Witness's risky tweeting gave world front-row view of Boston Marathon firefight

Jason Sickles
Yahoo News
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They were the most frantic moments of Andrew Kitzenberg’s life.

The young entrepreneur had just settled down to watch TV shortly before 1 a.m. last April 19 when a barrage of gunfire rattled his quaint Boston-area neighborhood.

“Pop, pop, pop,” recalls Kitzenberg, then 26. “It was really loud.”

Flushed with shock, adrenaline and curiosity, Kitzenberg darted to the window. He could see two men crouched behind a black SUV on Laurel Street, 40 feet from his front door in Watertown, Mass. One of them had a handgun and was firing wildly at police officers down the street.

Kitzenberg raced up the stairs to his third-floor bedroom where he lay prone across his bed. From just beneath a window, he was able to photograph and tweet with his iPhone what was unfolding.

That first grainy photo and Kitzenberg’s take on the turmoil were discovered and shared by hundreds of Twitter users within minutes. It didn't take long for reporters from the likes of ABC News, the New York Times and other outlets to also notice.

His dispatches were part of an unprecedented role technology and social media played in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attacks. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds got their bombing-related news through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. But the constant flow of information also sprouted a frenzy among Internet "sleuths" who fueled speculation and online witch hunts. At times, even police found themselves distracted by reports of arrests or possible suspects falsely reported by legitimate news organizations.

On Twitter, some probed Kitzenberg for more: “What’s going on now?” Others urged caution: “Holy shit … take cover!”

But Kitzenberg, a tech-accessories manufacturer, was too busy trying to capture the action to notice. Photos that he didn’t immediately post to Twitter, he later published on his company’s blog.

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The blog includes sharper images of the assailants, a distant picture of what Kitzenberg described as multiple officers massed at the end of Laurel Street, and several photos of the aftermath investigation. Kitzenberg wrote that the suspects hunkered down behind the SUV were “taking aim and firing on the officers,” sometimes reaching into backpacks for what he figures was more ammunition.

It wasn’t until an explosion occurred a few minutes into the firefight that Kitzenberg realized he was witnessing the beginning of the end in the manhunt for the marathon bombing suspects.

The men in combat with police were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, immigrant brothers whom officials would later identify as the suspects wanted in the deadly terror attacks at the Boston Marathon four days earlier.

The afternoon before the hail of gunfire on Laurel Street, the FBI released photos of the brothers taken from surveillance video of the marathon and pleaded for the public’s help in identifying them.

“We consider them to be armed and extremely dangerous,” FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers told a national TV audience.

Four hours later, according to investigators, the Tsarnaev brothers fatally shot campus police officer Sean Collier and attempted to steal his gun at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, about five miles from Laurel Street.

Thirty minutes after killing Collier, police say, the brothers carjacked a black Mercedes SUV just across the Charles River. The car’s owner, a Boston-educated Chinese immigrant, seized the chance to flee when his gun-wielding captors stopped to buy gas.

Authorities have said they believe the brothers were planning to take the SUV to New York City and attempt another deadly attack.

After leaving the gas station in Cambridge, the brothers split up into separate cars, with Dzhokhar driving his green Honda Civic. They were apparently driving in tandem when Watertown patrol officer Joe Reynolds spotted the SUV, which had been reported stolen.

Reynolds “had no idea who he was up against,” Watertown police Chief Ed Deveau said last week during a congressional hearing on law enforcement’s response to the Boston terrorism. “When we got notified in Watertown, we didn’t know it was related to the Boston bombings. We didn’t know it was related to Sean Collier.”

According to an account recently published by Harvard University researchers, Reynolds was trailing the SUV and waiting for backup when both the Tsarnaevs’ cars unexpectedly stopped in front of Kitzenberg’s house. Tamerlan, 26, stepped out of his vehicle and reportedly unloaded a volley of shots at the officer, forcing Reynolds to slam his cruiser into reverse.

An officer pulling up behind Reynolds “got a round right through his windshield, glass in his face, and a bullet went right by his ear,” Deveau testified.

Kitzenberg said he watched as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan fetched what he assumed was additional ammunition and explosives from the Honda and their backpacks.

“That seemingly quiet overnight shift suddenly turned into a war zone,” the Watertown chief said in his testimony. “For the first time in America, police officers were attacked with guns and bombs, and it happened on a quiet backstreet of my community.”

The Harvard report, which was based on public documents and interviews with police commanders involved, states the “assailants threw multiple explosive devices, some of which detonated while others did not.”

“When those went off, I knew it was something on a whole 'nother level,” Kitzenberg told Yahoo News.

The biggest blast, from a pressure-cooker bomb like the one used to kill and maim at the marathon, shook his house and filled the street with smoke.

“We could feel it, especially being up on the third floor,” Kitzenberg said.

The Harvard study was conducted to provide law enforcement a review of lessons learned. While the authors said it is not intended to be an investigation, the 50-page report is the closest thing yet to a public narrative of the Laurel Street shootout, since the official inquiry hasn’t been concluded.

Hundreds of rounds of ammunition were fired, according to the Harvard report.

Several errant bullets penetrated neighboring houses and cars, including one that came into a second-floor office used by Kitzenberg and his roommates. The Harvard findings recommended better training to prevent “contagious” gunfire in the future.

With a cloud of smoke still hanging in the air, Tamerlan ran down Laurel Street shooting at police, Kitzenberg said.

“The officer returned fire, and is thought to have hit the assailant multiple times,” the Harvard report states. “The assailant’s weapon then either ran out of ammunition or jammed; he then threw it at the officer, striking him in the arm.”

Officers tackled Tamerlan and were trying to get him into custody when Dzhokhar sped down the street in the SUV. The Harvard report states the SUV apparently ran over Tamerlan, who later died at a hospital, and may have dragged him 30 feet.

Dzhokhar drove off, barreling through a hail of police gunfire. A wide-eyed Kitzenberg said it looked like a scene from an action movie.

“The SUV sideswiped both cars, taking out doors and windows and ultimately broke through the vehicle barricade and continued driving west on Laurel Street,” he wrote on his blog. “This was the last I saw of the black SUV.”

Following an all-day search and a citywide lockdown, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found hiding in a boat less than a mile from where he’d eluded capture on Laurel Street. He remains in custody pending a November trial after pleading not guilty to 30 federal charges. If convicted, the 20-year-old faces the death penalty.

Kitzenberg turned his pictures over to police, but doesn’t know if they’ve been helpful to prosecutors.

“I’d like to think so and hope so, but I don’t know,” he said.

He was interviewed by investigators, but is reluctant to discuss specifics in case he is called to testify in court.

He’ll let the photos speak for themselves, even if others still question the risk he put himself at to get them.

“I get that a lot: ‘What were you thinking? Why the hell would you do that?’

“I guess I wasn’t thinking,” Kitzenberg said. “It was instinct … that shock feeling.”

Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).