MHS grad experiences 'long, terrible week' in Boston
As she started the walk from MIT’s Cambridge campus to the marathon finish line on the other side of the Charles River, she had no idea she was also starting what she would later label a “long, terrible week.”
She first spent some time with four friends, enjoying a warm and sunny afternoon. Then she set out on her own for the marathon finish line.
“After I watched a bit, I started walking back toward MIT,” she recalled. “I’d only gone a couple of blocks when I heard the explosions. I thought it was celebratory cannons.”
What she had actually heard were two homemade bombs filled with nails, BBs and other shrapnel. They had exploded in the midst of the crowd, about 10 seconds apart, killing three people outright and seriously injuring nearly 200 more.
Balwit’s cell phone quickly began buzzing with text messages. “Where are U? R you OK?” friends wondered, much to her confusion.
“Then I started meeting a crowd of people, going toward downtown, really upset,” she said.
Reflexively, she smiled at the people she met. “Now I feel bad about that, but I didn’t know,” she said.
Balwit didn’t realize what had happened until she rejoined her friends.
They were relieved to see her. With rumors flying of other bombs, they returned to campus and turned on the TV news.
“By then, I was really shaken, because I’d been really close to the bombing,” she said.
That evening, Balwit spoke with her parents, Julie and John Balwit of McMinnville. They were surprised to learn she had been near the finish line during the bombing, instead of on campus, out of harm’s way.
Her mother was nervous when she found out, Balwit said, but her dad reacted with pragmatism. “He just calculated the actual likelihood of me being hurt among all those people,” she said.
Her father’s analysis gave her a glimpse of the array of reactions she would observe that week, ranging from fear to anger to relief. For the most part, she said, she saw a lot of anxiety.
A few of her friends were personally affected, including the next door neighbor of the family that lost an 8-year-old boy in the bombing, and nearly lost his badly injured mother and sister as well.
Later in the week, as Balwit and her friends were looking forward to another sunny spring day, tragedy came even closer.
As they were getting ready for bed Thursday night, they heard sirens on campus, followed by even more sirens. “I checked my e-mail and found an emergency alert about a shooter on campus,” she said.
She didn’t even consider the possibility the shooting might have been the work of one of the marathon bombers. But the next morning, she learned that’s what police were alleging.
According to their account, the bombing suspects had ambushed and assassinated a campus police officer at MIT, stolen a car and triggered a high-speed chase and engaged in a heavy exchange of gunfire. One of the suspects had been killed, it seemed, and the other had escaped, sparking a massive manhunt.
The fallen police officer, 26-year-old Sean Collier, was active in campus outdoor club. Many of Balwit’s friends knew him.
“It was really, really sad,” she said, noting that many MIT students changed their Facebook profile pictures to a campus police badge in his honor.
As the manhunt continued Friday, classes were canceled. Students were ordered to stay in their dorms.
Throughout the Boston area, virtually everything shut down and everyone holed up. The view from Balwit’s window, usually marked by heavy car, bike and foot traffic, was devoid of movement.
“I was really angry about the lockdown,” she said. “That was my reaction.
“My reaction to the whole situation was to be angry that we couldn’t go outside. I wanted it to be over.”
Some of her dormmates stayed glued to television broadcasts all day. Others broke out board games.
The dorm lifted the normal charge on laundry machines that morning, hoping to distract students from the events of the day.
“So much information was available,” Balwit said. “Too much. It was overwhelming. I tried to distance myself a little.”
She spent the day drawing and painting. She worked on the blog she writes for the campus admissions department. She baked an apple crisp.
“I kept hearing sirens and hoping it would end soon,” she said.
The lockdown was officially lifted about 6 o’clock.
Soon after, Balwit heard many more sirens, as police closed in on the suspect, who was hiding in an area not far from the MIT campus. It wasn’t long before they had the man, a 19-year-old student from a nearby campus, in custody.
A strange weekend followed, Balwit said.
Some people canceled parties while others threw them, often drinking more than usual. Some people wanted to talk constantly about the week, while others didn’t want to discuss it at all.
“Everyone was still kind of in shock,” she said.
On Monday, classes resumed and people seemed to be going about their routines. Balwit spoke with the News-Register just after finishing her favorite class with her writing teacher, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at Atlantic magazine.
“It’s hard to say what’s back to normal,” she said. “On Friday, during the lockdown, I said I couldn’t wait for it to get back to normal. But a friend said she didn’t think things would be back to normal before the end of the year.
“It was bad. People are shaken.”
Balwit, who will be returning home in late May, following completion of her freshman year, said, “We weren’t even hugely affected. But we were afraid.”