Officer: Cooperation crucial to saving lives in Boston bombing

It’s clear Robert Merner is a guy capable of handling himself in most situations. But it’s hard to imagine what he experienced a year ago in Boston will ever leave him.

The athletic, 28-year Boston Police Department veteran spent many years on the street as a homicide and narcotics detective before his current duty as chief superintendent in the department’s Bureau of Investigative Services. He’s seen his share of senseless violence and man’s inhumanity to man.

A year ago about this time, he was thinking about the how hot it had been in the 2012 Boston Marathon, which he completed while narrowly avoiding heatstroke. He had run the 26.2-mile race several times. The sun’s rays in the 2013 race didn’t figure to be as much of a factor at 10 a.m. when thousands of runners left the starting line.

At 12:50 p.m., an explosion near the finish line broke the reverie of the event. Twelve seconds later, a second bomb went off. The scene was blood and chaos. The 117th Boston Marathon had been transformed into the grotesque site of a deadly terrorist bombing.

Then, a remarkable thing happened. Members of law enforcement from many agencies, health care professionals and hundreds of citizens rushed into the carnage and began to aid the wounded. Although three persons were killed by the explosions, and a university police officer was assassinated by the terrorists two days later, the 264 injured in the blasts survived that awful day.

Merner and his fellow officers were on the crime scene in approximately 10 minutes. In less than half an hour, the injured were triaged and transported to six nearby trauma centers. The proximity of those specialty medical centers no doubt saved many lives.

“The entire scene was triaged in 22 minutes, and every person that left there alive is alive today,” Merner said Monday at Red Rock Resort during his presentation to the International Conference on Transnational Organized Crime &Terrorism.

The eight blocks surrounding the explosions became one large crime scene, and the hunt was on for the suspects. Authorities acted so quickly, Merner recalled, that within 30 minutes the first surveillance footage of the two male suspects was discovered. Verifying their identities took longer.

But 102 hours later, suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead and his younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was in custody after shootouts in which the suspects hurled handmade bombs at police.

Much of the investigation appeared to play out on national television, but that general familiarity with the infamous event took nothing away from Merner’s remembrance of it Monday during the conference, which is closed to the public and most of the press.

The level of inter-agency cooperation was unprecedented, he said. The break-neck speed with which the investigation unfolded was a team effort. You won’t often hear a veteran police detective laud the information-sharing efforts of the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, but Merner did that and more.

“It was an amazing feat, and it wasn’t just law enforcement,” Merner said. “The volunteers at the marathon, the police officers, EMS, firefighters, the merchants, the cooperations from the businesses was amazing.”

The Boston police also made use of social media to knock down inaccurate media reports and quick-spreading urban legend.

“I’m not a tweet guy,” Merner said, noting that the chief’s Twitter increased from 54,000 to 304,000 during the investigation. “I don’t tweet. I don’t do Facebook, like I know a lot of other law enforcement guys don’t. But Twitter was huge for us. … We were able to dispel constant, constant rumors on social media.”

Merner and his colleagues have spent recent months planning to keep next week’s race secure. Increased police presence and surveillance are just two of the techniques law enforcement will use to help ensure the public’s safety.

“We’ve been prepping for the Boston Marathon for a year now,” he said.

He reminded his audience about the victims in the bombing — Martin Richard, 8; Lingzi Lu, 23; Krystle Campbell, 29; and MIT campus police officer Sean Collier, 26 — but most of Merner’s talk centered on law enforcement dynamics inside the investigation. It was that kind of group.

At one point, however, Merner made it personal.

“Just to talk about these cowards,” he said. “When you watch the videos when the trial comes up, they’re standing next to that rigid fence. He goes and he puts that bag down there behind young Martin Richard.”

Homemade bombs assembled inside pressure cookers were planted in crowds and near metal barriers that effectively corralled the spectators into a concentrated area.

After again praising the “phenomenal” level of cooperation between the local, state and federal agencies, Merner reminded the audience of organized crime and terrorism specialists to remain vigilant.

“You’ve got to keep understanding that this is the changing face of terrorism, because these two kids were operating right in our backyard,” he said.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.