Northern Ireland

Eye-witness to Boston mayhem

A young man and his father showing Stephen Nolan dramatic video footage of gunfire in Watertown
Image caption A young man and his father showing Stephen Nolan dramatic video footage of gunfire in Watertown

I love America and I visit at least twice a year.

It had been an intense period of work for me at the BBC so I decided, at short notice, to take a break and try to do literally nothing for seven days. If only I had known.

Those seven days turned into one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, including me chasing police cars through Boston.

Day one was ordinary enough.

I stood at the finish line of the Boston marathon and had my tourist photograph taken.

The marathon was to begin within hours, but first the Americans were putting on a wonderful show for the kids.

The children were having their own marathon races and I remarked how beautiful it was to see mum and dad cheering them on. There was such a family spirit palpable in the air.

That very same stretch of road was where eight-year-old Martin Richard was to be murdered and others like him, killed or brutally maimed.

BBC Radio 5Live needed me on the ground quickly and so my holiday was over.

I'd left for New Hampshire by that stage, swung the car around and within three hours was back to beautiful Boston.

Except there was little beautiful about it.

Soldiers were on the streets and there was an armed guard at the front of every hotel.

I was interviewing many marathon runners, who were talking - but not realising - what they were saying.

They were in shock, stunned and frightened.

One lady fought through tears to tell me how she had just crossed the finish line when the bombs went off , but that she couldn't get to her children who were waiting to congratulate her.

She was safe, but the police were pushing her back away from the explosions - and away from her kids.

She only found out hours later that her children were OK, that it wasn't her little boy who had lost a limb or worse.

Image caption Stephen Nolan at the Boston marathon before the bomb attack

She was still in her running shorts, she was standing with me in one of Boston's finest hotels and yet everything that represented normality had been ripped apart.

If I'm honest, I was glad to leave Boston behind two days later and I headed this time for Cape Cod to try to resume what was left of my holiday.

It was never going to be a pleasant holiday because of what had happened and I didn't get to stay there long anyway.

I was woken in the middle of the night to be told there had been a gun-battle on the streets of Boston and the city was in "lockdown".

One of the suspects was dead, the other was believed to be in the Boston area.

Four hours later, I was back there once again explaining to the 5Live listeners what it felt like to be in the middle of this incredible man-hunt.

It was surreal. No cars on the roads. No people. The citizens obeying orders to stay inside. The gridlocked traffic had disappeared. A sense of life disappeared. And an eerie silence.

The 19-year-old suspect was believed to be in Watertown and the military had put a human chain right around every exit route.

I got inside the perimeter with other journalists and I looked in amazement at the sheer might of the American military machine.

Helicopters were landing in shopping centre car parks, police sniffer dogs were on the ground and truck loads of "special ops" vehicles continued to roar past.

I have never, ever seen so many police and military on the ground. I turned to a colleague and remarked that one 19-year-old was still managing to evade what felt like an entire army.

Then a press conference at 6pm.

A dejected chief of police telling the citizens that the "lockdown" had been lifted; that the one million citizens who had been told to stay indoors could go outside again as long as they remained vigilant; that the operation was developing.

It was a 15-minute press conference that could have been summed up in one sentence - "they didn't have a clue where suspect two was and they couldn't contain the people in their homes any longer".

The military and the police retreated out of Watertown within minutes and I followed in the car.

I needed to get back to the hotel as I desperately needed sleep. And then an extraordinary twist.

Six police cars in front of me suddenly swung around, sirens roaring.

I sped behind them, knowing that this was significant. This was surreal. What I didn't know was that I was being led to the scene where this manhunt would end.

Image caption Kevin threw himself on top of his girlfriend Lauren to protect her from the gunfire

Darkness had fallen and I was in the east side of Watertown.

There were about 10 residents on the ground. Everyone else was inside, lights out.

The eye witnesses were sure that the suspect was hiding under a boat.

One 18-year-old called Vinny stood with his father and showed me a video he had taken of the gun-fire that had roared across this residential area just seconds earlier. We counted the shots. About 20.

A young, gaunt blonde lady cried uncontrollably as she told me she lived just three doors from where the suspect was now.

She had been caught up in the gun-battle and her boyfriend had pushed her to the ground in the footpath outside her house and lay on top of her as a human shield.

As she told her story to me on 5Live, a cheer went up.

A young man rushed out his front door, with the American flag draped over his shoulders. The manhunt was over. The suspect was in custody.

Within what seemed like seconds, I saw an ambulance sweeping past me with what I believed to be the suspect inside.

He was seriously injured, but America wanted him alive as they wanted answers.

And then another experience that I will never forget.

That huge military machine that I talked about started to withdraw once again from this tiny area called Watertown.

But as every police car drove last, the crowds cheered, clapped and shouted thank you.

More residents were spilling onto the streets and the cheering got louder.

The police returned the gesture, blasting out their sirens as their own code of acknowledgement.

As I drove back to my hotel, I was once again behind a line of police cars.

I remember vividly looking at children as young as four or five on the side of the road, hand-in-hand with their parents, shouting thank you to the officers.

It was a manifestation of national relief. A sense that it was all over.

But of course when that sense of jubilation wears off, I know the victims and those who lost their lives will rightly become the focus again.

From the president right down to the many residents I spoke to, they talked of not letting the terrorists win. They said Boston was too strong for that .

They have to say that and I understand why.

I believe, however, that Boston will be left with a profound sense of vulnerability for many years to come.

How could they not?