Marathon bombings: What emerges from the rubble

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col.James Bishop
  • 439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Chief
There was a race, before the smoke and blood. At 11:50 a.m., my wife Deb and I watched the wheelchair racers turn from Hereford St. onto the home stretch of the Boston Marathon. A wave of cheering slid down Boylston Street.

My son's fiancée Katie was running for the Mass. General Hospital Children's Cancer Center. Deb wanted to hurry to Heartbreak Hill, at the 20-mile point, so we wouldn't miss Katie, but I wanted to see the first runners finish.

The women runners came first, taking strong strides. Cheers rose above the street. People looked on from balconies and bars.

Soon a media truck turned onto Boylston, piled with photographers and videographers. I thought the driver was racing to the finish line to set up.

He wasn't. He was keeping pace with the leaders of the men's pack. It looked like a sprint. As with the women, the men didn't look winded after 26 miles.

As we made our way to Heartbreak Hill, a woman on our subway car was giving directions to people for no reason beyond kindness. People in the crowd called out to tired runners at the top of the hill, "You're looking great!"

At 1:45 p.m., halfway down Heartbreak Hill, a group kept up a steady beat on large kettle drums to encourage runners. Not for a minute. Constantly. People cheered runners they didn't know. Strangers handed out orange slices.

An older man decked out in a jeweled crown and red velvet cape ran by. Members of the National Guard jogged by in full uniform, carrying massive backpacks. One man in the crowd saluted. Many runners wore memorials. "Running in memory of Lt. James Zimmerman, United States Marine Corps," read one T-shirt. Of the 27,000 runners, these were the ones on pace to finish around 2:50 p.m., when the two bombs exploded.

Katie arrived at Mile 20, looking fresh and strong. She stopped to hug my son Jim, then each of us who had come to watch.

It was 2:12 p.m. The bombers were already slinking toward the finish line. Our group of seven walked to the T and headed back to watch Katie finish.

At the Hynes Center metro stop, though, a policeman stepped onto the train and yelled "Everyone needs to get off now. This station is closed." Boston cops, not prone to overreaction, looked rattled. They shouted, "We need to clear the station." We decided to go to the finish line, since that's where we were meeting Katie.

We could see white smoke in the distance, but thought it was fireworks.

Then came the escalating horror. A runner walking down Boylston said there'd been an explosion at the finish line. Another, crying and blood-spattered, said people have been injured, some had lost limbs. Within minutes, we heard that the blasts had killed people. A steady stream of police cars, SUVs, and ambulances sped toward the finish line.

After 10 minutes of telling people they couldn't go to the finish line, a cop on the corner of Boylston and Commonwealth yelled, "I know this is frustrating but we need to block off the road. Please bear with us. We're doing the best we can." Some wise soul yelled back, "You're doing a good job." The crowd near the barriers applauded. The cop's shoulders relaxed. He smiled briefly, said "Thank you."

I felt like I'd witnessed greatness of spirit - not just then, but all day long in large and small and lovely and homely ways. First responders streamed toward the blast site. I saw three men in their mid-20s, wearing black hoodies and looking like thugs, walk past the barricade. The policemen started to say, "You can't go in ..." Without breaking stride, the one on the left pulled out his badge and they walked through.

After 40 tense minutes, we found Katie, still looking fresh. She had been half a mile from the finish line when police told runners to get off the road. One of the first things she said, after learning that our car, parked under the Prudential Building, might be within the cordon, was "Take our car and we'll pick it up later."

Not, I need water, or I need to rest, but How can I help?

Across the city, selfless people were taking action. When double-amputee and Afghanistan War veteran Gabe Martinez heard about the bombing, he and fellow Marine amputees visited Boston hospitals to encourage the 15 amputees, hug and cry with them, and show them it's possible to walk again.

The day after the bombing, I was back in uniform buying a brake light at an auto parts store. A man turned to me and said "These bastards shouldn't get the death penalty. That's too quick. They should suffer."

I wanted to agree but can't, because then we become like them. I'm glad the police dissect the criminal mind, but if we absorb a steady diet of info about the suspects, we give them too much honor. Poet Jack Gilbert wrote, "To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil." An Internet search for "Boston Bombers" listed 3.9 million hits. One for "Boston Bombing Heroes" came up with just 1,300.

Ten thousand acts of kindness and courage occurred on April 15. Any one of them deserves more attention than two petty disciples of hatred.