borders of the search area and take on other key roles. There were more than a dozen RRT members at the scene. Ipswich officers were part of a Cape Ann Regional Response Team that helped in the search.
It was sometime after midnight when the NEMLEC SWAT team started going house to house. They knocked on doors, entered buildings, searched backyards, opened sheds, tipped over barrels, hopped fences and never stopped looking.
“It was always (at least) two people (together at one time) ... one searching, one covering,” Saia said.
Did they fear that a heavily armed bombing suspect was behind the next fence, around the next corner? Although events had transpired rapidly, the officers knew that one officer had been killed, another severely wounded, one suspect was “down” and the other on the run.
“Your adrenaline is going ... (but) you stick to your tactics,” the 12-year veteran said. “We’re very well-trained and -equipped and -led. You worry about that stuff later.”
At some point in the morning, they reconvened at a staging area and were deployed to a new search zone. In all, Saia guesses they went through 100 houses, many of them two-family homes. Over and over, they knocked on doors and asked to search inside.
“Most of the time ... it was, ‘Yeah, please come in, please check it out.’ People were extremely helpful. They really wanted that extra sense of security that nobody was in their house.” Along the way, he said they met a lot of “very scared people.”
When a homeowner said there was no need to search, they looked hard at the individual and situation to make sure the person wasn’t acting under duress, that the suspect wasn’t inside.
When nobody answered a knock, they checked around the house for signs of forced entry or anything that looked suspicious.
When the grid search was halted late in the day Friday, Saia briefly returned to the staging area. No sooner had he grabbed food and water than the call went out that the suspect had been spotted in a boat in a backyard just outside the search area. That was followed by gunfire.
The NEMLEC team jumped into an armored vehicle and headed to the scene. Saia and the others took up a position not far from the boat, in a neighbor’s yard on the other side of a fence.
There were still concerns. Was the suspect heavily armed? Was he wearing a suicide vest?
When word spread that the homeowner said there were 40 gallons of gasoline in the boat, other issues arose. Was the suspect going to light the boat on fire?
In addition to NEMLEC, ATF federal agents and a police dog were in the neighbor’s yard.
“If (Tsarnaev) jumped the fence, we were initially going to use the dog,” Saia said.
At one point, Saia could see part of Tsarnaev’s back. He could hear the voice of the FBI hostage negotiator, who was widely praised for keeping his cool. There was no missing the burst of sound from the diversionary devices, the so-called “flash-bangs” used to disorient the suspect.
When it was over, Saia said he doesn’t remember a lot of cheering among the rank-and-file. They started pulling back and winding down.
“I don’t know if it’s relief or elation. ... For us, the mission is over,” he said. “What comes next is always the question.”
What did he think of the cheering crowds and the people saluting them as heroes?
“Nobody ever thinks like that,” he said. “Honestly, it’s about as selfless as it gets. It’s about the job and keeping people safe from animals like that. I don’t think that’s a SWAT attitude. That’s a police attitude.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.