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How Investigating Bombings And Threats Has Evolved Since The 1950's

BOSTON (CBS) - School shootings, terrorist bombings, cyber-attacks. Our security and ways to prevent these attacks has become an almost daily conversation. And while many assume this is a 21st century problem, people as far back as the 50's knew what it was like to have an ordinary day turn violent.

June 11, 1959 was an ordinary day along Causeway Street in Boston until a massive explosion rocked North Station. Smoke billowed through the air outside the elevated train station, which was called the MTA at the time. A WBZ reporter on the scene spoke to an unnamed fire official. "Terrific explosion occurred here at North Station at the elevated structure. Many causalities have been taken care of by the fire department and the police department," he said.

North Station explosion
North Station explosion on June 11, 1959 (WBZ-TV)

One person was killed, 38 were injured. George Bruck was on the train that came into the station just as the explosion happened. According to Bruck, the conductor urged the passengers not to panic. "Then he finally opened the doors and we see everybody was running by us with their legs cut and their ears and everything was cut up," he said.

"At the present, we don't have a cause," another official told the WBZ reporter on the scene.

Web Extra: Good Samaritan From 1959 Explosion

According to Massachusetts State Police historian Stephen Byron, finding one in those days wasn't easy. "Because they didn't have the tools back then. The laboratories were minimal, the forensics were minimal. You didn't have crime scene techs to come to process the scene for you," he said.

Published reports at the time reported police chemists did find black powder at the scene. Investigators came up with two theories. One was the possibility that a home-made bomb was stashed in a locker at the station's overheard platform. The second was that a hunter, who made his/her own shells, left gunpowder in a locker which was set off by the vibrations from the trains.

A little more than ten years passed before a new round of attacks began in the 1970's when radical groups began terrorizing the Northeast. Twenty two people were hurt at Suffolk County Courthouse when a bomb exploded.

Suffolk County Courthouse
Suffolk County Courthouse April 22, 1976 (WBZ-TV)

A radical group would eventually be charged for that blast and 19 others in the region, including Logan Airport and two other Massachusetts courthouses. But it took years.

According to Byron, gathering evidence after a bombing can be tricky. "Eyewitness identification is sometimes a little thin, especially when there is a bombing because everyone is shocked when the bomb goes," he said. "In the case of the marathon bombing where you had so much video tape, some of the witnesses were completely off-base."

According to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database, Massachusetts has been hit by more than 50 terror attacks since 1970, killing 12 and injuring 317.

Mass. terror attacks

Despite all of the attacks, security wasn't really enhanced until after September 11. Now traveling by air requires multiple screenings and metal detectors are commonplace at many public buildings.

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Experts say police also began to use powerful intelligence gathering tools to help prevent attacks that included the plot to kill police officers in Boston back in 2015. "So there are fusion centers where everybody works together and shares information. These systems are not perfect but they are much better than what we had 20 years ago," explained WBZ security Analyst Ed Davis.

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