By Marjorie Nesin
---- — News of the capture of the only surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings crackled over police radios, as officers smiled with a sense of relief and grasped each others hands Friday night.
But while most of those Cape Ann residents viewed the intense manhunt and high-stakes capture from their living room sofas and kitchens 40 of more miles from the scene, a group of local police officers and medics cheered and exchanged high-fives from near the front lines — a command post at Watertown’s Arsenal Mall.
”There was definitely celebrations and high-fives,” said Rockport Medic Jonathan Happel, one of the Cape Ann emergency personnel deployed to the “hot zone” to help law enforcement officials from the highest federal agents on down in their hunt for 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
”This is why we sign up for this,” Happel said. “I decided to be a firefighter because I enjoy helping others. This was kind of the ultimate chance to do that.”
One team of local officers and medics, organized as the Cape Ann Regional Response Team, from Rockport, Manchester, Essex and Ipswich’s police and fire departments, met at the Rockport Police Station, then loaded their equipment into vehicles and headed to Watertown Friday morning. Gloucester K9 officer Chris Genovese and his dog Mako were sent separately to Watertown through the city’s participation in the Northeast Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, or NEMLEC.
”Initially when we went down we had no idea — we knew we were going down based on the events that had occurred — but we didn’t know what our role was going to be,” Happel said.
The Cape Ann response group included Rockport police officer Dan Mahoney and Lt. Mark Schmink, Essex Police Sergeant Paul Francis and Detective Ryan Davis, Manchester Sergeant Mark McCoy, officer Howard Lewis, officer Joseph Archambault and Officer Steven Fiore, and Manchester Fire Department medics Jonathan Happel and Bob Cavender.
The Cape Ann team’s initial responsibility was providing coverage at a Boston-based police barracks. But, by 10:15 a.m. Friday, the local officers, each decked out in about 60 pounds of gear, were walking door to door in the Putnam Street area of Watertown, where police had found the suspect’s vehicle and just blocks from where police finally nabbed Tsarnaev, who had been hiding in a shrink-wrapped boat.
The Cape Ann responders walked painstakingly from door-to-door of the triple-decker and often fenced-off homes that characterize the quiet residential neighborhood just west of Boston. Two officers at a time approached residents, asking basic questions and requesting to search their homes for the suspect, while the rest of the group “watched their backs” and checked the streets around the homes, according to Happel.
”I’ve never been put in that situation, it was the real thing. We didn’t know where he was so every house we went to and entered, we acted as if he was in there,” Happel said. “It was definitely scary, but the guys are so well trained and we work so well as a group that it just flowed.”
Happel said the medics handed out a lot of aspirin to the crews and stayed on top of everyone to make sure the officers drank enough water.
Sgt. Francis of the Essex Police Department said he spent the better part of Friday not only checking in with the Watertown residents in the team’s assigned area, but also helping people secure the exits at their homes. Francis said the team cleared about 90 houses.
”We were right in the hot zone,” Francis said, referring to the level of danger, not the weather.
Around 6:30 p.m., our local officers, having subsisted on food provided by volunteers and gifted by residents thankful for their police work, sat down to eat dinner at the police headquarters at Arsenal Mall, just as Gov. Deval Patrick lifted the order for residents to stay inside.
Twenty minutes later, police radios crackled to life, with the infamous calls of a suspect found hiding beneath a flapping shrink wrap on a boat parked in a Franklin Street driveway, just blocks from the doors at which the Cape Ann regional group had knocked.
Floods of police in various shades of blues and with numerous insignia and patches, already encompassed the area. So Cape Ann’s officers stayed put at the makeshift headquarters, listening intently for hints of capture, excitement bubbling over dense exhaustion in the pits of their stomachs until the final scanner call announced the suspect was in custody.
That was followed up with a personal “thank you” from a state police colonel.
“It was unbelievable,” said Schmink, who leads the Cape Ann team. “(It was) a once in a lifetime situation.”
Staff Writer James Niedzinski contributed to this story.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.