In the tight rows of chairs in the Commonwealth Ballroom, the nervousness — already dialed high by two bombs, three deaths and more than 72 hours without answers — ratcheted even higher.
The minutes ticked by as investigators stepped out to delay the news conference twice. Finally, at 5:10 p.m. Thursday, a pair of FBI agents carried in two easels and saddled them with display boards, turning the boards backward so as not to divulge the results of their sleuthing just yet.
Now the time had come to take that critical, but perilous step: introducing Boston to the two men believed responsible for an entire city's terror.
"Somebody out there knows these individuals as friends, neighbors, co-workers or family members of the suspects," said Richard DesLauriers, the FBI agent in charge in Boston. As he spoke, investigators flipped the boards around to reveal surveillance-camera images of two men in ball caps.
News cameras pushed forward. Across the city, and across the country, so many people logged on to examine the faces of the men deemed responsible for the bombing attack of the Boston Marathon, that the FBI servers were instantly overwhelmed.
At the least, Bostonians told each other, the photos proved that the monsters the city had imagined were responsible for maiming more than 170 were ordinary men. But even as that relief sank in, the dread that had gripped the city since Monday at 2:50 p.m. was renewed.
If everyone had seen these photos, then that had to mean the suspects had seen them, too.
What desperation might they resort to, marathoner Meredith Saillant asked herself, once they were confronted with the certainty that their hours of anonymity were running out?
On the morning after the marathon, Saillant had fled the city for Vermont, trying to escape nightmares of the bombs that had detonated on the sidewalk just below the room where she'd been celebrating her 3:38 finish. Now, on a smart phone she scrutinized the men's photos.
"I expected that I would feel relief, 'OK, now I can put a face to it,' and start some closure," Saillant says. "But I think I felt more doom. I felt, I don't know, chilled. Knowing where we are and the era in which we live, I knew that as soon as those pictures went up that it was over, that something was going to happen ... like it was the beginning of the end."
There was no way she or the people of Boston could know, though, just when that end would come — or how.
Marathon Monday dawned with an April chill, ideal for keeping a body cool over 26.2 miles. By the four-hour mark, more than two-thirds of the field's 23,000 runners had crossed the finish line.
Passing the 25-mile mark, Diane Jones-Bolton, 51, of Nashville, Tenn., picked up the pace, relishing the sense of accomplishment of her 195th marathon.
Near the finish line, Brighid Wall of Duxbury, Mass., stood to watch the race with her husband and children.
In the post-race chute Tracy Eaves, from Niles, Mich., proudly claimed her medal and a Mylar blanket, and took a big swig from a bottle of Gatorade.
But the blast brought the celebration crashing down.
"Everyone sort of froze...," Wall said. "The first explosion was far enough away that we only saw smoke." Then the second bomb exploded, this time just 10 feet away.
"My husband threw our kids to the ground and lay on top of them," Wall said. "A man lay on top of us and said, 'Don't get up! Don't get up!' "
From her spot beyond the finish, a "huge shaking boom" washed over Eaves.
"I turned around and saw this monstrous smoke," she said. She thought it might be part of the festivities, until the second blast and volunteers began rushing the runners from the scene.
"Then you start to panic," she said.
Back in the field, Jones-Bolton noticed runners turning around and coming back at her. Suddenly the race came to halt, but nobody could say why. When word began to spread, Jones-Bolton panicked at the thought of her husband at the finish line, but was reassured by other runners.
At the finish, Wall, her husband and children raised their heads after a minute or two of silence. Beside them, a man was kneeling, looking dazed, blood dripping from his head. A body lay nearby.
"We grabbed each other and we ran" — into a coffee shop, out the back door into an alley, where they kept going.
Meanwhile, the instincts of Dr. Martin Levine, a Bayonne, N.J., physician who has long volunteered to attend to elite runners at the finish line, told him to do just the opposite.
"Make room for casualties — about 40!," he yelled into the runners' relief tent. Just then the second bomb went off. He reached the site to find a landscape resembling a battlefield, littered with severed limbs.
"The people were still smoking, their skin and their clothes were burning," he said.
Now, three days after the bombing, investigators had made significant headway.
Armies of white-suited agents had sifted through the evidence littering Boylston Street. Their efforts revealed that the bombers had constructed crudely assembled weapons, using plans easily found on the Internet, from pressure cookers, wires and batteries. But investigators still did not know why — or whom to hold responsible.
It all came down to the photos, culled from hundreds of hours of videotape and photographs gathered from surveillance cameras and spectators. But if they were unable to identify the men, that left the investigators with a difficult choice: They could keep them to law enforcement officers, prolonging the search and risking letting the men slip away or attack again. Or they could ask the public for help. But then, the suspects would know the net was closing in.
When they decided to release them, it would only put Bostonians further on edge.
But as investigators pored over tips in the hours before the photos were made public, the city, at least, was struggling to right itself.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama spoke at an interfaith service honoring the victims, saying, "We may be momentarily knocked off our feet. But we'll pick ourselves up. We'll keep going. We will finish the race."
Less than a mile away, 85-year-old Mary O'Kane strained at the bell ropes in the steeple of Arlington Street Church, imagining the sounds spreading healing across her city — and the land.
The city's response to the bombing had revealed its strength. But her belief in Boston was tinged with sadness. Now she understood a bit about how New Yorkers who experienced 9/11 must feel.
"We were feeling sort of immune," she said. "Now we're just a part of everybody...The same expectations and fears."
In the hours after investigators released the photos of the men known only as Suspect (hash)1 and Suspect (hash)2, the city went on about the business of a Thursday night, a semblance of normality restored except for the area immediately surrounding the blast site.
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