Anatomy of a Riot
It was just before midnight, and Richard Galler stood with his wife, Vicki, on the corner of St. Stephen Street and Symphony Road, nervously guarding their Acura, which was parked on the street. Minutes earlier, they had been lying in bed. Their back bedroom window faced Public Alley 809, which offered a clear ear to Symphony Road and the mayhem that had begun to swell up there following the Patriots' victory in the Super Bowl in Houston earlier that night.
“We could hear everything,” says Galler, 63, a retired stockbroker. “It sounded like a huge mob of people completely out of control, and it was getting louder.”
The Gallers have had their share of problems with college students, particularly from nearby Northeastern University, in the 23 years they've lived on St. Stephen Street. Usually, the problems are nothing worse than public drunkenness and minor vandalism. They had never before heard such loud, crashing noises as were descending on them that night.
Dressing quickly, they hurried to the corner, which was overrun with people. They were looking in vain for a police officer when they heard screams rise above the roar of the mob.
“I heard someone yell, 'Look out for the truck! He just hit somebody!' The next thing I know an SUV came tearing by and this kid landed at my feet,” Galler remembers. “I just said to my wife: 'He's dead.'”
It was a tragic end to what should have been a joyous event. Instead, at Kenmore Square and at Symphony Road and Hemenway Street, college students once again took to the streets by the thousands and proceeded to tear up the town.
The rioting not only left one young man dead, but another in a coma and dozens more injured, destroyed cars, and damaged property. It embarrassed the police department and the city at a moment that should have been among its proudest, permanently scarred a university that had finally begun to turn around its hardscrabble reputation, and may well have cost a career cop the top job on the force.
The postgame rioting shouldn't have surprised anyone—not Mayor Tom Menino, not acting police commissioner James Hussey, not school officials at the likes of Boston University or Northeastern. Boston-area students, after all, had rioted after the Patriots' last Super Bowl win two years earlier and again in October after the Red Sox' crushing playoff loss to the Yankees. Each time, there had been fires, vandalism, and plenty of tough talk from university administrators, the city, and the police. They all insisted it would never happen again. They all said the kids would finally grow up.
Heather Allen thought so. The fourth-year journalism student at Northeastern watched the Super Bowl with several friends in her off-campus apartment on Symphony Road, a stretch of neatly kept apartment buildings. A good number of tenants are Northeastern students, many of whom spent the weekend preparing for the big game by downing kegs and beer balls.
Seconds after Adam Vinatieri's winning field goal sailed smoothly through the goal posts, Allen, editor of the Northeastern News and a campus stringer for the Boston Globe, looked out her window and heard people screaming.
Police had cleared Hemenway of cars earlier in the day, anticipating the students' postgame revelry. Allen says she saw four to six officers on the street, looking on as the celebration quickly grew, with young people, many of them students from Northeastern, streaming from side streets and local bars. (Police say there were “about 40” officers assigned to the area.)
Within minutes, a crowd packed the neighborhood. Stereo speakers were placed in open apartment windows, blasting “We Are the Champions.” Celebrants bellowed, “Yankees suck!”
Allen joined the crowd and surveyed the mood before placing a call to the Globe to report that all was well. “People were coming from all over. They were laughing and smiling and screaming.
It was just one big, happy party on the street,” she says.
There was a sigh of relief. The kids were behaving.
It didn't last long.
The party atmosphere quickly changed to something more ugly and unpredictable as young men climbed trees, women bared their breasts, toilet paper flew from windows, and bottles were lobbed like hand grenades over rooftops. Injured students began to fall to the street, one by one. A cut forehead here, a bloody nose over there, other people knocked to the ground by the crushing movement of the crowd.
“I started to get nervous and scared and remember saying to someone, 'What is going on?'” says Allen. “All of a sudden we heard a crash, and people were cheering.”
Matt Carty and James Salvia sat in their Emergency Medical Services truck at the Boston Police Special Operations station in Roxbury, waiting to close out their 4-to-midnight shift. The city's undivided attention was focused on the Super Bowl, and the EMS radio channel was unusually silent, with rookies—new recruits—picking up the few calls that came in.
That changed around 10:35 p.m. as the once-quiet radio now cackled with calls for help. “There were more than I ever heard before,” says Carty, 32, a three-year EMS veteran.
The first calls came from an EMS supervisor about the thousands of people massing near BU. Salvia, 38, who'd been on the job eight years, and Carty were called out of their Roxbury patrol zone to Kenmore Square. En route they received another call, at 11:01 p.m., diverting them to Hemenway Street to attend to two people with head injuries. When they arrived, the EMTs were stunned by the size and ferocity of the crowd. Their flashing lights and blaring horn couldn't force the horde to step aside. The ambulance was kicked and rocked as it snailed its way through the crowd, bottles bouncing off its sides.
“It was a wild scene,” says Salvia. “We thought, 'Let's not piss anybody off, because there's too many of them, and attend to the injured and get out of here.'”
It took 10 minutes to go the single block down Gainsborough Street to Hemenway, where they found the two injured youths, who had been hit by flying litter. Carty and Salvia pulled them inside the truck, which was bouncing from side to side, pushed by the mass of people. It took another 10 minutes to get off the block. As soon as they arrived at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, around 11:35 p.m., Carty and Salvia got another call to return to Hemenway Street, this time to attend to someone who had fallen backward off a balcony near Gainsborough.
“We just looked at each other, took deep breaths, and said, 'Here we go,'” says Carty.
By now the scene was far worse. Trash had been gathered and ignited in the middle of the road, while cans and bottles rained from the rooftops. Unlike Boston police and firefighters, city EMTs are not entitled to a $100,000 death benefit if they're killed in the line of duty, a longstanding sore point with the EMS union and a consideration that entered Carty's mind at this point.
“I knew we were in danger,” he says. “We had stuff coming down from the buildings and fires around you, but I don't know how you can not get out of the truck when you see someone who is injured.”
In the midst of utter bedlam, the two EMTs crouched on the sidewalk and attended to the unconscious man while dodging people and flying objects, one of them a garbage bag filled with bottles and trash that had been tossed off a nearby roof. It crashed into the pavement barely half a foot from Salvia. “Just another six inches to the right . . . ,” says Salvia, his voice trailing off.
They stabilized their patient and sped back to Beth Israel Deaconess.
At 11 p.m., Heather Allen got on the phone with the Globe, reporting that all hell had broken loose. The crashing sound she had heard minutes before turned out to be a Toyota Tercel that had been turned upside down on Symphony Road, just off the corner of Hemenway. Young men were jumping on the undercarriage, screaming and raising their arms. Halfway down Hemenway, two fire engines were consumed by the sea of people, many of whom jumped onto the trucks. After extinguishing a fire in the street, the firefighters turned their hoses on the crowd, many of the youths so inebriated they welcomed the spray in the subfreezing weather.
Around the corner, on Symphony Road, Boston police officers were arresting three of the young men who had allegedly upended the Tercel, but others in the mob were undaunted. The Toyota had served as an appetizer; they licked their chops over the remaining cars that lined Symphony Road. Five more vehicles would be turned over. Car windows were kicked in, side-view mirrors broken. It was
a wave of destruction streaming down the block toward St. Stephen Street.
Domenic Rotolo looked out from his second-floor bathroom window on Symphony Road, eyeing his sedan parked on the street below. Rotolo, 53, has lived on Symphony near the corner of St. Stephen Street for six years and has had his share of disagreeable experiences with Northeastern students. “It's always been that they can pretty much do whatever the hell they want,” says Rotolo, who says he sleeps at night wearing earplugs.
On this night, he wasn't concerned with quality-of-life matters but, rather, with the unnerving noise growing louder and louder on the block—the steady roar of destruction. “I could hear smashing sounds on opposite ends of the street, and it was working its way in my direction,” says Rotolo.
He walked outside and saw the car-whacking mob coming down the block toward his sedan. He looked for police, but there were none, so he ran inside and called 9-1-1 as the crowd turned its attention to a Toyota Land Cruiser. Its driver, Stanley Filoma, drove onto Symphony Road from Public Alley 809.
A mail clerk who lives with his parents in Mattapan, Filoma, 24, had watched the Super Bowl with an uncle in Canton, then drove toward Symphony Road in his father's $50,000 SUV. Finding his route blocked by an overturned car, he put the Land Cruiser into reverse and backed up.
Filoma was quickly surrounded by marauding youths, who smashed his windows. Fearing he'd be dragged from the car, or worse, Filoma—a thinly built immigrant from Haiti—shifted into drive and stepped on the gas pedal. Lurching forward, he sped down Symphony Road at an estimated 30 miles an hour, hitting and slightly injuring one young man in the road and then another. His front windshield had been cracked, and, according to his attorney, Filoma—whose blood alcohol level was .09, just above the legal limit of .08—didn't see the people standing in the street.
Domenic Rotolo was upstairs in his apartment, having called 9-1-1 a second time, and was by now watching his own automobile being vandalized when Filoma's Land Cruiser flew by, hitting several people along the way.
“I'm looking at my car getting trashed and watching this guy blow by and knock down two kids. I knew it was bad,” says Rotolo. “I called 9-1-1 for the third time and just screamed, 'We have bodies on the ground!'”
EMTs Carty and Salvia were still at Beth Israel Deaconess, finishing up with the young man who had fallen off the balcony, when they got the call around midnight that some pedestrians had been hit by a car on Symphony Road. It was now after midnight, and their shift was over, but they sped to the scene. The first EMS team to arrive, they were immediately overwhelmed by frantic young people pleading for help for their stricken friends. “I called for backup,” says Carty.
Carty and Salvia split up and helped the injured, including James Grabowski, 21, of West Newbury, one of four people hit by the SUV. The son of a state police captain, Grabowski had been a champion wrestler at St. John's Prep in Danvers, from which he graduated in 2001. He took classes at North Shore Community College, delivering wood on the side. He watched the Super Bowl with his younger brother,
a student at Northeastern, and afterward they joined the crowd that had gathered on Symphony Road.
The car had thrown Grabowski to the corner, where the young man fell into the gutter, right in front of Richard and Vicki Galler.
Filoma drove on. He took a left going the wrong way on St. Stephen Street, then sped down one public alley and then another before colliding with a cab on Westland Avenue, according to witnesses and investigators. When he finally stopped, he told police he wasn't aware he'd hit anyone.
The accident quickly sobered the once-rabid throng. Young people now stood around in shock, watching as Carty and Salvia desperately tried to revive Grabowski and attend to the three other injured men. Within minutes, officers from the university and the city saturated the area, marching down Hemenway Street and Symphony Road shoulder to shoulder, clearing the crowd.
The police had finally responded. The riot was over.
The finger-pointing began be- fore dawn, with Boston police and Mayor Menino scrambling for answers and absolution, blaming the pandemonium at Kenmore Square and at Symphony Road and Hemenway Street on 40 or so drunken college students amid the thousands who had celebrated harmlessly following the game.
“We had conversations with the schools prior to the Super Bowl, and there were supposed to be some steps taken, and obviously they didn't work,” police spokeswoman Mariellen Burns says, displaying a flair for understatement.
A few steps had been taken. Northeastern had tried to keep students indoors with promises of free pizza, for example, and sent them warning letters prior to the game telling them to mind their manners. But these small measures had done nothing to dampen the appetite for destruction.
“What were they thinking?” says Richard Galler, still recovering from the sight of James Grabowski dying at his feet. “We were stunned by the lack of police presence. This was just a catastrophic piece of misjudgment.”
Twenty-seven calls—including the three from Domenic Rotolo—came in to 9-1-1 operators from Symphony Road residents begging the police for help that night. “Clearly, there was a breakdown,” says City Councilor Michael Ross, whose district includes Kenmore Square and the Fenway.
It is a breakdown that to this day no one can adequately explain—especially why so few officers were patrol-ling the Hemenway Street–Symphony Road area, even though it had been red-flagged as a potential hot spot.
“We missed the boat,” Police Superintendent Robert Dunford said in a mea culpa he delivered at a meeting of the City Council Committee on Public Safety three weeks later. The department, Dunford admitted, underestimated the potential for destruction from the students, and did not expect “this type of student behavior,” he said.
Acting Police Commissioner Hussey stayed away during the rioting, a decision that probably cost him any chance at the permanent job. Instead, the commissioner's job went to Kathleen O'Toole, former state secretary of public safety.
O'Toole last month apologized to the city after an internal review found the department put less than half as many officers on the street that night as it probably should have. Nearly 140 officers called in sick or were allowed to take the night off. Planners were focused on crowd control, O'Toole says. “Perhaps in this instance there should have been greater emphasis on riot control.”
Hussey was demoted to captain, and the head of the uniformed officers division, who was also not at work that night, has been moved to the night shift. “The Boston Police Department failed in this instance,” O'Toole says.
Northeastern—with 14,500 undergraduates, Boston's second-largest university after BU—has also withered under stinging criticism. An embarrassed President Richard Freeland vowed to pursue disciplinary action and institute changes to help prevent destructive behavior, beginning with the cancellation of a concert on campus by the rapper Ludacris that had been scheduled for this month. Students responded that the cancellation unfairly punished all of them for the actions of a few; one confronted Freeland at a public meeting, promising that, as an alumnus, he would not contribute money to the school. The university also posted pictures of the riot on its website, helping police identify as many as 15 suspected rioters in addition to the three who were arrested on the scene. So far, at least seven have been expelled. “We are taking actions to make sure this never happens again,” says Ed Klotzbier, the university's vice president for student affairs.
The explanations offered by those students who are willing to acknowledge privately that they were present at the riot make about as much sense as James Grabowski's death.
“It was just stupid,” one says. “But when you've been drinking all weekend and your team wins the Super Bowl, you have to let go somehow.”
Other reactions are on display on various Internet message boards.
“Like it was my job. I find it funny that I will have to list as one of the highlights of this school year 'rioting with the roomies.'”