I’d had two shots of fruity vodka and was working on a beer for breakfast on the afternoon of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off.
At that particular moment, I was at a friends’ house party on Beacon Street. Outside, the tens of thousands of runners were streaming past a cheering crowd filled with friends, family members, and hordes of drunk Boston University students. This, after all, is the traditional way Boston celebrates the holiday marked on calendars as Patriot’s Day, but which everyone refers to in real life as Marathon Monday.
My friend and I were putting some overheated chicken wings into the freezer to cool when her phone rang. A minute later, I overheard her on the phone to her sister at the finish line. “Just calm down,” she kept saying. “Take it easy. You said there were explosions?”
We corralled her when she got off the phone. What had her sister seen? “Explosions, two of them.” We were confused. My head was throbbing. Was this real life? We ran outside into the sunlight. Nothing had changed. Runners were running, the cheerers were cheering, the drunken college students were drinking. “Let’s check Twitter,” I said. We whipped out our phones, punched in #bostonmarathon, and stared in disbelief as our feeds refreshed.
“Large explosion, on the Boston Marathon route,” read one tweet, sent 1 minute earlier. “Possibly 60 people injured.”
Large explosion on the Boston Marathon route,area of 671 Boylston St. Possibly 60 people injured.
— Steve (@alertnewengland) April 15, 2013
As we watched, another came in reporting lost limbs:
Victims with lost limbs wheeled from scene. #wcvb
— Sean Kelly (@SeanKellyTV) April 15, 2013
Near the finish line, two miles away, a phone buzzed, belonging to one of my best friends. She was volunteering for the marathon, working the communications tent linked to other ham radio stations along the race course. She doesn’t have a smartphone and still gets her friends’ tweets sent to her via text message—something that I often tease her about.
The explosions had gone off minutes earlier, sounding like cannon shots. But inside the tent, nobody knew yet what had happened. For her, too, the tweets were the first information she had about the explosion. She switched her radio to the medical channel.
Calls for ambulances and wheelchairs to help the injured—the casualties.
I was alone amongst her close friends in having no idea she was there. Without her smartphone to post to Facebook, she texted her parents.
Minutes later, her phone died.
An hour earlier, I’d been sitting in a chair on the grassy lawn of my friend’s apartment building, sharing a blanket with her, sipping a beer, watching the race go by. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The cheers of the crowd around us never wavered. With our chairs at the edge of the sidewalk, we supposed we were technically not drinking on public land—but only just. At one point, a cop walking down the sidewalk had approached me with a stern look, reached out to grab my beer, then smiled, winked, and kept on walking.
Marathon Monday is like that. After my first one upon moving to Boston three years ago, I explained to my friends back home, “It seems to exist because by mid-April, Boston has gone an entire month since St. Patrick’s Day and decides it’s about time for another drinking holiday.”
But that’s being glib. What I couldn’t quite describe was the crowd—at least half a dozen people deep for every inch of Beacon Street and for miles into the western countryside, cheering the runners on not with polite clapping and occasional shouts, but with a constant roar, the kind you hear from blocks away. The support for the runners is genuine. The marathon is an annual celebration, a small town gathering of half a million people.
And outside, nobody seemed to have told them that today was turning out to be otherwise. But inside, we were in a state of disbelief. We huddled around the TV, waiting for news. A daytime soap opera was on. Marathon coverage was off the air; the winners had long since crossed the finish line. We were impatient, at a loss for information, not quite yet willing to believe the horrific tweets. But one linked to a local CBS affiliate’s online stream of the finish line. There, we saw the first images—ambulances, empty grandstands, a crowd around what looked like a fell field of debris.
We started texting our families.
I walked outside to the sidewalk, through the cheering crowd, where a policeman stood calmly on the side of the road, watching the runners. “What do you know?” I asked him.
“I know a lotta things,” he drawled in his thick Boston accent. “I can cook, I can clean, I can read…”
“What do you know about Copley Square?”
“In Copley Square? There were two explosions. I don’t know anything else. Watch the news—they know more than me.”
And he turned back. Behind him, the runners kept running, with just over two miles to go to reach the finish line where people and parts of them lay on the blood-streaked sidewalk.
Inside, we stood around the laptop and filled the heavy vacuum of information with our own speculation. Was this deliberate? Was it—a bombing? It had to be. It didn’t look like a gas explosion from underground. Besides, the timing and location of it—at the finish line of the marathon? Two in a row? What else could it be? And yet, I still didn’t want to believe it.
After what seemed like an eternity, the local news cut in. We watched in a daze as the first replays of the explosions were shown. My heart sank. Jesus, I said.
For a long time, we wondered why. Not why would someone attack innocent people—sadly, we took that as a given. Rather, why Boston? After all, we’re not a big city—we just pretend to be one! And why hit the party that is Marathon Monday? What’s the symbolism in that?
We sat down. We refreshed Twitter. We started getting phone calls from friends and family. Within minutes the mobile networks were buckling. “Texts are better,” someone said. When those failed, too, we resorted to a laptop and Facebook.
And we waited.
After about half an hour, group of people, including my friend’s sister, returned from the finish line. They sat in a dark stairwell, decompressing. We didn’t dare ask them what they saw. Instead: “How close were you?”
“We saw it happen.”
“There was blood everywhere. Everywhere.”
“We walked over a guy’s feet lying on the ground.”
There were no tears—just shock.
Crowding around the TV and watching the replays for their first time, they started pointing to people on screen that they had just seen, wondering if they had made it. My friend started to put more chicken wings in the microwave and pizzas in the oven. “I’m just gonna try to make everyone feel relaxed,” she said. “We could all use some food.”
When the food was done, I decided to head downtown. My friend came with me for a little ways. As we walked out down the stairs and turned up the sidewalk towards Kenmore, we were instantly stopped by a policeman. Even two miles away from the finish, the race course was on lockdown. We turned down a side street instead.
We walked in silence for a couple minutes. When she turned back, she said, “I better make sure everyone’s ok. Make sure my sister’s ok. Keep everyone fed and comfortable.”
I nodded and gave her a hug. “Good luck,” she said.
I took the long way around Fenway Park and cut through the Back Bay Fens. There, people walked past the geese in the water, not glancing at the trees sprouting spring’s first buds, lost in conversation with their friends or within their own thoughts. One man walked across the park alone, on his phone. There, away from the carnage, it could have passed for a beautiful day.
When I emerged by Symphony Hall and crossed the Christian Science Plaza by the reflecting pool, I came upon the police perimeter, a long queue of ambulances, and a somber crowd. Evacuated hotel workers stood around in their uniforms. A musician with a violin on his back tried to get by. Everywhere, people were texting, calling their family. Beyond that, nobody seemed to know what to do.
Further down at St. Botolph Street, a small crowd gathered as police unrolled yellow tape to block the route to Copley Square. Runners sat with their families against buildings, wrapped in their thermal blankets, unable to get to their hotels. Some snacked on energy bars; a group of Japanese runners talked quietly amongst themselves; some just gazed into space. Families evacuating their hotels emerged at ground level at Ground Zero, disoriented, the parents wheeling their luggage past silent runners. Where they were going, if they had a place to go, I don’t know.
One man was texting as he tried to walk past a policeman. “My family has no idea where I am,” he pleaded as the cop motioned for him to move away so he could put up yellow tape.
“My family has no idea where I am, either,” replied the cop, gently moving the man aside.
“What time will this area be open again?” the man asked, as I raised my camera to take his picture.
“What time?” the policeman cried. “It could be weeks! Look around you! This is an emergency!” A crowd of photographers gathered and began clicking away. But it was not a nasty confrontation. The emotion in the cop’s voice wasn’t anger—only frustration, and sadness. The man slowly nodded and walked away.
Approaching Copley Square, the site of the blasts, the city became ever more deserted. An unnatural silence hung over downtown, bathed in afternoon light, pierced only by emergency sirens. The beating heart of Boston was deathly still. On an unpatrolled side street leading directly to Copley, a man walked his dog alone.
Copley itself was practically abandoned, with only a dozen or so police and firemen standing around Boylston Street.
What looked like NBC Sports camera equipment sat covered in plastic tarps, abandoned. The injured seemed to have been long since evacuated from the medical tent, where I couldn’t see any activity at all. On the steps of Trinity Church, a woman sat and texted, out of sight of everyone.
Here, in Copley Square, you could feel truly alone.
On the other side of the square, thousands of yellow bags of clothes sat in the middle of the street, waiting to be claimed by runners who never reached the finish line. A few who had wandered downtown around the police perimeter were wading through them, looking for their belongings. As they walked back through the gates onto Newbury, they hugged the volunteers who were still at their posts.
When my phone died, I decided to head back to my friend’s apartment, joining a small stream of people heading outbound on Commonwealth Avenue. At one point, we passed a BU fraternity. A beer pong table, red Solo cups, and hot dogs were outside—they were offering what had been their party supplies to people returning from the explosion. “Do you want anything to eat or drink?” they asked as we walked by. I shook my head. I certainly wasn’t in need. “Can we give you anything?” one asked, almost desperate to help.
Two summers ago, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I wandered down to the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square to meet people and take pictures. One of them was this:
I took the picture purely as a response to the emotion of the scene, not knowing who it belonged to or who had placed it there. When I saw this photo again on Tuesday, I realized: it was the helmet of Alex Arredondo, a marine killed in action in Iraq. His father is Carlos Arredondo. He was, I had read, a Boston-area native, and a familiar figure around the camp as a passionate anti-war activist.
And on Monday, when the bombs detonated and the smoke rose and the blood coated the streets of Boston, he became known to the world as the man in the hat wheeling a man with no legs to safety.
I’d had no idea I’d ever come into contact with his story before. But by pure chance, here in Boston, I had.
When we say that the spirit of Boston is strong, that Boston is a tough city and will bounce back, what are we really saying? Do we mean to claim that there is there something special, something empirically distinguishable about Bostonians (besides, of course, their wonderful accents)? Is there something about Boston that breeds a certain kind of people? Perhaps, but that’s not really what we mean. We would say the same about Oklahoma City, or Minneapolis, or Tel Aviv, or Baghdad, and we have. Maybe by saying it, we mean to point to Boston as an example that affirms our belief that humanity is capable of wonderful, compassionate things.
But if the response to help others and to display resilience in the face of adversity is human nature, then what is the role of the city?
What is a city? Is it a geographic location? A collection of buildings? A group of people agreeing to be bound by a common society? To borrow a metaphor from Ray Kurzweil, I think it is more like the pattern that water makes in a stream as it rushes past rocks in its path. A city’s citizens come and go, entering and then departing either the region or life itself. A city is completely turned over within the span of a human life. It consists of a completely different set of people than it did a generation ago. What remains is the pattern, the organization of that stuff.
A city is a pulsing, powerful, beast of a thing, and the last three days have changed how I look at this one. I feel more woven into its tapestry than ever before, more connected to the people who live here—even if we are all only rushing by the rocks in our path.
When I got back to my friend’s apartment on Monday, the sun had set and the living room was cast in darkness. Everyone was lying on the floor or on the couch watching the news—except my friend. She was fast asleep on the couch, having hosted everyone in her apartment all day, feeding them, keeping them relaxed. She was exhausted.
Inside the medical tent, my friend at the finish line was still there, her dead phone in her pocket. She’d spent the entire afternoon directing emergency vehicles as they sped into Copley Square, loaded victims, and flighted them to area hospitals. I only found this out at 10 pm that night, when I checked Facebook, saw the frantic wall posts from her friends, and chatted with her myself to reassure myself that she was fine. She was exhausted, too.
As Mr. Rogers said, and as has been retold countless times since, on the darkest days and cheerless nights when we most need a reminder of our common humanity, we look for the helpers. And when I look for the helpers, I know I only need to look for my friends.