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Jennifer McGuire

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After the bombs in Boston: a reporter's notebook

Categories: World

boston common - Apr 20 - large.jpg
David Common reporting from Boston, April 20, 2013

As a foreign correspondent for CBC News, David Common is used to being able to travel on a moment's notice to international hotspots - from Cairo's Tahrir Square to Haiti, Japan, Iraq and Afghanistan. While it's not far from his base in New York to Boston, Common explains that covering the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt posed its own unique set of challenges and surprises.

Breaking news often means no clothes. Sure, foreign correspondents tend to keep a "go bag" of essentials at the office, but it never has everything you need.

When the Boston bombs exploded, I was already pulling a suitcase out of the New York bureau, on my way to a conference in Montreal. Needless to say, I didn't end up on the Air Canada flight. I was on the ground in Boston just over two hours after the blasts.

The airport isn't far from the marathon's finish line, but the traffic was terrible. Police had set up roadblocks and closed the downtown core. Eventually, I got out of the taxi, hopped a fence, and quickly walked to the scene, to where satellite trucks had set up and where I could go live. By this point, I'd already been on the air by phone. I was the only CBC journalist on the ground - but would soon be joined by more than a dozen others.

Our Toronto and Montreal newsrooms were dispatching more crews, many of whom I'd just seen at the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. We were lucky to have a Radio-Canada satellite truck crew - they have a well-deserved reputation for rapid deployment and a highly efficient operation.

Day one ended around midnight. Rest would be short. Back on the air at 5 am. 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.

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

The most amazing thing, to me, is 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.

The manhunt was incredible - so was the treatment of the assembled journalists. Those of us who made it at 3 am to the Boston suburb of Watertown, where the police activity was centred, watched as police brought in portable toilets for journalists to use - by 7 am no less. This was an operation! Never have I seen 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!)

Some 10,000 police officers, the bulk of them roaming the emptied streets of Boston, guns drawn, screaming at anyone outside. But by dinner on the Friday, 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. No sooner had authorities declared a stalemate and it was over.

The police were exhausted but their work was not over. Neither was ours - but the pressure subsided. For nearly every CBCer, capture day was 20 hours of straight work, after little sleep. We all looked a bit wrecked by that point. More weary faces in a city still stunned by the attack. 

David Common has recently been named host of World Report, one of CBC News' flagship programs and the most widely-heard newscast in Canadian radio. He begins that role in September.

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