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From Beantown to ‘ghost town’: Manhunt shuts down Boston area

The Hub stopped yesterday.

The kinetic and salty city of Boston, which got its proud nickname from Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 19th century, came to a standstill while an army of heavily armed police officers hunted for a skinny 19-year-old in a gray hoodie.

By order of the state, a public transit system that serves more than 1.3 million riders a day was padlocked. Amtrak trains were suspended between Boston and New York. Businesses, offices and some of the world’s greatest universities were shut. Taxis were ordered off the streets for part of the day. Residents were instructed to stay inside.

Dutifully but pointlessly, traffic lights clicked from green to yellow to red on the deserted streets of Kenmore Square, in the shadow of the famous Citgo sign just beyond the Green Monster in Fenway Park.

The Red Sox and Bruins postponed last night’s games.

On a cloudy and warm spring day, even the Charles River was empty of the rowing sculls and puffy white sails that form the Beantown backdrop for millions of charming tourist photos.

At a news conference shortly after 6 p.m., Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick finally lifted the lockdown, but urged people to “remain vigilant.” The fugitive was still at large; Patrick said that the police dragnet would continue but that “we can return to our lives.”

But for one long day yesterday, Boston and its ring of inner suburbs were “a ghost town,” said Tom LeBlanc, 43, a general contractor from Waltham, a city adjacent to Watertown, Mass., where the manhunt for suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was centered.

“Even in a big snowstorm, you usually see a plow or a couple of nitwits walking along. Something. But there’s nothing. It’s an eerie sight,” said LeBlanc, who ran the Boston Marathon on Monday and was stopped by the police a half-mile before the bombed-out finish line.

John Fox, the official historian of the FBI, said that the shutdown of such a major city was virtually unprecedented in recent U.S. history. He said the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was far bigger, knocking New York and Washington on their heels and clearing the airspace over the entire United States.

But beyond that, Fox said, a city shutdown has “only happened on a smaller scale.”

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was far deadlier and devastated the city center. But the government didn’t order a far-reaching lockdown.

Other manhunts and events have terrorized and paralyzed cities, including in 2002 during the Washington sniper attacks. But rarely, if ever, has such a large U.S. urban area come to such a complete and utter halt as happened yesterday in Boston.

Fox said the closest recent parallel might be London after the July 7, 2005, transit system attacks that killed 52 passengers and four bombers, and injured more than 700 others.

London was badly disrupted, with trains and buses out of service, and schools and many businesses were closed. But the city was back on its feet almost immediately, with a sentiment summed up by Ian Blair, then the head of Scotland Yard.

“If London can survive the Blitz,” he said, “it can survive four miserable bombers like these.”

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