PLYMOUTH — Suddenly, there he was, a perfect infrared silhouette: accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev crouched in a boat in a Watertown driveway, surrounded by officers with guns drawn on the ground and illuminated by the State Police Eurocopter TwinStar hovering above.
“At the moment, you don’t have the time to process it,” said Trooper Mark Spencer, who piloted the copter, at a Friday news conference about last week’s dramatic capture. “Later is when it sinks in. . . . We still say, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”
Spencer was part of a flight crew that also included Trooper Eric Fairchild and Trooper Edward Mathurin, who watched Tsarnaev from the sky on April 19 and gave second-by-second updates to officers on the ground about the suspected terrorist’s every move.
Police did not know whether Tsarnaev was armed, and the flight crew was able to keep officers apprised of what he was doing as he sat up and laid down in the boat throughout most of the 90-minute standoff that began about 7 p.m.
“Moving hands is what could hurt incoming officers,” Fairchild said.
Tsarnaev, 19, and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, are suspected of planting two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding more than 250. A Watertown resident discovered Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding beneath a tarp in the homeowner’s boat. That followed a 20-hour manhunt that began the night before, when the brothers allegedly shot and killed an MIT police officer and engaged in a gunfight with officers, resulting in Tamerlan’s death.
On that fateful Friday, the troopers said, they dealt with a flood of false alarms from a jittery public, and had been flying over suburban streets and backyards in their helicopter, with its forward-looking infrared camera used to record heat images and its 3 million candlepower Night Sun searchlight.
They were just 2 miles away when the call came in: A woman at 67 Franklin St., in Watertown, said there was blood on the boat parked in her driveway.
It took only minutes to find the house and find their man.
“We were there like that,” said Mathurin, snapping his fingers. “We do this day in, day out. This is what we do. We went over and when I put that [infrared camera] on the boat, I was actually shocked that not only did I see there was a heat source, but I got a perfect human silhouette. That doesn’t happen that much.”
All three said their training kicked in — they did not feel fear, only determination to keep the officers on the ground safe and informed of what the person in the boat was doing.
They flew in tight circles about 1,200 feet overhead — usually, said Spencer, they hovered to make it easier, but they did not know whether Tsarnaev had a gun, and did not want to be a stationary target.
Spencer said it was important for the officers on the ground to hear the blow-by-blow of Tsarnaev’s movements because it was a tense situation, and having a calm, running update on the suspect’s movements kept the adrenaline from spiking.
The three men said they did not pause to consider how surreal it was to be hovering over a suspected terrorist in a boat in a suburban neighborhood until afterward, when low fuel forced them to leave the scene and land at Logan International Airport.
“Then,” said Fairchild, “we went, ‘Wow. Wow.’ ”