At 2:47 p.m. on Monday, April 15, Robert Cremin was living the mother of all runner’s highs. He was approaching the end of his 40th marathon—his fourth in Boston—and happy in the knowledge that his girlfriend, Carole Ellison, was there somewhere in the crowd, watching him hobble the last third of a mile. At that stage in the race Boylston Street was a tunnel of human noise. Onlookers, many freshly poured from the Red Sox game at nearby Fenway Park, lined the sidewalks, not so much cheering as yelling the sweaty, exhausted marathoners across the finish line. Cremin was in pain—“I’m 72, you hurt places you didn’t even know existed”—but he was also elated at, well, the over-ness of it. “I don’t know what giving birth is like, but it was such an intense feeling,” he says. “And then it was like someone was stealing it from you.”
It was less than three minutes later, as he stood in the recovery area, that Cremin heard a “low, throaty rumble, like a big wall came down.” Then he felt a great pressure in his ears. And while the druggy dizziness stuck (“You can’t just turn it off, the key,” he says) it was now accompanied by creeping fear. Glancing back down Boylston, he saw a flash, followed by another boom. He didn’t immediately connect the noise with an attack. But as people ran every which way around him, panicked and seemingly half-blind, through clouds of bluish smoke, and emergency sirens reached a crescendo, what had just happened became clear. And the smoke, rising in a cloud above Boylston, sucked away the runner’s high entirely. It was coming from the exact spot where Ellison was meant to be waiting for him.
The twin blasts came long after the day’s “elite” winners—Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia for the men, and Rita Jeptoo for the women—had broken the tape. But they were clearly designed to cause maximum injury and terror to the amateurs on the still-crowded course as well as the thousands of friends and family urging them on. Both originated on the sidewalk behind the security barriers that lined the north side of the street. The first, with its copious smoke, less than 50 m from the finish line. Then, eight seconds later and 100 m down the block, a second, seemingly more powerful explosion that sent an orange fireball and shards of glass spraying out into the road. As spectators screamed and ran, and VIPs fled the viewing stands, police and emergency workers rushed to tend to the wounded. Shaky video shot by a Boston Globe reporter on the scene captured the wails of sirens and the moans of victims as police and race officials pulled away the metal gates and snow fencing, blood already pooling at their feet. In shock himself, the videographer simply kept repeating, “Oh my God.” His intial horror later borne out by the casualty figures: three dead and 176 injured, 17 of them critically, including 10 with severed limbs.
James Hooley was in the medical tent near the finish line when he heard and saw the first blast about 180 m away. “It was almost out of eyesight,” he says. “I could just see the top of it. I thought it was a tank from one of the food vendors.” In his memory, the second explosion came even faster than what he saw on the television afterwards. “When it happened, people just dropped their stuff and ran. And the police were looking at a street covered in debris, worried that another bomb was hidden somewhere.”
There were 200 medical volunteers on site, and Hooley, the department chief for Boston’s emergency medical services, began directing them as the wounded started pouring in. As a senior EMT, his job was to categorize the injured and dispatch them “so you don’t clog the closest hospitals.” Patients were tagged with a coloured pin: red, yellow or green, depending on the severity of the injury. Most of the injuries Hooley saw were to the lower extremities: broken legs, burns and massive tissue trauma. Few of the injured were wearing runner’s gear, he noticed. “It was mostly folks on the sidewalk. Most of the patients were within 60 feet of the blasts. The area around it was flattened and destroyed.” In 35 years of responding to accidents and disasters, large and small, he had never seen anything even remotely similar.
But as bad as it was, it could easily have been much worse. The two bombs, reportedly fashioned out of pressure cookers packed with nails and ball bearings, then hidden in knapsacks, were crude and their circle of destruction relatively small. For the victims, first aid arrived within seconds. There were 34 ambulances on standby at the marathon. And Boston is a city of hospitals—there are 12 in the metropolitan area, including five level-one trauma centres—all of which had empty operating theatres as it was Patriots’ Day, a statewide holiday in Massachusetts.
“I’d be on the radio, saying I had two yellows, one red, and dispatch would say, Mass General, or Carney or the Boston Children’s Hospital,” Hooley says.
At Boston Medical Center, just two kilometres from the blast sites, the hospital invoked its emergency “Phase C” plan, locking down the building and calling all hands on deck. Within 20 minutes, the emergency room was flooded with broken and dazed survivors. Those who had lost limbs were sent straight to surgery. Radiologist Jarry Tkacz examined the X-rays and injuries of the others and gaped. “There was a lot of shrapnel, some BBs, some oval-shaped pieces, and what looked like little metal arrows, embedded throughout the soft tissue,” he says. Skin was chopped and cut up. It was obvious that the blasts hadn’t been accidental. “We get a lot of trauma here, a lot of gunshot wounds,” says Tkacz. “But I’ve never seen so much metal in soft tissue in my whole career.”
As the stories of the victims began to emerge, there was a theme. Packed in on the crowded sidewalk near the finish, friends and even families—including more than a dozen young children—had fallen together. Paul and J.P. Norden, brothers from the Boston suburbs, had gone to cheer on a friend in his lifelong dream to complete the gruelling 42-km race. Both ended up losing portions of their right leg: Paul, 31, from the knee down, and J.P., 33, closer to the ankle. In addition, both men suffered severe burns, as did Paul’s girlfriend, whom the family believes was partially sheltered by his husky six-foot-two frame. Inseparable for their entire lives, the two brothers even worked together as roofers; they will now contend with the same disability. “They’ve got a long road ahead of them. They’re going to need a lot of help from all of us,” a relative who didn’t wish to be named told Maclean’s. “Obviously they’re never going to be roofers again. ”
Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old waitress from Medford, another Boston-area community, had gone to the race with her best friend, Karen Rand, to cheer on Rand’s boyfriend. After the blasts, Campbell’s parents were told she had been injured and was in surgery at a downtown hospital. But it was hours later, when doctors finally invited them into the recovery room that they realized the unconscious and gravely injured woman in the bed was Rand, not their daughter. For some reason she had been holding her wallet. And Krystle was dead. “She was a very caring, very loving person, and was daddy’s little girl,” her heartbroken father, William, told the Associated Press. (Little was immediately known about the Chinese national who died.)
But none of the stories was more wrenching than Martin Richard’s. The eight-year-old Bruins fan with the gap-toothed smile was standing near the finish to cheer on his father, Bill, 42, as he crossed the line. After bestowing a proud hug, he had returned to stand next to his mother and younger sister, right next to one of the bombs. Martin died in hospital of his injuries. His seven-year-old sister Jane lost part of her leg. And their mother, Denise, a school librarian, remains in serious condition with injuries to her head and eye. The day after the attack, outside the family home in nearby Dorchester, there was a steady stream of crying adults and children—many of them baseball and soccer teammates—dropping off flowers and stuffed animals. The sidewalk was still decorated with the chalk drawings of the Richard family’s kids: butterflies, flowers and the word “peace.”
The what—an act of terrorism—is clear. But in the immediate aftermath of the Boston attack, the who and why remained a mystery. Could it be adherents of al-Qaeda, or the homegrown wannabe jihadists they inspire, once again striking on U.S. soil? Or do the culprits hail from the darker regions of America’s increasingly strident domestic politics? Anti-government militias, white supremacists, or a lone-wolf nut. (Much is being read into the Patriots’ Day timing, and the April 15 date, which is close to the anniversaries of several notable events, including the Oklahoma City bombing and the fiery end to the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.)
And U.S. officials, from the top on down, have been careful not to be seen leaning toward any particular conclusion. “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terrorism,” President Barack Obama told reporters. And it may take time, he stressed, to uncover the perpetrators and their motives. Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston Division, also refused to speculate, but vowed the attacks would not go unpunished. “We will go to the ends of the Earth to identify the subject or subjects who are responsible for this despicable crime and we will bring them to justice.”
But as investigators continue to sift through a massive crime scene—12 city blocks, dozens of surveillance cameras, and countless pieces of tiny debris—the public will need to be as patient as the men and women combing for clues. It may take days to crack this case. It could take years.
“If this is solved promptly, it’s a fluke,” says James Wedick, a retired FBI agent who spent 35 years in the bureau. “They’ll make every effort to determine who this was, but it may take a while. You need to be extremely patient.”
The investigation started as soon as the bombs went off. Casualties were still being carted away when recovery teams, working under the direction of Boston’s joint terrorism task force, began to seal off the bloody sidewalks and pinpoint potential evidence. Within hours, the downtown core was full of specially trained explosives experts—from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and various police forces—searching for whatever might be left of both homemade bombs.
According to numerous reports, the devices that ripped through the crowd were fashioned out of readily available materials. Photos emerged Tuesday night showing one of mangled, partially exploded pressure-cooker bombs, as well as a shredded backpack. Authorities will examine every last piece, hoping to find that one small clue—a brand name, perhaps, or a serial number—that might lead them to a suspect. In 1995, investigators in Oklahoma City found a truck axle deep in the debris; it contained a partial vehicle identification number that eventually helped solve the case.
“Right now, we’re dying for any information,” Wedick says. “There might be a model number or something on any piece of that device that could suggest it was sold, transported, or delivered somewhere. Even one wire could provide important information.”
Surveillance cameras could prove even more important. Investigators have already seized all available footage from buildings and businesses in the area, and have issued pleas to the public to send along their own photos and videos of the area in the hours leading up to the blasts. The hope is to spot a suspicious person lurking in the crowd, or if they’re lucky, the exact moment the bombs were placed. Specialists from the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Va., experts in handling huge amounts of photographic evidence, have been assigned that daunting task. “No piece of information or detail is too small,” the FBI says.
The investigation, of course, will go well beyond the blast zone. Authorities will keep a close eye on jihadist and other radical websites, while at the same time pressing their confidential informants for possible leads. Officials insist they didn’t hear any “pre-attack chatter” suggesting an imminent attack, but that, too, will be double-checked. (Authorities gave the same assurances after Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, only to be proven wrong.)
The timing of the blast will also be heavily scrutinized. For one, it occurred more than an hour after the marathon winners crossed the finish line. If the culprit (or culprits) wanted to inflict maximum damage—with maximum exposure—why wait until the star racers were long gone? (“I was struck by that immediately,” Wedick says. “It just flies in the face of reason, and suggests someone who is unsophisticated and unprofessional.”)
But it’s already clear there will be many false starts and dead ends. Reports of police having found additional bombs, widely disseminated after the blasts, have since been denounced as unfounded. The tabloid New York Post said a Saudi national was being held as a person of interest in the case. (He was in fact a victim of the blasts and not under any suspicion whatsoever, say police.) And although much has been made of a photo of the second blast which shows a man walking on the rooftop of a nearby building, reports that the FBI have discovered the remains of circuit boards and timers on the sidewalk would seem to rule out a remote-control detonation.
“I don’t think we can assume we know who perpetrated these events before we do the investigation,” Juan Zarate, a former national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said in a television interview. “What we’ve learned is that various groups of all stripes— domestic and international—learn to adapt, but they have a common goal in mind, which is to kill a lot of people and get lots of attention.”
And more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, these bombings have been greeted more with cold anger and steely resolve than distress and fear. America has changed, it seems, both in its preparedness for such a tragedy, and in the tone of its response.
On the ground in Boston the level of co-operation between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies was striking. The years of training, meetings and building up of personal relationships appeared to have headed off the all-too-usual turf wars. Boston Mayor Tom Menino called it unprecedented. “I’ve been mayor for over 20 years now; I’ve never seen law enforcement pull together, working together to solve our crime in our city as they have.” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick broke out superlatives like “extraordinary” and “seamless.”
“I think that what you are seeing is the product of 12 years of really hard work,” Paul Rosenzweig, former deputy assistant secretary of homeland security, said in an interview. “What struck me watching the press conferences was that the FBI special agent in charge briefed, and then the ATF briefed. They never are on the same page. They are not friends, and yet here we are, and they know what the roles are. We’ve got a system that works.”
President Obama, who received regular briefings on the investigation, personally called Massachusetts officials to pledge the full resources of the federal government to bring the perpetrators to justice. “We did not have to reach out to the President; the President reached out to us,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
And the country largely went about its business as usual—albeit with visibly heightened security around airports, train stations and tourist hot spots. “I’m impressed with the relatively calm way the country has taken it,” said Rosenzweig, now a principal with Red Branch Consulting firm in Washington. In the U.S. capital, a parade planned for the day after the attacks went ahead as scheduled. “We are a resilient nation,” said the mayor, Vincent Gray. “What happened in Boston is a tragedy,” he said, but, “if anything, it makes us more resilient.”
Even in Boston, where the airport was briefly closed, and the symphony, as well as an NHL game between the Bruins and Ottawa Senators were postponed on the Monday evening, fear quickly gave way to watchfulness. Bomb-sniffing dogs and luggage swabs at the commuter rail station. An appeal from the transit authority for passengers to download, and, if necessary, use their See Say app to report suspicious activity. (Although in an overabundance of caution, a flight at Logan airport was reportedly pulled off the runway and returned to the terminal after a passenger overheard two men speaking in Arabic.)
If one could blot out the sirens, detours, helicopters and the media throng—14 satellite trucks parked along the Boston Common with reporters ready to pounce on anyone who looked even remotely like a runner—there was even evidence of a sense of normalcy in the immediate vicinity to the blasts. Students, tourists and locals moseyed and lounged along Newbury Street, the über-swank strip one block over from Boylston.
At one corner, uniformed police guarded piles of foil-backed thermal blankets, discarded by panicked marathoners the day before. Another police officer stood in front of the five-star Taj Boston hotel, a submachine gun looped over his shoulder, guiding visitors to another entrance in a surprisingly friendly voice. Starbucks was closed, as was Valentino and Brooks Brothers. But there was coffee and customers at the Georgetown Cupcake shop.
Peter Canellos, editor of the Boston Globe’s opinion pages, said he could detect none of the dread and panic that existed after 9/11. “Obviously this was not as big an attack, but people were not looking strangely at each other on the subway or crying for no reason.” The city was functioning as well as could be expected, and its citizens showing more deference to authority than stereotypes suggest is possible. “I would have expected more of a ‘My God, it couldn’t happen here’ reaction,” said Canellos. “But people have been aware now for more than 10 years that it could happen here. They were sort of mentally prepared for it.”
Even the out-of-towners seemed to be adopting the same spirit, with runners vowing to return for next year’s marathon, and messages of support flooding in from around the world. “All the commentaries coming in are of the nature of: ‘Boston is tough. Boston can take this. We will grieve and mourn, but we will come back,’ ” said Canellos. “There is a kind of calm confidence behind it.”
Maybe that has something to do with the nature of the event that was attacked: a mass-participation sporting event that is both democratic—meet the qualifying time and you get to race—and non-partisan. Organizers of the London Marathon, scheduled to take place April 21, vowed to step up their security arrangements, but there was no talk of cancelling the race, which attracts 36,000 runners. (Although that might have as much to do with authorities in the British capital already being on high alert for the crush of world leaders expected to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.) In Canada, the organizer of Toronto’s spring marathon—where some 14,000 are entered—said he planned to meet with police, but didn’t necessarily think there was any reason to add to the 200 uniformed cops already scheduled to line the route.
For the harsh truth exposed by the Boston blasts is that despite the trillions Western nations have spent on security in the 12 years since 9/11, there are no guarantees. “You can’t stop every terrorist attack,” says Joseph Wippl, formerly a high-ranking CIA officer, now a professor of international relations at Boston University. “It’s simply impossible. There are an infinite number of targets, and enough people with bad intentions that we can’t guard ourselves against everything.”
But Wippl acknowledged that reality shouldn’t necessarily stoke public fears. The security measures that have become routine at large public gatherings do reduce the risk. While police and intelligence services have proven relatively adept at detecting and disrupting terrorist plots, the natural compulsion after attacks like the Boston bombings is to layer on even more protection. That would be counterproductive and wrong, Wippl argues. “Changing our lives makes the people who carried out these deeds the winners.”
It’s something almost everyone understands: build the walls too high and you’ll find yourself living in a prison.
In Boston, on the day after the blast, patrolman Larry Welch (“Like the juice,” he says) was one of three police officers standing outside of 101 Arlington, known locally as the Castle Building. Hastily converted into a refuge for displaced racers and their families, the cavernous structure was overflowing with doctors, grief counsellors and volunteers. But few seemed to need their good services.
Welch, a Jamaican-Cuban with a mighty Boston accent, shifted uneasily in his shoes and stared straight out at the traffic on Columbus Avenue as he struggled to put the local sentiment into words. A couple of Boston police cruisers raced by, followed by two camouflaged army Humvees. “They took my marathon away,” he said. “Every year, it’s two things: the Red Sox and the marathon.”
He’d been in the neighbourhood of Dorchester on a detail when the call came in. “It was just like that: they said, ‘Come in,’ ” Welch says. For Welch, like many Bostonians, the marathon was a personal affair. He’d run it himself when he was younger than his 49 years, and brought his two girls to watch every year until they grew up. “Guys are pissed,” Welch said of his fellow police officers. “It’s personal for us.”
Before the race, Robert Cremin and Carole Ellison agreed to meet at 3 p.m. at the Starbucks about a block and a half east of the finish line. He couldn’t get to the meeting point; the police were in the process of cordoning off sections and herding crowds away from the bomb site. Cellphone coverage was down. “I had this feeling she was caught,” Cremin said.
Ellison was a block away when she heard the first explosion. “It sounded like a clap of thunder overhead. I thought the second one was construction or something. Someone said, ‘It’s a bomb, it’s a bomb!’ and I thought it couldn’t be a bomb. It’s a such a happy day,” the 73-year-old said.
Both Ellison and Cremin moved eastward with the crowds, and eventually connected, 15 minutes behind schedule and in a far different world. They hugged, and Cremin babbled. “He was in shock, or it was his runner’s high,” Ellison said.
The next day, the couple wandered the area around the roped-off disaster zone. Cremin, a retired senior financial manager who recently became a rodeo bull broker in Washington state, was wearing an orange-and-blue race windbreaker. The fear he felt on the finish line the day before was gone. He and Ellison are continuing their vacation in Maine and Vermont as planned. He’s going to run the New York Marathon in November. And he’s running Boston next year. “Whoever did this,” he said, “they aren’t going to stop us from being us.”