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PBS takes an explosive look at the Boston Marathon massacre

One of the bombing animals and the horror he left behind
One of the bombing animals and the horror he left behindAuthor's collection

It was a day that we will not forget.
At 2:49 p.m. on April 15, 2013, two bomb blasts turned the Boston Marathon finish line from a scene of triumph to a scene of tragedy, leaving three dead, hundreds injured and a city gripped by heartbreak and terror. Less than five days later, the key suspects are identified: One is dead, the other in custody. How do investigators transform the chaos of the bombing into a coherent trail of clues that point to the accused killers? In the special one-hour NOVA documentary Manhunt–Boston Bombers (PBS Distribution), producer Miles O’Brien looks at the quickly unfolding events, step by step, examining the role of modern technology–combined with old-fashioned detective work–in cracking the case.
“From robotics to explosives to chemistry to digital and social media, NOVA demonstrates how scientific innovations were involved in this high-stakes, fast-moving criminal investigation,” says Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. “Viewers will gain a better understanding of how new technologies might help investigators in the future.”
In the documentary, NOVA and O’Brien follow the hunt for the bomb suspects and examine the subsequent investigation conducted by city, state, and national law enforcement, meeting with experts across the country to learn how the case was cracked so quickly. The NOVA crew travels to New Mexico Tech University’s testing range in Socorro, where some of the world’s leading experts in explosions demonstrate how investigators identify pieces of debris and use chemical analysis to identify what makes up an explosive device. NOVA commissions the construction and detonation of a pressure cooker bomb, and the explosion is captured on high speed cameras that record 6200 frames per second. Painstaking analysis of the footage and bomb fragments allows forensic specialists to glean crucial insights into how to best investigate terrorist attacks.
O’Brien also visits New York City’s Domain Awareness System Command Center where a system created by the NYPD and Microsoft enables authorities to monitor a network of 4,000 public and privately owned security cameras in Manhattan. At the NYPD Headquarters, the Facial Recognition Unit shares with viewers a technology that enables police departments to match photos against their databases. However, the system is not as powerful and reliable as one would think from watching TV and movies. Although the technology has improved over the years, images that are not head-on and relatively clear are nearly impossible to match. The day after the bombings, investigators had pinpointed images of the two Marathon bombing suspects captured by the sea of cameras near the finish line. But facial recognition software failed to find a match. NOVA travels to Carnegie Mellon University to meet with scientist Marios Savvides, who demonstrates how experiments in their Cylab are able to analyze the grainy shot of Suspect #2 using a new algorithm. The finished product of their work might have made it possible to identify one of the suspects by comparing it against a database of drivers’ licenses or passport photos.
NOVA also explores the phenomenon of social media, which in unprecedented and chilling ways, affected the course of the investigation. Authorities were reluctant to release the pictures of the suspects as they could prompt them to panic, flee and commit more violence. But the social-media-fueled “24-second” news cycle forced investigators to release the photos sooner than they wished.
As the actual manhunt gears up, NOVA uncovers how authorities are able to track the suspects using the carjacked Mercedes’ satellite tracking system, and cell phone triangulation technology, which has been in wide use for more than 20 years. NOVA also gets in the air with the Massachusetts State Police helicopter crew whose infrared camera confirmed that a person was hiding in a boat in a Watertown backyard to help end the manhunt, and we go behind the scenes to explore the potential surveillance power of future infrared devices currently being developed.