April 12. 2014 9:29PM

NH ties strong for MIT officer killed after Hub terror strike

New Hampshire Sunday News

Sean Collier (right) and his younger brother Andrew spent most weekends with their dad in New Hampshire when they were growing up, camping and hiking in the White Mountains and racing go-karts in Weare. (Courtesy)

Andrew (left) and Sean Collier pose for a family photo in January, 2013, three months before Sean, an MIT campus police officer, was shot and killed, allegedly by the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings. (Family photo)

As a boy, Sean Collier was a winning go-kart driver at Sugar Hill Speedway in Weare. (Family photo)

Before he became a police officer, before he gave his life in the line of duty, Sean Collier spent much of his childhood camping, hiking and racing go-karts in New Hampshire.

Collier, a 27-year-old campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was killed on April 18, 2013, in the middle of the terror spree that began with the Boston Marathon bombing and ended with a shootout and capture in Watertown, Mass.

Collier was the second-youngest of six siblings in a close-knit, blended family in Wilmington, Mass., where his mother and stepfather, Kelley and Joseph Rogers, still live.

Growing up, he and his younger brother Andrew spent nearly every weekend with their father, Allen, in New Hampshire.

They went hiking and camping in the White Mountains, raced slot cars at Queen City Speedway in Manchester and then moved up to go-karts at Sugar Hill Speedway in Weare.

"We both raced, but Sean was always the much better driver," Andrew Collier recalls. "I had always been interested in the mechanical side of things. He was more the adrenaline junkie."

So the brothers made a deal, he said: "I'll work on it and I'll do all the adjustments, and you stay out of that. You drive, and I'll stay out of that."

And Sean won plenty of races at Sugar Hill that way, he said. "For whatever reason, he just figured out how to hit the marks perfectly and get a lot of speed out of the kart."

Archie Archambault, former owner of Sugar Hill Speedway, remembers the Collier boys and their dad were regulars at his track.

"Sean took to it real quick," he said.

He was a nice, polite kid, too, Archambault said. "He was friendly with everybody. He was just a good, clean racer."

When Archambault and his wife heard about Collier's death, "we were just devastated by that whole thing," he said. "Sad news."

It was Andrew Collier who moved on to the world of professional racing; he's a machinist at Hendrick Motorsports in North Carolina, where he and his fiancee now live.

But Sean had always wanted to be a police officer, his brother said. "They tell stories about him being in his car seat, saluting the American flag. He always had a real passion for it."

The family did worry when Sean decided to pursue his passion. "I don't think anyone really wanted him to become a cop," Andrew said. "We knew the dangers of it."

Sean became an auxiliary police officer in Somerville, Mass., the youngest sergeant on the auxiliary force. With a gift for computers, he took a position in the department's IT office while attending the police academy.

It was the Somerville chief who recommended him for the position on MIT's campus police force, Andrew said, and Sean threw himself into the job, joining the school's Outing Club and talking with students about their studies and projects.

"We definitely thought he's a lot safer being there than being at Somerville," Collier said. "At least he's not going to be dealing with anything crazy."

Three nights after the Boston Marathon bombings, which had killed three and severely wounded many others, Collier was watching over the MIT campus in his cruiser. He was ambushed and shot to death, allegedly by the two brothers who had planted the bombs.

In the ensuing chaos, the pair hijacked a car and led police on a chase that ended in a shootout on the streets of nearby Watertown, Mass. The older suspect was killed, the younger one injured and later captured after a massive door-to-door manhunt by officers from many law enforcement agencies, including Manchester, Nashua and New Hampshire State Police.

The phone call that changed Andrew Collier's world forever came in the early morning hours of April 19, 2013. It was his sister, telling him that Sean had been shot and killed.

In the year since, Collier, 26, has devoted himself to pushing for a national day of recognition for first responders. "These people really do put their lives on the line and are running towards danger when most people are running away."

Like the military service members who are honored on patriotic holidays, he said, "our first responders are protecting us and serving us in our communities.''

"So to me, there's not a huge difference. At the end of the day, they're both protecting us, they're both serving us, and they're doing stuff that a lot of us are too afraid to do or are unwilling to do.

"Ultimately, I would like it to be like all the other major holidays, like Fourth of July and Memorial Day," he said.

On Feb. 27, H.R. 4019 was introduced in Congress to direct the President to designate a National First Responders Day. U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster, both Democrats from New Hampshire, are co-sponsors.

On the anniversary of the shooting, Sean Collier's family will be at MIT, attending a groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial to him.

Three days later, two of Collier's other siblings, Jenn and Rob, will run the Boston Marathon as part of Team Collier. The family has also started a scholarship fund for candidates to the police academy.

Nate Martell of Charlestown used to race go-karts with Sean Collier when they were teens. He'd been out of racing for nine years when he heard about Collier's death; he called Archambault that day and told him, 'I need a kart.'"

"I knew you'd be calling," Archambault replied.

Last year, Martell raced at Twin State Speedway in Claremont, dedicating the season - and winning the championship - in Collier's memory. "I raced his number and his initials," he said.

Andrew Collier is getting married this fall; Sean would have been his best man. He tries not to dwell on the painful what-ifs.

"You have to try to enjoy your life," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can to enjoy it to the fullest."

He's pretty sure that's what Sean would say: "He would tell me to stop being an idiot and have fun."

Dying for a cause

Collier takes comfort in his conviction that Sean "died for a cause."

"If it wasn't for the attack on my brother, then these guys were probably going to go somewhere else and cause more destruction and more devastation.

"After he was shot, it started the manhunt that ultimately captured these guys and prevented them from possibly going to another city or causing another attack. These guys were stopped that night."

It's a sacrifice he believes his big brother would have made gladly.

After the Sandy Hook school massacre, Sean said he wished he had been a first responder that day. "He wanted to be there to help people in these times of need and crisis."

It was the same after the marathon bombings. Hours before his death, Sean had posted the photos police released of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

"To me, if you said to Sean, 'Listen, if you lay down your life and that means that we're going to capture these guys that set off these bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line' . he would have absolutely done it without hesitation."

After Sean's death, his family started hearing stories from strangers he had helped during his brief time in public service.

One young mother told them about the night she called 911 during a blizzard after her newborn baby started struggling to breathe. Sean Collier was first on the scene.

"When the paramedics arrived, he was laying on the bed with the baby, giving that baby oxygen and trying to comfort the baby," Andrew said. A few days later, Officer Collier emailed the family to check on baby girl.

And the MIT police chief told the family Sean had asked whether he could join the board at a local homeless shelter "because part of their job is to shoo away the homeless on campus," he said. Sean told his chief "he wanted to try to help these guys so he didn't have to shoo them away."

The outpouring of love and support from strangers - they've heard from police departments as far away as Ireland - has helped the family get through the past year, Collier said. "It meant that when he died, it meant something to people.

"He won't be forgotten because of that, and that does help quite a bit."

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The petition to designate a National First Responders Day is at change.org/firstresponders.