'Harrowing Day' Brought Eerie Quiet, Grief, and Uncertainty to Boston's Colleges

AP Images, FBI

Sean A. Collier (left), an MIT police officer, was killed on the campus on Thursday night. Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev (right), one of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, was arrested late Friday.
April 20, 2013

The day that campus quads emptied and city streets went quiet capped a week of anxiety and mourning for students, faculty, and staff in the Boston area. Tensions gave way to relief late Friday, when the second suspect in the marathon bombings was caught after a daylong manhunt.

"Yesterday was a harrowing day in a week of tragedy, suffering, and uncertainty—as well as courage and solidarity," Drew G. Faust, president of Harvard University, wrote in a message to the community on Saturday. "After Monday's unthinkable violence and loss, we mourned the victims and wondered how such evil could intrude into our beloved city and community. Friday we found its apparent origins terribly close to home."

She extended her sympathies to Harvard's neighbors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Sean A. Collier, a 26-year-old campus police officer was killed late Thursday, shot multiple times as he sat in his patrol car on the campus. She urged students to seek counseling and any support that they need. And she expressed gratitude to law-enforcement officials.

"Across the Boston area we have together faced a sense of anxiety and vulnerability we could not have imagined even a short week ago," Ms. Faust wrote, "before the marathon bombing, the Watertown shootout, and the eerie stillness of a daylong communitywide lockdown shook our lives."

Some 50 colleges in the region closed on Friday as the city of Boston shut down, creating a sudden ghost town of deserted thoroughfares and shuttered shops, with residents urged to stay indoors and remain vigilant.

As much of the area came back to life on Saturday, the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth remained closed. Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old bombing suspect who was arrested late Friday, is registered as a student there.

'A Bizarre Atmosphere'

On many campuses, students hunkered in their dorms and off-campus apartments in front of their televisions, beginning in the early hours of Friday.

Reed Silverman, a sophomore studying government at Harvard, said he was off campus at a friend's house when he got an alert from the university to remain inside. He made it back to his dormitory through the university's shuttle service around 2:30 a.m. Friday, he said, and joined friends who were monitoring the news.

"People were wide awake, hanging out in the dining halls," he said. "Lots of rumors were circulating. It was a bizarre atmosphere."

Elise Miner, a chemistry student and a junior at Northeastern University, said she woke up on Friday to scores of text messages and phone calls checking on her safety. When she looked outside, she said, the area was completely deserted.

"Nobody was on the Mass Pike, nobody was in the main squares," she said. "There are more police officers than actual citizens."

But that made her feel safe. Her off-campus apartment is about half a mile from the site of Monday's bombings, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

At MIT, the mood on Friday was "sad and subdued," said Greg Steinbrecher, a staff reporter for the campus newspaper and a master's student studying electrical engineering. Mr. Collier, the slain officer, was "super close to the community," Mr. Steinbrecher said.

The campus and the surrounding streets in Cambridge, Mass., were empty. The university suddenly felt as if it was no longer in a metropolitan area, Mr. Steinbrecher said. "I walked around for about 10 or 15 minutes, and I saw two or three people," he said. "I usually walk past hundreds."

'A Skeleton Staff'

Elsewhere, college officials scrambled to meet students' basic needs. When lunchtime rolled round at Boston College, where students and staff members began sheltering in place early Friday, officials came up with a plan to get everyone fed. Residence-life staff members went through the dorms and dismissed students floor by floor. They were directed to the closest dining hall, got food to carry out, and took it back to their rooms.

The lunch idea was born of necessity, said Jack Dunn, the college's director of news and public affairs. Not only was the campus sheltering in place, but it was operating with "a skeleton staff."

"We couldn't accommodate a typical lunch hour anyway," Mr. Dunn said.

Almost no one who works at the college came in from off campus on Friday, with public transportation and most everything else shut down. The staff members who were on the campus on Friday, including police officers and employees who work in the dining hall and in residence-life positions, were the ones who had been on duty overnight and just hadn't gone home.

In the midst of the uncertainties of Friday's developing news, and the closure of many forms of public transportation, colleges canceled numerous weekend events.

That included Visitas, Harvard's annual weekend of programming for admitted students.

When word got out that the event had been called off, students, faculty members, and alumni started an online version of the event, using the tag #virtualvisitas on social-media platforms, like Twitter, to make themselves available to prospective students.

"It's a small thing, but ultimately it gives our community a sense of purpose during some very trying times," said Tania deLuzuriaga, an associate communications officer at Harvard, "and provides freshmen with a valuable alternative to an impossible campus visit."

Sara Hebel contributed to this article.