On Scene in Abbottabad at bin Laden's Last Stand

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U.S. Department of Defense / Reuters

An aerial view, released by the U.S. Department of Defense on May 2, 2011, shows the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan

Sohaib Athar was jolted upright by the buzz of low-flying helicopters passing over his home next to the Jalal Baba auditorium in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In this sedate garrison town ringed by jagged peaks, the gentle thrum of the day is usually reduced to a whisper by night. "The helicopter was circling around for five to six minutes," Athar tells TIME. "It's not commonplace here." In what would become one of the world's most-read tweets, Athar alerted his Twitter followers: "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM" on Sunday morning local time. For the next half hour, he live-tweeted what he was hearing, without the faintest inkling that his messages were the first public record of Osama bin Laden's final moments. In less than 24 hours, Athar's name was trending and his followers had swollen incredibly from some 800 to 55,000 — and counting.

Moments after Athar heard the helicopter, the force of a loud explosion rattled him. "I heard the blast, and everything shook in my room," he says, sitting in the Coffity café that he and his wife run. The sound was keenly recognizable to the couple; it was the reason they had left their native Lahore, where suicide bombs have wrought terrorism regularly over the past two years. "But unlike the aftermath of those blasts, there were no ambulance sirens," he says. All Athar could hear was the sound of a car racing through the empty, quiet streets. And then the familiar sound of a helicopter in flight returned, before it too faded away.

Naturally alarmed, Athar reached out to friends over Facebook, asking what they had heard. Two of them, living as far as 3.7 miles (6 km) away, felt the explosions. Zabiullah Khan, 20, a college student, says he saw the helicopters arrive. "There were two black gunship helicopters," Khan says with a tone of certainty. "I couldn't see them clearly in the night, but it was obvious that they weren't Pakistani. We don't have gunship helicopters." He was convinced that the helicopters were American. "I began to wonder if the Americans were invading us," he says, recalling the recent history of strained relations between the two countries. His fears were heightened when he saw what he says was a flash moments before the explosion.

The home where bin Laden had been hiding since at least last summer is located in the Bilal Town neighborhood of Abbottabad. (UPDATE: An American source tells TIME that bin Laden may have been at the location upwards of five or six years.) It is less than 0.6 miles (1 km) away from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul — the country's equivalent of West Point. "It's a respectable middle-class area," says Azim Durrani, another student who heard the raid. "The people who live there are doctors and different kinds of professionals. They drive Corollas and Hondas." The morning after the raid, the army was keen to not allow anyone else to catch a glimpse of the scene. Within moments of President Obama's speech, it set up checkpoints athwart all nearby major roads and sealed the neighborhood. A Der Spiegel journalist who managed to forge his way through was arrested for one hour, his camera confiscated and the images of the notorious compound wiped. ABC News managed to broadcast images from what appeared to be a bloody bedroom in the compound.

The compound doesn't quite fit the descriptions of a mansion, as some have labeled it. The walls are 12 ft. (4 m) high and about 13 in. (33 cm) thick — enough to shield the tall terrorist leader from public view. The property is spread over an area slightly smaller than 1 acre (0.4 hectare). The house is a great deal smaller, rising over two stories. In other ways, it was unremarkable but sometimes noticed. Muhammad Riaz, 34, a construction worker who lives in the neighborhood, says he had viewed it with some suspicion. Unlike other homes in the Thanda Chuha area of Bilal Town, he was unfamiliar with its occupants. "I know that it was owned by a Pashtun man, who had come from elsewhere, called Akbar," Riaz says. "It's just five minutes away from my house." Like others, he denies ever glimpsing bin Laden.

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