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Carjacking victim describes his life one year after Tsarnaev encounter

CAMBRIDGE — In his slim blazer, rumpled oxford shirt, and jeans, he could pass for any of the young entrepreneurs tapping away in the glass-walled warren that houses his Kendall Square start-up and dozens of others. No one bats an eye when he reheats his lunch or grabs a water from the central kitchen.

If they know him at all, it’s as the soft-spoken tech developer working on an app to help Asian students navigate life in the United States — not the carjacking victim whose poise under pressure saved his own life and helped bring the alleged Boston Marathon bombers to justice, the man millions came to know only as Danny.


For 75 harrowing minutes that began on April 18, 2013, he feared for his life, a prisoner in his own Mercedes, held at gunpoint by Tamerlan Tsarnaev. After his daring escape, worldwide attention closed in as he camped out in his apartment. He wondered if he would ever get his old life back.

He did, mostly. Now 27, he remains an unfailingly polite engineer-turned-entrepreneur from China who can order a cup of coffee in Cambridge or join a road race in Jamaica Plain without being recognized.

“I’m still the same person. Even though this happened to me, it doesn’t change anything,” Danny said, in an interview on the anniversary of his ordeal, again asking that only his American nickname be used in order to protect his privacy. “Sometimes when I look back, I feel it’s not my story, it’s like it’s somebody else’s story.”

The story began with a tap on the window of his car while he was stopped along Brighton Avenue and ended with a dash to freedom at a Memorial Drive gas station. In between, on a winding route through the city, Danny analyzed every threat and snatch of dialogue from the Tsarnaev brothers for clues about where and when he might die. When Dzhokhar finally went inside to pay at a Shell station and his brother, Tamerlan, put down the gun to fiddle with a navigation device, Danny seized his chance and ran.


He told police they could track his car using its onboard satellite system. Barely 20 minutes later, authorities pinpointed the Mercedes and police swarmed into a residential neighborhood in Watertown, where an explosive standoff left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar on the run.

The carjacking remains with Danny in subtle ways. He tenses up if someone walks near his passenger window at night. He no longer pulls over while driving to respond to text messages, waiting until he has reached his destination instead. He changes the channel if the face of one of the Tsarnaev brothers flashes on TV.

After those first hard weeks when he struggled to focus at work, he resumed his routines and began to feel like himself again. He rarely considers his ordeal, he said, unless the stress of a regular day gets to him; then he recalls it deliberately, remembering that he once endured so much worse. That is what he wants others to know, that ordinary people can sometimes do extraordinary things.

“I hope this story encourages some people,” he said. “When [someone] is in a dangerous or difficult situation, you can still have opportunity. Just don’t give up.”

He waited until May to tell his mother what happened, worried that she would make him move home. He filled her in as the riveting story of the carjacking — of a young Chinese entrepreneur who had prevailed in an extended mental chess match with the Tsarnaevs — went viral in China, too, after the Globe published his account.


“I told her, ‘Mom, it’s OK, I’m safe now, don’t be worried, because they have those two guys,’ ” he said. “ ‘One is dead and one is [in] custody, so they’re not able to hurt me again. And people here are so nice, so helpful.’ ”

The hardest part then was being so far from family. Life brightened when his younger brother came to Boston for an extended visit, then settled in to start graduate school at BU, the two of them sharing an apartment. The company of friends has helped, too.

Danny has poured himself into work, and eased his mind by watching sports, attending several Celtics games. (He was drawn to Boston in 2009 for graduate school at Northeastern partly because of how much he loved following Kevin Garnett and the 2007-08 championship run from his home in central China; after earning a master’s degree, he went back for a year to await a work visa, then returned to Boston two months before the carjacking.)

Occasionally people will figure out who he is and thank him for his quick-thinking heroics, knowing that if he had not escaped and told police how to track his car, the Tsarnaevs might have made it to New York with their homemade bombs in the trunk.


When that happens, he blushes and laughs nervously and says he is no hero.

“From my point, the definition of a hero is someone willing to sacrifice himself for somebody else,” he said. “I don’t know, I was trying to save my own life.”

Last summer he tried to revisit the Mobil station at Memorial Drive and River Street in Cambridge where he sprinted and took shelter, after escaping from his car at a Shell station across the street. He wanted to thank Tarek Ahmed, the overnight clerk who dialed 911 and handed Danny the phone. But Ahmed was not working that night he came to visit, and the memories that rushed back when Danny stood there made it hard for him to return a second time.

He replaced his bullet-riddled Mercedes and the iPhone that remained inside it — both still in law enforcement custody — with similar models. But he changed the color of each, wanting a fresh start. He mostly avoids reading about the Marathon or the case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, though he is prepared to testify if called.

Last year Danny went to the Marathon for the first time as a spectator, and was taken immediately by the way so many strangers in the crowd blended as one to cheer the runners. He wants to be there again Monday, once more an anonymous face along the route, the attention focused on the runners.


“The Marathon is a wonderful thing,” he said. “A positive thing.”

He has taken up running, enjoying the fresh air and exercise, working toward a goal. Last week he completed his first road race, a slow-and-steady five-miler. Someday, maybe, he will run the Boston Marathon.

“I hope I can do it,” he said. “I’m going to keep running, and I will try my best to make it.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at