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David Henneberry, unlikely hero who discovered Boston Marathon bomber in his boat, dies at 70

David Henneberry. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

An unlikely hero on an unforgettable day, David Henneberry spent most of April 19, 2013, warily peering out the windows of his Watertown home until he heard the news that authorities had lifted a stay-inside order imposed during the manhunt for the second Boston Marathon bomber.

Having noticed earlier that some protective winter padding had fallen to the ground from the boat he stored in his backyard, he went outside, climbed a stepladder, and pulled back the plastic covering to investigate. There was blood on the deck. As his gaze shifted, more blood. And over by the boat’s console, a body clad in a hoodie, tucked in the fetal position. “Oh my God, he’s in there,” Mr. Henneberry thought before hurrying back into the house and exclaiming to his wife, Beth, “He’s in the boat! He’s in our boat!”


Mr. Henneberry was 70 when he died of cancer Wednesday in his Watertown house, which had drawn waves of sightseers curious to see a key location in the Marathon bombing saga. But in the years since that April evening, he always tried to deflect the accolades that came his way for his quick, calm actions after he spotted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and made the 911 call that led to his capture.

“If anything, we’re incidental heroes,” Mr. Henneberry told the Globe. “We just did what we should have done.”

That response didn’t surprise those who knew him well. “He never wanted to overdramatize it,” said his stepson, Robert Duffy of Centerville. “David was an incredibly humble man. All the way to the end, he insisted he was just doing what he was doing. And then everything unfolded from there.”

What had unfolded before and after is etched into the memories of those who were in Greater Boston during the 2013 Marathon, when two bombs exploded near the finish line on Boylston Street. Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Martin Richard were killed, and 264 spectators and runners were injured.


David and Beth Henneberry, at their home in Watertown in 2013. Globe Staff/File

Three days later, authorities released photos of the suspects: the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. They killed Sean Collier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Department while trying to steal Collier’s gun, and then carjacked a Mercedes-Benz. Police tracked the brothers to Watertown, where a gunfight erupted early on April 19. While escaping in a vehicle, Dzhokhar ran over Tamerlan, who died.

When authorities cordoned off a section of Watertown to look for Dzhokhar, Mr. Henneberry and his wife waited inside their house. He stepped out once to smoke a cigarette on his back steps and was bothered by the sight of fuzzy paint rollers lying on ground near his boat, the Slipaway II. “It was driving him nuts,” his wife said later. “He wanted to fix it.”

A retired telephone company technician who was fastidious about everything, Mr. Henneberry had slipped the rollers between the hull and the sheet of plastic that shielded the boat from the winter weather. Doing so prevented the plastic from chafing the finish.

It was the stray rollers that prompted him to check inside the boat, where he spotted the huddled figure. Just after 6 p.m., Mr. Henneberry looked out his kitchen window while calling authorities to report what he had found. The operator asked if the man was still in the boat. “I think so. But I can only see one side,” Mr. Henneberry said before walking back out to check. “He’s still in the boat,” he told the operator, who told him to go back into the house. At that moment, the police arrived.


Gunfire during the apprehension of Tsarnaev left Mr. Henneberry’s boat riddled with bullet holes. In the weeks that followed, a man in Texas who didn’t know the Henneberrys launched an online campaign to raise more than $50,000 for a new boat. And each day’s mail brought the couple thank-you letters and gifts such as candles and quilts. “It was really wonderful what they did for us,” Mr. Henneberry told the Globe. “We can’t thank them enough. We’ve come full circle.”

The younger of two children, David T. Henneberry was born in Boston and grew up in Somerville and Cambridge. His mother, the former Claire Occhialini, was a homemaker. His father, James Henneberry, was known as Huck and an electronic specialist who worked in area shipyards.

For a time, father and son “both worked at the naval shipyard as electronics specialists, wiring the ships,” Mr. Henneberry’s stepson said.

Mr. Henneberry also “was an avid musician, and in high school he’d go play for money in a lot of the clubs in Boston,” Duffy added. “He was a rock musician and played the drums, the harmonica. You name it, he could play it.”

For about six years during the Vietnam War era, Mr. Henneberry served in the Army National Guard. He spent most of his career with the New England Telephone Co. and retired from Verizon after the company’s name changed. Through most of those years, “his specialty was Harvard,” his stepson said. Mr. Henneberry maintained the wiring for the dormitory phone lines, which changed with each year’s incoming classes.


In 1989, Mr. Henneberry married the former Elizabeth Bartlett, who retired in 2012 after working in sales at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Mr. Henneberry’s wife, who was known to all as Beth, died of cancer in January 2014.

Not long after they married, Mr. Henneberry purchased a boat, “and once he got his first taste of it, that was it,” Duffy said. “He and my mom were fully immersed in the world of boating. They went everywhere — Gloucester, the Cape, the Islands. They’d disappear for two weeks at a time.”

Mr. Henneberry named his last boat, purchased with funds donated by well-wishers, “Beth Said Yes,” in honor of his wife.

In addition to his stepson, Mr. Henneberry leaves his stepdaughter, Kelly Murray of Natick; his sister, Claire Bransfield of Eastham; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Family and friends will gather at 5 p.m. Oct. 6 at Lehman, Reen & McNamara Funeral Home in Brighton to celebrate Mr. Henneberry’s life.

A few days before he died, Mr. Henneberry went for one more trip on the waves with his buddies from the Watertown Yacht Club, where he had served as commodore. Friends who had seen him work on his own boat weren’t surprised that he would have been drawn out to his boat on April 19, 2013, simply because something looked amiss.


When Mr. Henneberry redid his boat’s woodwork, “he didn’t just refinish it, he’d take it down to the bare bones,” his stepson said. “Everything he did was meticulous, everything was perfect. I was very, very blessed to have him as a stepfather for many years.”

A thermal image from a helicopter showed the boat in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding on the night of April 19. Mass. State Police

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.