Observations on the Tragedy of the Boston Marathon Bombings

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By: Geoff Spillane
Published: 04/19/13

I write about all things Mashpee. Its town government, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the people and places that make up this unique and often quirky Cape Cod community. I do not write about terrorist bombings striking a major United States city, let alone report from near the scene of where such a barbaric attack would take place. Until now.

Patriots Day, that uniquely Massachusetts holiday that falls on the third Monday in April, has always been one of my favorite days. And what’s not to like about it? It is a harbinger of spring, and you don’t have to decorate a Patriots Day tree or buy Patriots Day gifts. The Red Sox play a morning game in Boston. And it
is also Marathon Monday.

As a kid, it meant the beginning of school vacation and later in life, a day off when I worked along the marathon route in Wellesley and in Copley Square. Oh, happy days.

I haven’t missed many Patriots Days in Boston, but without the help of a Google search, I could not tell you who won the marathon, if the Sox won or lost, or whether it was unseasonably warm or damp and chilly on any given year. All I could tell you with certainty was that it was always a good time.

Patriots Day 2013, though, will always remain indelibly etched in my memory. It was awful. Just awful.

A Tragedy Unfolds

The day began well enough, with an early morning traffic-free commute to the city from the Cape. Intending to make the most of my day in the city, I had scheduled some morning appointments, and an annual eye examination at Massachusetts General Hospital, with every intention of heading to Copley Square in the afternoon. Thanks to a doctor running late, a serious eye dilation temporarily affecting my sight, and a longer-than-planned lunch at the foot of Beacon Hill, my plans had been delayed.

Luck, at least in this case, favored the unintended.

Shortly after 3 PM, the breaking news alerts started coming in fast and furious on my cellphone. There had been a report of two loud explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line. The alerts became more and more disturbing with each ping on the phone, even though there were few details. At MGH, I was about 20 blocks from the blasts and feet away from where many of the victims would be rushed for treatment.

Within minutes, the sounds of sirens—many, many, sirens—and helicopters could be heard across town. It was clear that the hospital had been put on a high emergency alert. Dozens of hospital security and Boston law enforcement officers began to congregate at the main entrance of the venerable MGH.

I ran to my car, parked in a garage adjacent to the hospital, and grabbed my press pass from the console, along with a pen, and a makeshift notebook: a single piece of paper and a copy of Improper Bostonian magazine, in which I could take notes in the white margins of its pages.

By now, the blurred vision from the dilation eye drops had worn off. I was the first reporter to arrive at the hospital, beating a well-known Boston television reporter there by nearly 10 minutes.

Within a half-hour, the press corps had grown significantly, with nearly 20 television, radio, and print reporters setting up camp at a designated area across the street from the main entrance of the hospital. All of the major Boston television network affiliates, National Public Radio, the “Today” show, and, by chance, The Mashpee Enterprise, were reporting from the hospital.

Within a half-hour, the press corps had grown significantly, with nearly 20 television, radio, and print reporters setting up camp at a designated area across the street from the main entrance of the hospital. All of the major Boston television network affiliates, National Public Radio, the “Today” show, and, by chance, The Mashpee Enterprise, were reporting from the hospital.

During the first hour, information was scarce, and what there was of it was unconfirmed. Details. We wanted details. Was the blast indeed a bomb? How many have been injured or killed? Are we still under attack?

Dozens of ambulances were arriving at the hospital, along with unmarked police vehicles, and what appeared to be teams of medical personnel called into work for emergency duty. “I hear that something is happening on the Green Line,” one reporter shouted to the rest of us, while another, on the phone to his newsroom base, let us know that there was a possible bomb at the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester and that there might still be unexploded devices in the city.

This was not a day to keep information like that exclusive. It was just too important. The camaraderie among the press—none of us knowing if we were ourselves in danger—gathered outside MGH was impressive.

Eventually, the almost minute-by-minute updates waned. Cellphone carriers had suspended service to some areas of the city and service became spotty at best.

Eyewitnesses Start Coming In

The first interaction we had with eyewitnesses came from two young men running down the street toward the hospital. They stopped briefly to speak with the press, but declined to be identified, telling us to “save it” for the first responders at the scene. These two young men, veterans of the war in Afghanistan, were rushing to the hospital to donate blood, realizing there would be a need from the devastation they saw at the blast scene. “We expected to see this in Afghanistan, not Boston,” one of the young men said.

During the first hour, a steady stream of people, many in tears and some still wearing their aluminum foil-type “Boston Athletic Association” capes provided to runners after completing the race, headed toward the hospital down North Grove Street, a short road that connects Cambridge Street to the MGH campus. Most were just too distraught and traumatized to speak with the media.

One man, who identified himself as Larry Rosenblatt from Oregon, was still wearing his marathon number bib when he stopped briefly to speak with the press contingent. “I saw a big fireball and heard a deafening boom. We just finished a marathon and expected to be rejoicing, not doing this,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Alasdair K. Conn, chief of emergency services at MGH, emerged from the hospital to provide an update. It was grim. “Traumatic amputations” and patients arriving with their “legs blown off” were terms he used to describe the condition of some of the initial 19 patients that had arrived at the hospital. He also let us know that there were reports of fatalities at the scene, and there was concern that the bombs may have been “dirty,” thereby placing the hospital in a hazardous material high alert status.

“This was like something that happens in Baghdad,” he said.

This was like something that happens in Baghdad.

                                         Dr. Alasdair Conn

Fearful that there may have been more bombs planted throughout the city, at this point I seriously thought of heading back to the Cape, but decided to stay put, concerned of potential outbound gridlock on the highways. “At least here, if something happens we’ll have quick access to the best medical care,” I was told, rather nonchalantly, by a friend.

Dr. Conn and a colleague would meet with the media three times in the hours between 3:30 PM and 6:30 PM, with each update becoming increasingly disturbing, and the number of patients admitted to the hospital eventually rising to 29, the majority of whom were considered critical.

Throughout the afternoon and early evening hours, the sound of emergency vehicle sirens from near and far never ceased. To the north, an occasional jetliner headed to Logan could be seen in the distance, abiding by the no-fly zone restriction that had been mandated over downtown Boston. Most businesses in the area—even Starbucks—had closed for the day.

Family Reunion Hits an Emotional Nerve

In one of the more touching scenes of an otherwise nightmarish afternoon, Laura Peterson, 18, of Norwell described being reunited with her mother Bridget Peterson, 43, who had been running in the marathon. “I heard two bombs and was shocked,” said a tearful Laura, who, in search of her mother, rushed to MGH with a friend who is a nurse at the hospital. Laura was able to eventually reach her mother through a text message, learning that she was unharmed by the blast.

The Petersons were accompanied at the hospital by an unidentified Pembroke man who had run the marathon while carrying an American flag.

“Wave that flag, man!” a bystander across the street from the hospital screamed out.

After the initial shock of what had happened in Boston began to sink in, and President Obama addressed the nation shortly after 6 PM, it became apparent that the city could still be in danger of attack, and that we all should remain vigilant.

Upon arriving in the city on Monday morning, I had taken a picture of the Back Bay from the top floor of the Parkman Street Garage, intending to tweet the photo and the accompanying text, “It’s a beautiful day for the Boston Marathon.”

The arrival of law enforcement officers wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying machine guns and tactical gear, stationed outside the hospital and on street corners, was a truly alarming and frightening scene.

Hard to believe, almost unfathomable, that this was happening in Boston. But it was: the city had been attacked. “This isn’t supposed to happen here,” I kept thinking to myself.

Before nightfall, I decided that it would be a wise decision to head back to Mashpee.

On the roads out of the city, the presence of police and SWAT team personnel was hard to miss. The Rose Kennedy Greenway corridor from Quincy Market to South Station, near some of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, was heavily fortified. I’ll never forget it.

Upon arriving in the city on Monday morning, I had taken a picture of the Back Bay from the top floor of the Parkman Street Garage, intending to tweet the photo and the accompanying text, “It’s a beautiful day for the Boston Marathon.”

Before I left the city, I took a photo from the same exact spot. With the exception of the late-afternoon lighting, the panorama was the same, as if another day had come and gone and not a thing had changed.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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