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    What Happened to Boston's Cell Phone Network After the Marathon Bombing?

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    Aftermath (Image via YouTube / Boston Globe)

    Everything changed in a matter of seconds. At the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, the recreational runners were finishing up just before 3 p.m. Children cheered from the stands. Passers by leaned over fences to see the race course. Local school kids enjoyed a day off from school thanks to a Massachusetts state holiday known as Patriots' Day. And the runners were running, taking the final few strides of what's become one of the most famous marathons in the world.

    Then the explosions started.

    Looking down Boylston, you can see the smoke plumes from the first explosion and the fiery blast from the second. (Image via Twitter / @Boston_to_a_T)

    The first blast happened just a few feet away from the finish line and a second followed about ten seconds later. Two people were killed and dozens injured; photos showed amputated limbs. Moments later, when you could still hear the screams of injured victims and frightened witnesses, cell phone service disappeared for countless people.

    Gut instinct suggests that the network must've been overloaded with people trying to find loved ones. At first, the Associated Press said it was a concerted effort to prevent any remote detonators from being used, citing a law enforcement official. After some disputed the news, the AP reversed its report, citing officials from Verizon and Sprint who said they'd never had a request to shut down the network, and who blamed slowdowns on heavy load.

    (Motherboard's Derek Mead was able to send text messages to both his sister and her boyfriend, who were very near the finish line, shortly after the bombing, which suggests that networks were never totally shut down. Still, shutting down cell phone networks to prevent remote detonation wouldn't be without precedent: It is a common tactic in Pakistan, where bombings happen with regularity. And it is possible that Boston police used cell jamming equipment, which is technically illegal.)

    Based on what we know now, three hours after the explosions — or the bombings or the attack or whatever you want to call it — it's clear that things could've been worse. Federal officials say that two improvised explosive devices had been dropped into trash cans on Boyston Street, the final stretch of the marathon course. Within a couple of hours, police found an additional device and destroyed it in a controlled explosion. Across town at the JFK Library, a fourth device exploded, one that Boston Police think was related to the bombs near the marathon course. Scattered reports of more devices scattered across the city followed.

    WARNING: The video above contains disturbing footage of the initial explosion and aftermath. 

    Did a stalled cellular network — whether from overuse or from somebody's quick decision to shut it down — save an unknown number of bombs from going off? It's impossible to tell at this point. Two of the bombs appear to have worked, though it remains unclear who built them, how they were built, or even if they used remote detonators. However, it doesn't take much to make a cheap timer that could've been used to set off the bombs. Al Qaeda infamously issues the Casio F-91W to its new recruits since it costs less than $10 and makes a great bomb timer.

    However, the role that technology played in other aspects of the rescue effort is profound. As has become standard for breaking news events, reports of the explosions showed up first on social media, and in the first few minutes after the explosions, multiple horrific photos showed up on Twitter and Facebook showing dozens of people on the ground, the sidewalk stained red with blood. The bomb threats stretched into the evening.

    Police worked quickly to tear down the barriers between the course and the victims. (Image via Twitter / @theoriginalwak)

    With cell service down, however, the 30,000 odd marathoners and their friends and family were unable to communicate. It didn't take long for people to hack the Boston Marathon Athlete Tracker to find the location of the runners, while Google got its person finder up and running. One group called Disaster Tech Labs, which began operating in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, advocated for Bostonians to open their WiFi connections for public use, in the vein of the "free WiFi" movement

    Meanwhile, other cities went to lockdown mode. In New York, Times Square filled with police cruisers, and the president got on the phone to start coordinating some sort of response.

    For now, it feels like everybody is still in shock. As the hospital struggle with the load of dozens of victims — the latest casualty count has 2 3 dead and at least 23 90 141 injured — police investigators and journalists alike will dig deeper into the madness to figure out exactly what happened. One suspect is in custody, but not much else is known.

    We do know that is a nightmare come true. The symbolism of exploding bombs on Patriots' Day at the finish line of one of America's premier athletic events is not dissimilar with an attack on the World Series or the Super Bowl. For those who've lived in fear of the return of terrorism to America's shores, this is it. David Willey, editor of Runner's World magazine, said it best when he tweeted: "I have been dreading the possibility of this day for many years."

    @adamclarkestes

     

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