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Opinion

The Podium

A harrowing incident during the Watertown lockdown

The 911 police dispatcher handling emergency calls during the afternoon of the April 19th lockdown in Watertown sounded certain – a woman had texted her mother that she was being held hostage inside her home by a man with a gun and the Boston Police SWAT team needed to respond immediately. Since the home was inside the perimeter where police were concentrating their search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother allegedly responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, the SWAT team’s response was freighted with a heightened sense of anticipation.

“We all felt that this was it,” said Boston Deputy Supt. Colm P. Lydon, rushed with the SWAT team to the address just off of Mount Auburn street to take command of the scene. “Her house was just a few streets away from (the shootout). It made perfect sense he’d have wound up there, perfect sense.”

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Inside the house, my sister, Karolyn Kurkjian Jones, forced home for the day from her job on the concierge desk at a large Boston hotel, was totally unaware of the drama building around her. Shortly before 1 p.m., she noticed that several police officers were swarming through an empty lot on Mount Auburn street across from her home. Perhaps, she thought, Tsarnaev had made his way to her block. A telephone call from Lydon jolted her to the possibility that the threat could be more immediate.

“Mrs. Jones, this is Colm Lydon from the Boston Police Department,” he said in a voice she recalls being both firm and calm. “I would like to talk to you. Can you walk slowly to your front door, and please tell me when your hand is on the door knob?”

Although Lydon didn’t provide any details, Kurkjian Jones had a sense of foreboding as she made her way to the front door — had someone entered her house unnoticed to her and was watching her now, she thought. On opening the front door, she immediately came into the view of a Boston SWAT team, supported by a tank-like vehicle with armor-plated snipers alongside it. In all, many of the 60-70 police officers and National Guardsmen who had taken position in a church parking lot across from her home had their rifles, shotguns and pistols trained on her.

In the ensuing half hour, the initial terror that Kurkjian Jones, in her early 70s, felt on seeing the weapons aimed at her turned to confusion and concern. When she expressed understandable dismay at what had taken place — including being put in handcuffs at the bottom of her stairs — and why, she was offered no explanations beyond being told that a woman in the house had sent out a text about being held hostage. Instead, she was placed in an ambulance and hustled off to Mt. Auburn Hospital for emotional and physical evaluation.

In their search of the home, police learned there was no emergency inside, no armed intruder was holding her hostage, no text messages had been sent from her phone. She had been alone inside the house, doing her usual household chores — cleaning, tending to the dog and her two cats, watching the extraordinary events unfolding on television and, like the rest of Watertown was doing that day, assuring friends and family by phone that she was fine.

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Two months later, with the assistance of Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis as well as the police chiefs in Watertown, Belmont and Cambridge, she has discovered the answer to the questions that have bewildered her since that afternoon — what had caused the police to be summoned to her address, had a mischief-maker targeted her by making such a false call.

The answer, it turns out, was less nefarious. There was no culprit: The SWAT team had been dispatched to her doorstep because of a simple communication miscue.

The address that the Boston Police dispatcher, who was acting as the central radio commander for Watertown that day, had been given for the emergency was wrong. While the name of the street and its number were the same, the call involved an incident — soon proven to be uneventful — in Cambridge, not Watertown. But a Belmont police officer on hearing the Cambridge dispatch thought it an emergency unfolding in Watertown and immediately informed a nearby Boston Police officer. That Boston Police officer passed on to his dispatcher who immediately told the SWAT team to respond.

“It’s the fog of war,” Davis said in an interview last week. “The greater the emergency, the more careful you have to be.”

Boston Police are familiar with tragic consequences emerging from such crises. In 2004, Victoria Snelgrove, a 19-year old Emerson College student was killed during a post-Red Sox victory celebration after she failed to respond to a police command. A subsequent independent review criticized Boston police in part for failing to have a plan in place to deal with rowdy but non-violent crowds.

Ten years before, in 1994, a 75-year old Methodist minister, Rev. Accelynne Williams, suffered a fatal heart attack after a Boston Police SWAT team rushed into his Dorchester home on an incorrect tip that the apartment was being used for drug trafficking.

Davis said he is referring the Watertown incident to an overall investigation being conducted into his department’s response to the marathon bombing, but he and Deputy Lydon have already visited Kurkjian Jones at her home to apologize for the harrowing incident.

However, a careful listening to the tapes showed that the mistakes made did not lead to a tragic result because restraint and caution was shown in dealing with the situation. While storming the house was a real option, Deputy Lydon, putting to good use the training he has received as a hostage negotiator, kept seeking more information about what may have been happening inside the house. First, he asked whether there had been any unusual prior incidents at the address. Hearing there had been none, Lydon pressed the Boston dispatcher to find the person who had originated the call that a woman was being held captive by an armed intruder.

When that was not forthcoming, he asked for the phone number inside the house and placed a call to my sister. “I was petrified when I first saw all those police officers with their guns aimed at me,” Kurkjian Jones said. “But thankfully his voice was so reassuring. I just followed his instructions and did what he told me to do.”

Stephen Kurkjian is a retired member of The Globe staff.

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