NIAGARA FALLS – It was the wrong day to be two young brothers in a car with Massachusetts plates.
While the faces of two other Massachusetts brothers were plastered all over television and every newspaper in America as the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, Khalid and Sami Shahin took a detour Friday morning from a visit to Rochester Institute of Technology to see the famous cataracts.
Their arrival at one of America’s natural wonders that happens to be right next to the Canadian border caught the attention of a man who thought one of them resembled one of the fugitive brothers.
The man, an Air National Guardsman dressed for work, called police from his vehicle and followed the brothers when they exited the Niagara Thruway. A city dispatcher sent out a radio call alerting patrol officers to the situation, stating that the caller said they were in the vicinity of Pine Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard.
“It looks like the suspect from Massachusetts,” the dispatcher said.
Officers Dan Haney and Andrew Pappas spotted the black Nissan on Elmwood Avenue, behind the Falls City Market, between 17th and 19th streets, and stopped it without incident at about 7:20 a.m.
Haney and Pappas spotted backpacks in the rear seat of the Shahin brothers’ car, adding to the tension of the moment, though Khalid, 20, and Sami, 17, of Foxford, Mass., fully cooperated with the officers, who frisked them and called for backup.
The area soon flooded with city and state police, Border Patrol agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents and members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The brothers were interviewed at the nearby Niagara Falls Boys Club on 17th Street and agreed to have their car searched. Police also called their father, who owns the vehicle, and he also agreed to the search, Niagara Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto said.
A check with federal records indicated a Turkish relative of the brothers had once been on an FBI watch list, authorities said, although they stressed that is no longer the case.
Curious neighbors watched the drama unfold, many taking photos and video with their cellphones, as a large group of media arrived.
“We were getting coffee and going for a walk and suddenly there were cops everywhere. We watched as they were frisking them. The police asked everyone to back up. It was chaotic,” Jason Conte said.
For hours, some spectators speculated that the brother who managed to get away from authorities in Boston might have been apprehended in their neighborhood or that the two young men stopped by city police had come there to cause havoc.
“Reality set in. We realized what happened in Boston could have happened here,” said Christopher Glenn.
The tension level rose when a State Police bomb detection robot opened a door of the car and began “sniffing” for explosives. The robot removed the backpacks one at a time and shook their contents free.
High school chemistry homework assignments from Sami, an 11th-grader, began to blow about in a fierce wind. One of the sheets of paper with “Sami Shahin” written at the top of it and dated “3/20/13” showed complex hand drawn diagrams of DNA strands and doodles of faces.
Neither backpack nor a pillow or a fourth item removed from the vehicle revealed anything of danger and a state trooper in a bomb-protection suit approached the car and examined it before determining there was nothing hazardous.
Khalid Shaheen, a computer science major at a Boston college, was driving his younger brother Sami to check out the RIT campus, before making a detour to Niagara Falls for sightseeing, police said.
“Sami wants to be a chemical engineer. We’re told he’s so smart he may graduate high school early and begin college next year,” a police official said. “Both the brothers are bookworms. Their only crime was that they were in a car with Massachusetts’ license plates and that one of them looked like the suspect from Boston.”
Shortly after 12:30 p.m., the stretch of Elmwood Avenue, between 17th and 19th streets, was reopened and the brothers were whisked away from the Boys’ Club in an unmarked police car.
DalPorto stressed that the brothers were “completely cooperative” and that police treated them respectfully and kept them informed of what was going on. Authorities explained that the brothers’ reaction to noticing they were being followed, apparently refusing to make eye contact with the Guardsman and attempting to get away from him raised suspicion.
Charges of failure to use a turn signal and obey a stop sign were issued, police said, adding that the brothers were returned to their car.
Niagara Falls, it turns out, was not the only place in the area experiencing jitters from the events in Boston.
Dwight Hennessy, associate professor of psychology at SUNY Buffalo State and a resident of Fort Erie, Ont., said there were longer delays at the Peace Bridge this week.
“There was definitely a bigger police presence at the bridge coming back into Canada. We had state troopers, Customs and Border officers,” Hennessy said.
“They have been more vigilant in the last few days, asking more questions. I totally get it. I have no problem with it.”
Also, Hamburg High School canceled a trip the orchestra was to make to Boston this weekend.
The students were to leave Friday and return Sunday evening.
Superintendent Steven A. Achramovitch said after Monday’s bombing that Principal Michael Gallagher met with parents, students and staff to tell them the trip was being reassessed. It was canceled Wednesday because at that time “there was no closure to it,” he said.
“We’ll try to reschedule for the kids,” Achramovitch said.
News Staff Reporters Janice L. Habuda, Barbara O’Brien and Jane Kwiatkowski contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org