All Eyes on Watertown


Becomes Hub of Activity as Police Chase Bombing Suspects There

Actions Lead to Cancellation of Annual Genocide Commemoration at State House

Members of SWAT team on the steps of St. James Church in Watertown during the lockdown. Photo credit: Rev. Arakel Aljalian

By Gabriella Gage and Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — An unprecedented, frightening and unexpected chain of events that paralyzed the city of Boston in the wake of the bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, concluding with the chasing of two suspects into Watertown in the early hours of Friday, April 19, brought a virtual army of police forces into the town and made it the focus of worldwide attention. The pursuit and subsequent lockdown of Boston and its surrounding suburbs also led to the cancellation of the annual Armenian Genocide commemoration at the Massachusetts State House.

Despite these circumstances, the Watertown community was able to show itself as a cohesive unit in the face of fear.

Months of preparation had gone into the program. In the early hours of Friday, around 6 a.m., calls went out to various members and a final decision was made by the office of state Sen. Will Brownsberger and State Sen. Jon Hecht to cancel the program in light of the dangerous pursuit of the two alleged suspects all the way from Cambridge, the scene of another gruesome murder, to Watertown.

Sheriff of Middlesex County Peter Koutoujian, showed up on duty on the scene at Arsenal St. at 2 a.m. Friday, accompanied by his SWAT team, mobile command center and approximately 20 officers from his department. Koutoujian was involved in tactical discussions and at daylight, accompanied some of his men on searches. He and his team helped facilitate on behalf of the Armenian community of Watertown the donation of the food originally intended for the cancelled State House Genocide Commemoration to the police and law enforcement in the field, hungry from the long hours.

Describing the atmosphere, Koutoujian said, “It was apocalyptic — driving through Watertown without seeing a single civilian, instead seeing hundreds of police and authorities at every single corner.”

“I could never have imagined seeing a scene like this in the United States, outside of a film,” he added.

After long hours, several false reports and the end of the citywide lockdown, Koutoujian was there when the radio call came in that shots had been fired. Hundreds of police headed towards the call, as did the helicopters over head. It was there, at the scene of the capture that Koutoujian said he witnessed something he had never before experienced.

“It was on this quiet suburban street and the surrounding areas, choked with police vehicles flashing blue, but without any sound. Once he was captured and media outlets began to report it immediately, we began walking back. You could see the lights going on in people’s houses and people inside watching their televisions getting the news. People started to emerge from their homes, open their windows and walk out to their porches. They began to call out to the officers ‘Thank you!’ and ‘Great job!,’ clapping, cheering, high fives and handshakes too as we all walked back.”

“It was truly spontaneous. How these Watertown citizens had acted with great discipline during a dangerous time and then how they emerged from it with what I can best describe as a ‘gauntlet of goodwill.’ It was one of the most powerful things I have ever seen,” said Koutoujian.

Scenes from the Watertown lockdown during the search for the marathon bombing suspects. Photo credit: Rev. Arakel Aljalian,

Rev. Aljalian Witnesses Bombings, Watertown Manhunt

For Rev. Arakel Aljalian of St. James Church, it was not just Friday that hit close to home, but the marathon too. He and his family had been in Boston on Monday for the marathon to support runner Sarkis Chekijian who was running to raise funds for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in honor of his patient partner, Aljalian’s son, Gabriel. The Aljalians were unable to get close enough to the finish line to meet Chekijian upon his finish, but were hailing a cab nearby to go meet the Chekijian family when everything changed. “We got into the taxi and a few minutes later, we heard the bomb,” Aljalian recalled.

Aljalian never would have imagined that just a few days after the bombings, he would once again find his family in the middle of danger — this time at home in Watertown. St. James’ rectory is located near the shootout location from late Thursday evening-early Friday morning. “There were several scary moments. The terrorists were out there. We were trapped inside, but could hear the gunfire and the explosions. We didn’t know what was going on.”

Concerned with the security of the church and the cultural center, Aljalian asked the authorities if he could check on the facilities. Once the police had cleared the location, Aljalian opened the cultural center up to the Watertown police and local authorities for use as a headquarters and meeting place, turning on the air conditioning, allowing use of the facilities, providing private rooms for strategizing and coffee for the police through the long hours. “Seeing their presence was scary [because of the numbers] but also gave us some comfort,” he said.

Aljalian was grateful to the police and authorities for all of their efforts and for capturing the second suspect. He asked members of the community to “remember all the victims and pray for the family members, the injured and those suffering.” He noted, “What the whole community went through will take some time for the healing process.”

Armenian Community Reacts Quickly in Time of Need

The one positive outcome from the cancellation of the program, which was to feature former US Ambassador to Armenia John Evans as the keynote speaker, was that all the food prepared by the caterers, Ani Catering of Belmont, was donated to the police and first responders on the scene.

Lalig Musserian, the coordinator of the organizing committee comprising all political, religious and cultural organizations in the Armenian community locally, recalled, “On Friday morning I got a call at five minutes to 6 a.m. from [state Sen.] Will Brownsberger who said ‘put on the news, we have to cancel.’”

Musserian jumped into action, starting to call members and asking them in turn to call others.

Jeanne Mooney, the communications director for Brownsberger, suggested that the group donate the food to the police, as the program was cancelled.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Musserian said. “I called Peter Koutoujian in the field at the Arsenal Mall and he had me get in touch with one of his associates. Around noon, we got a call from his aide, who said call the caterer and meet him in his place of work. We drove with Hovaness [of Ani Catering]. We were stopped on Arlington and Mount Auburn Street,” she added. After a check of the car and calls to the authorities, the police freed Musserian’s car. Brown bags that were prepared for the young children, including scouts, at the program, were given to the motorcycle cops and the rest were delivered from the caterer’s truck to a police car.

“Initially I was upset that they day had to be cancelled, though of course I understood why. Then I worried about the people of Watertown,” Musserian, a former resident of the town, recalled. “There were Humvees, police cars everywhere. I felt very patriotic and really, really proud.”

Co-owner of Massis Bakery, Missak Ourfalian, watched helplessly from his Belmont home as his business, located at 569 Mt. Auburn St., appeared on television in the locked-down area, close to the shootout nearby. “We were not there, thankfully. Seeing my store on television was really scary. I was worried for the people in that area and for property damage. You could hear the gunshots and the bombs. Luckily no one else was hurt.” Ourfalian added, “For the people living here it has been very surreal.”

Marcel Karian, another committee member, who represents the Knights of Vartan, felt close to the people on Franklin Street, where the police were concentrated, trying to find the second alleged terror suspect. “I used to live at 21 Franklin St.,” he recalled. “It was surreal. I could not believe it. They said on the news Franklin Street and we all started calling each other.”

The events of the day reminded Karian, who was born in France in 1940, of the difficult days he had seen as a child. “I remember even at age 5, the war zone. When I saw Arsenal Street, I remembered what was happening in France.”

He added, “The message is that terrorists are not going to get away with it. We are going to get them.” He also expressed his anger at the uncle of the two alleged terrorists, who continues to implicate and blame an Armenian convert to Islam for allegedly leading his nephews astray, a claim that has been discounted by legitimate news sources.

Herman Purutyan, who represents the Armenian Assembly on the committee, echoed many of the other interviewees who said the experience was “surreal.” He noted that at first, in the morning he thought the events were going to be over in time for the buses to leave Watertown. “We were planning this commemoration, an event that pays tribute to another event that is very painful to us and it was cancelled for a very painful experience here.”

It was an ironic juxtaposition, he said. “The heart of our community was experiencing this again. [This fearfulness] was something that happened a long time again and we were finding ourselves in the middle of other [and similar] troublesome events.”

Currently there are no plans to reschedule the event, as there are too many scheduling conflicts.

Purutyan was delighted with the decision to donate the group’s food to the police. “That was great. In some little way, it helped the people who were helping us.”

Rev. Antranig Baljian agreed. “The committee turned it into a positive experience.”

Baljian of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown said, “it is unfortunate that like many things, this crime that took place had far greater impact on many people and different groups.”

Said Baljian, “we were all very disappointed but glad that everyone is safe.”

His church is close to where all the action was taking place in Watertown. “It was all I could do to restrain myself from going to the church. I was very difficult to watch all that take place.”

Baljian said he spent the day on Facebook and the phone, communicating with parishioners and other friends.

“Something positive that this teaches us is that we shouldn’t take our security and liberty for granted,” Baljian said.

Hecht Praises Watertown’s Response

Watertown’s state Rep. Jon Hecht, one of the co-chairs of the State House program, said that he was “disappointed, but we did not have any choice. Watertown and Belmont were locked down and we didn’t think we could ask people to go down to the State House. Anyway, within a couple of hours, the State House was closed too.”

The experience shook him. “I hope it will never be repeated.”

He also said that it would be hard to reschedule the event, as there are many components. “It is very, very difficult to do a program like that” in a short period, he said.

Hecht lived near the scene of the action. “Like everybody else, I was at home. I never thought I would see an armored personnel carrier with heavy artillery on my street. It was unbelievable but under the circumstances, people were very calm and reassuring.”

He praised the town residents for staying calm in difficult circumstances and being cooperative with the authorities. “I am incredibly proud of everyone in Watertown and how they responded. The town was shown in a very good light.” In the aftermath, he said, everyone is “so moved to have their community back. We appreciate our town more than ever.” He also singled out all the municipal bodies in Watertown,  for their work.

Silva Kotikian of the Homementmen Boston Scouts Chapter said she was relieved the proram was cancelled in light of the chaotic events of the day. The scouts were to hold flags at the State House, as well as lead the initially-planned march from the State House to the Armenian Heritage Park. “The scouts were all ready to go, no matter what, until Thursday night. I was very proud of them.”

Pianist and ALMA volunteer, Anna Araxy Yeshilian, 90, has resided in Watertown for more than 30 years and said she had never seen such a police presence in her community before, but said that things were getting back to normal. Speaking of the surviving suspect, Yeshilian said, “It’s very sad. Such a young boy waking up to such a life.”

Watertown resident and Assistant Secretary of ALMA, Arakel Almasian said during the lockdown, he was worried about the safety of a group of international visiting students hosted by his son who lives on Dexter Avenue, another center of activity. “It was so difficult that we couldn’t get to them to check on them. It was frightening. We wanted to be there with them and make sure they had everything they needed, but we weren’t allowed to leave our home.”