Scanning and Tweeting the "Chelsea" Bomb
This weekend, an explosion from a homemade bomb shattered the peace of a mild Saturday evening on a quiet stretch of West 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood — really more in the Flatiron area, as some were quick to point out. Within a few minutes of the 8:30 p.m. blast, local news apps were pushing breaking news of an I.E.D. detonation with scores injured, setting off a night of confusion, uncertainty, and fear (at least, for people outside of New York — more on that later).
29 people were treated for minor and moderate injuries, all of whom were released from the hospital by the next morning. As soon as I saw the first news alert on my phone that evening, I turned on my radio scanner and started listening to the emergency operations — if you do not have a scanner, you can also listen to emergency radio communications, with a slight delay, at Broadcastify.
Listening to the scanner and following Twitter side-by-side emphasized the simultaneously controlled and coordinated, yet still chaotic and confusing, response that such an incident draws. High-ranking police commanders spoke into their radios requesting and directing resources, and the scene of the blast on West 23rd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues seemed quickly contained. When a second device was spotted at the corner of West 27th Street and 7th Avenue, those coordinating the operation successfully cordoned off the area and brought in specialized units without betraying many additional details over the open channel. Issues as trivial and routine as shift changes were dealt with speedily and with practice, all while dispatchers helped manage the many agencies which had responded to the scene.
At the same time, occasional messages conveyed the confusion and unpredictability that happens during such a large incident. In one instance, a frustrated-sounding chief had to repeatedly ask for an ambulance to stand by near the second scene. In another instance, a dispatcher announced the description of a person of interest: male, black, blue shirt with black stripes. Minutes later, a midtown patrol unit stopped a man who matched that description. Quickly, higher-ranking officers asked the dispatcher where that subject description had come from.
"From central, One Police Plaza," she replied.
She promised to investigate where exactly the description had originated. She never followed up, and I assume the man was eventually allowed to go, although I have not confirmed with the NYPD's press office.
From an outsider’s point of view, the management of the active scene seems to have been the model of efficiency. When I went to the site of the explosion the following afternoon, evidence collection was well underway, and residents of the affected block were being helped by the Red Cross and representatives from city agencies. Within two days, a suspect was identified and apprehended, and by Monday evening the scene of the blast was reopened to traffic.
Listening to the scanner lent a real-time, unfiltered perspective that even Twitter can't provide during an active event. No reporters or outlets ever tweeted about the initial person of interest, at least that I found — rightly so, as the police interest in that person was never confirmed. As murky and half-complete details are posted on the internet by journalists, scanner traffic shows each of the chaotic and confusing moments of the police response to a terrorist attack.
At the same time, it impresses, in a way that 140 characters can't, the preparation of the city to respond to events like this. On a lazy Saturday night, a tremendous amount of resources from the police department, fire department, state police, and others were able to converge, evacuate victims, and prevent anyone else from getting hurt. In the fifteen years since 9/11, as acts of terror and mass shootings have occurred around the United States and Europe, New York City has worked to continuously practice and hone its response methods, knowing that a small-scale attack like this had to be inevitable. Meanwhile, New Yorkers have watched them and continued to deal with the foreboding threat of terror, and the regular concerns of the city.
It may be that the knowledge that something would happen, sooner or later, is partly why New Yorkers reacted with the calm and humor that has been remarked on since almost immediately following the blast. In fact, there was even a hint of indifference to the bomb, and the real acknowledgement that such things may be impossible to prevent in New York City. During the first few hours as Twitter erupted with journalists breaking details and city leaders making announcements, dry jokes about hearing the blast and then heading back to the bar were circulating. More followed over the next few days:
As The Economist pointed out, the risk of an American being killed by terrorism in the decade-plus following 9/11 was one in fifty-six million, while the chance of being killed by "ordinary homicide" or a traffic accident was exponentially higher. Forget being killed: the likelihood of being terrorized by bed bugs is even worse.