CAMBRIDGE — Joe Palana had just sat down for the last exam of his first semester at Harvard Monday when alarm bells pierced the silence at Emerson Hall. Like others around him, the freshman from Rockland thought it was just a fire drill, so he left his bag. But he grabbed his coat.
That made him luckier than some of the hundreds of Harvard students and faculty who were displaced at 9 a.m. by a bomb scare and walked out in their shirtsleeves or without their university ID cards, only to be locked out for hours as law enforcement swept the campus over what officials called “unconfirmed reports of explosives.”
Police ultimately found no suspicious devices, but the threat, which officials said came via e-mail, drew an array of emergency responders and a throng of reporters to Harvard, eight months after the attack on the Boston Marathon. In Washington, President Obama was briefed.
But the mood on campus seemed to shift quickly from fear toward curiosity, annoyance, or indifference, long before the last of the four evacuated buildings was deemed bomb-free around 3 p.m. Almost from the start, officials called the evacuation a result of “an abundance of caution,” and many students speculated that the threat was an exam-period hoax.
“My guess is someone is trying to cause mischief during finals week,” said Nathan Pflueger, a graduate student who had just arrived at his office at the Science Center when the alarm went off, prompting a mass exodus.
“Ten-to-one it’s an obnoxious effort to stop an exam today,” said sophomore Connor Harris, standing outside the center five hours later, yellow caution tape and a cluster of emergency vehicles still blocking the entrance.
Harris said the atmosphere was “nothing like” that of last April, when the university and surrounding area was on lockdown during the manhunt in Watertown for the Marathon bombing suspects. “People were quite frightened” then, he said.
But possibly because it took place at Harvard, the threat Monday made news worldwide. Harris awakened to read not just a university emergency alert message but also a text from his parents in Connecticut, hoping he was safe. Standing on the blocked-off end of Kirkland Street, he read a news story on his phone about the threat, in German, on the website of Der Spiegel.
The threat targeted Emerson, Thayer, and Sever halls in Harvard Yard and the Science Center, just beyond the yard.
Thayer and Emerson reopened after four hours, Sever after five, and the Science Center after six hours, though a heightened police and security presence remained well into the afternoon.
After the evacuation, officials closed Harvard Yard to the public, restricting access to those with university IDs.
By 11, a few dozen students were waiting along Massachusetts Avenue to return through one of the limited-access gates. Despite the helicopters overhead and the power cords for satellite trucks running down the sidewalk, the mood was the usual end-of-semester mix of jubilation and anxiety, with little evident fear.
Michael Casciotti, shivering in shorts and flip-flops, was just trying to stay warm.
“I’m very cold,” said the freshman from Pennsylvania, who had ventured barefoot and bleary-eyed from his Thayer dorm room into the hall at the sound of the alarm.
“I left all my stuff in there, didn’t have any clothes on, so my friend gave me a sweater and flip-flops,” he said.
As the three-hour mark approached, Palana, the freshman from Rockland, remained displaced from his bag and his dorm room, in Thayer. He had decamped for an upperclass dorm far from the yard — “I wasn’t too concerned, [but] I had some friends that were pretty scared” — but wandered back toward Harvard Yard for lunch, spotting a friend waving from the third floor of a dorm just inside the gate. A federal Homeland Security sport utility vehicle had just raced past, sirens blaring. But the friend, shirtless, appeared unconcerned.
“Hey, Adam!” Palana called. “You look not very cold. It’s not so warm out here.”
Palana glanced at his phone and saw an update: His exam had been rescheduled for a choice of 6:30 p.m. Monday night or the third week of next semester.
His classmate Emma Woo cringed; Monday’s new timing coincided with her chorus concert, so she would have to study again over break. “Dude, that’s the worst,” Palana said.
A Harvard e-mail advised students that afternoon exams would be held as scheduled, with exams in affected buildings moved but not canceled.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences message advised students that if they felt unable to take their exams for any reason, “including anxiety, loss of study time, lack of access to material and belongings left in one of the affected buildings, or travel schedule,” they could skip the exam and take a grade based on coursework to date.
That prompted a group of graduate students to begin drafting a reply cautioning that the approach would “set up a new and dangerous precedent on campus, that bomb threats will get students out of final exam responsibilities.”
“We see the note as analogous to negotiating with terrorists,” doctoral student Alek Chakroff said in an e-mail to the Globe. “We sympathize with students who are distressed by the threats, especially in the wake of the Marathon bombings. But in responding to these threats, we think excusing students from exams should be the exception, not the rule.”
A subsequent Harvard e-mail reiterated the policy for students who skipped Monday afternoon exams but clarified that anyone who felt unable to take another exam this week as a result of the bomb threat would need evaluation and documentation from student mental health services.Peter Schworm and Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report.