Yes, terror and chaos came to the finish line of the Boston Marathon. But what came after can also be remembered forever as a time when bravery and kindness brought people together.
We can choose to remember the few seconds before 2:50 p.m. at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, this way: three young people dead, more than 270 injured, many with the types of terrible wounds seen during wartime. We can choose to remember the worst of humankind: terrorists who placed two pressure-cooker bombs packed with shrapnel close to the finish line, bombs whose only purpose was to kill and maim runners and those who came to cheer them on at the moment of their joy. We can choose to believe that the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev forever changed the Boston Marathon—that their scar of hate and pain and blood will be imprinted on a race that since 1897 has celebrated endurance and the spirit of human perseverance. We can choose to believe that during this year’s race on April 21, we will still feel their awful presence, that their names will be on our lips.
Or we can choose to forget their names, to not dignify their ever walking among us, an ill wind that came and blew out to sea, never to be seen again. And then we can remember this: that even during the frightening first moments, when nobody knew what had happened or whether there might not yet be another blast and another, so many people, strangers to those who lay hurt and in shock, found resources to run toward the chaos, toward the unknown, to pour out their hearts and offer help where they could. Can I help? Let me help became the words that the injured on the ground and the thousands of exhausted and scared runners heard in the first minutes after the explosions—words that continued to define that day and the days that followed.
Yes, history will record April 15, 2013, as a day when terror came to the Boston Marathon. But we each own our personal history, and we have this choice: We can remember the Boston Marathon as a place where lives were lost, but many more were saved; as a place where the best of humankind, demonstrating bravery and selflessness and kindness, will never be forgotten by anyone whose life was touched by a stranger saying, Can I help? Let me help.
JD Hale, Yankee’s vice president of sales, was working as a volunteer at the finish line, handing out warming blankets to drape over the runners’ shoulders, when the explosions went off. “The runners were in shock,” he wrote. “They had no idea what had happened. They were dazed, shivering uncontrollably (a sea breeze had kicked up), needing our blankets, and could barely talk. We reassured them. We hugged them. Many were very emotional—so we did all we could to take care of them, not knowing at all what many of them had witnessed …
“I headed in several directions with the blankets to find runners. It was the hardest, most difficult scene I have ever witnessed. I kept returning with armfuls of BAA [Boston Athletic Association] blankets. [The runners] were dazed in so many ways. And all we had were three simple things: a warming blanket, a hug, and words that all of us volunteers hoped were helpful. We were wrapping them up tight, often wrapping their legs, too, giving more hugs, giving words of assistance; some [runners] were very confused, didn’t speak English, didn’t know where to go, where to find their personal belongings and so on. It was windy. The sirens continued—the day was getting late. It was getting colder, too.”
A woman watching from her hotel overlooking Copley Square posted this impression on The Huffington Post: “To me, the image that sticks out is the yellow jackets. When I first got to the room and ran to the window, the scene below was still immediate chaos. Runners were literally sprinting through and around the finish area. It was an absolutely frantic scene, clouded over by bomb smoke and punctuated by sirens. But the yellow jackets—they stayed. They didn’t run. They tore up the finish line as quickly as they could. They carried runners in their arms and acted as human crutches. I saw runners collapse into their arms and they stood still and held them. They tore down fencing and scaffolding to open the area up to allow people to move more quickly. They were on the ground over broken and injured bodies. They ran back and forth from the medical tent, bringing bags of ice and supplies, pushing empty and full wheelchairs, doing whatever it was that needed to be done. They too had families to call. They too were in a dangerous and unsecured crime scene … For me, the enduring image of the Boston Marathon will forever be of the very first responders: the Boston Marathon volunteers, the yellow jackets who stared fear and evil in the eye and vowed that no matter what, they would not run.”
Here’s a memory to keep: a photograph. In the photo, one that has been seen over and over, Carlos Arredondo, a Costa Rican immigrant in his early fifties who settled in Massachusetts, sprints to an ambulance with the life of Jeff Bauman in the balance. The image of Arredondo’s white cowboy hat soon seeped into our lives: the good guy coming to the rescue, his face taut with urgency, Jeff Bauman’s face wreathed in pain and shock. Within hours we would learn more: how Arredondo had suffered the loss of two sons, one to war in Iraq, another whose grief at losing a brother led eventually to his taking his own life; how he had emerged from his own despair to become a peace activist and who was at the finish line to cheer on a member of the National Guard running to honor his sons, Alex and Brian.
“He was conscious,” Arredondo told a reporter that day about finding Bauman. “I let him know that the ambulance is on the way and he’s okay … [You’re] okay, stay with me, stay with me.”
In the weeks that followed, Arredondo and Bauman became two of the enduring symbols of a moment when the lives of strangers fused together. In late May, as Bauman, who lost both his legs, continued the long process of recovery, Arredondo stood beside him at Fenway Park while thousands cheered for them, and for themselves, perhaps. Cheering because none of us knows when a storm not of our making may engulf us, and when we may need our own Carlos, who says, It’s going to be okay, hang on, hang on. And here was Jeff Bauman to tell us that he had.
Here is another memory to hold close: In the first hours after the blasts, more than 8,000 people in Boston and surrounding towns took to social media and offered their homes and apartments to any of the 27,000 runners who needed shelter, food, a friend. A typical message read: “Please come to Brookline if you need to feel safe. I’m 2 miles from Copley, but you are welcome in my home.” Another: “I live in Hopkinton but would happily drive anywhere to pick up a runner who needs food, shelter and comfort.”
Ali Hatfield, a runner from Kansas City, Missouri, posted an Instagram photo of the food, drink, and comfort she’d been given at the home of someone she’d never known. “There is love in this world,” she wrote. “A sweet woman opened her home to us and gave us food, shelter and beer! … Our hotel is locked down. We can’t get over there. So scary. Praying.”
And at a time when so many were still struggling to make financial ends meet, $61 million in donations poured into The One Fund to help the injured and the families of those who had died; more millions were raised in separate social-media efforts. It was as though America’s heart beat for Boston.
Here is another memory: So many runners and Bostonians made their way to blood-donation stations that soon the American Red Cross tweeted that it had enough: 500 units of blood were on their way to local hospitals, where doctors, nurses, and technicians pushed aside fatigue and found the composure to match their expertise. “There’s stress,” said Dr. Ron Medzon, an emergency-room physician at Boston Medical Center. “You really want to do the best for every person. I got my patient stabilized and just started running from patient to patient to make sure that everyone else was also getting the attention they needed. And every single patient had at least two or three super-competent, compassionate people working on them. Every single person had a limb-threatening injury, a life-threatening injury. And I think 20 people came in over 40 minutes, which is just incredible.”
Nearly 40 injured victims were rushed to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the first hour—and all survived. Dr. Peter Fagenholz, a Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) trauma surgeon, worked 35 hours straight. He had come on at 7:00 a.m. and performed six operations before the bombing, then scrubbed in on at least four surgeries, perhaps as many as six or seven, after it, working on the injured throughout the night; he finally left the hospital the following day at 6 p.m. An off-duty trauma surgeon, David King, also at MGH, had completed the marathon and was heading home when the explosions went off. Though physically spent from the race, he went straight to the hospital and went to work saving lives.
April 15 also showed us that the American Red Cross volunteers don’t simply appear like miraculous angels when things go terribly awry in far-off places. This was here, on Boylston Street, where nearly everyone who knows Boston has strolled. And this is who they are: In the days following the explosions, they served 47,247 meals and snacks to first responders, residents, and families; they arranged 3,644 mental-health contacts in the days that came after; they were on hand at 78 memorials, vigils, and gatherings for support and aid. Red Cross volunteers made certain that nobody had to feel abandoned or alone in Boston.
There were so many moments of courage and extraordinary kindness amid the noise and sirens that we can also choose to remember the quiet acts, the ones that happen when nobody’s looking. Think of Jessica Kensky, a nurse at MGH. She was newly married, and in a flash both she and her husband were wounded badly, each losing a leg. Coworkers—fellow nurses, cafeteria staffers, maintenance people—donated 7,000 of their time-off hours to Kensky—three and a half years’ worth. Because of that, Kensky has time to recover, to adapt to a life so suddenly changed, while remaining secure as a full-time employee with health-care benefits.
And here is one final memory, still to come. This year, on April 21, whether the day is warm or chilly, sun-splashed or gray, some 36,000 runners will await the call to begin in Hopkinton, finishing 26 miles distant in Copley Square. There will be a sea of athletes: young, old, men, women, able-bodied, in wheelchairs. A year earlier, many were forced to turn away before the finish. They’ve put in thousands of miles training to do what they love: to run in this beautiful city on a spring day, with tens of thousands of supporters pressed close on the streets, shouting for them to keep going. And as the miles go by, as they stream through Ashland, Framingham, Natick, and Wellesley, turning into Kenmore Square and down Commonwealth Avenue into the heart of the city, they will hear the shouts that will always be the true legacy of the Boston Marathon, the same as it always has been: Keep going, keep going.
Read Yankee vice president JD Hale’s personal account of the Marathon bombing.