photos by miranda roberson
“Welcome back to Boston runners!”
My co-volunteer, Harry, shouted this into a microphone. He clicked the mic off and handed it to me, signaling that it was my turn to greet the runners and tell them how to navigate their way through the finish area.
Harry and I sat on a lifeguard chair in the intersection of Boylston and Dartmouth Streets. To our left was a medical tent that spanned the width of Dartmouth and the length of the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library. About 120 yards in front of us was the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, and it was our job to direct the runners to the water tables behind us so they wouldn’t clog the area.
“Runners! Welcome back to Boston! You did it! Congratulations. Keep moving forward for water and Gatorade.” I paused. “Water and Gatorade straight ahead. Keep moving forward for water, Gatorade, and your medal. You earned it!” I handed the mic back to Harry.
“I don’t think it’s as loud as it was,” he said. “I’m going to ask for a different battery.”
Harry twisted his feet on the rung and shifted his weight. Before he could turn around completely, we heard a deafening boom. I snapped my head up and gazed forward as a cloud of smoke rolled down the street. In unison, it seemed, everybody who had just finished the marathon began running again, and faster than before. The spectators on the north side of Boylston did the same, many of them screaming and pushing.
“What was that?” I don’t know which one of us asked before hearing another boom, like a cannon, from about a block away. Then another smoky cloud rolled onto Boylston. “I think that we should get down from here,” said Harry, calmly, logically.
We turned and climbed down off the stand. I felt small and helpless on the ground. To our right, in order to make room for police cars, officers pulled apart the railing meant to keep the spectators out of the finish area. Medical volunteers, wearing their white Adidas coats, rushed into the escalating chaos.
I saw someone emerge from the smoke, stumbling and gray. Half of his face appeared to be scraped off. He cut across the intersection sideways, as though he was being pulled, and disappeared into the medical tent.
I couldn’t move my legs, couldn’t run. Harry grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and pulled me back. Next I knew, I was standing in front of the Gatorade table and four men were frantically moving our chair to the side of the road, not bothering to pick it up, but allowing it to scrape across the intersection. I saw a medical worker, then another, sprint into the smoke with empty wheelchairs. As they disappeared, I saw two men carrying a woman, her arms draped over their shoulders as a third held one of her legs up near her face. She was covered in blood, her foot missing. I couldn’t stop shaking. That’s when a runner approached me, an uninjured one. “Where’s my medal?” he asked.
For a moment, I acted like nothing had just happened, as if it was reasonable for him to be asking me, a volunteer, where the medals were located. Part of me wanted to be him. He had a purpose. He had just finished a marathon and had earned a medal. Without my chair and microphone, without runners crossing the finish line, I didn’t know what to do.
“Keep walking that way,” I pointed behind me. “I think that we should leave,” Harry said. “As far as I’m concerned, the marathon is over.”
“Can we do that? What about …” I trailed off. Standing there as emergency personnel ran about, I wondered who’s direct the runners? What about our post? We weren’t supposed to leave it. What if Rich, our coordinator, needed us? What about after this got cleaned up and the race resumed? Didn’t we need to stick around? To help?
“I’m getting out of here. I can give you a ride if you’d like,” Harry offered. “No, I’m good. I’ll take the T,” I said. It hadn’t occurred to me that the subway might be shut down, and I felt that I needed to stay.
Meanwhile, some within close range thought the explosions came from an electrical transformer. I didn’t know what that meant, but I remembered one exploded the year before, somewhere in the Back Bay, and that it caused a loss of power and a fire. Things didn’t add up; there were no flames in Copley Square, just a lot of smoke. And why, or how, would two transformers bust just blocks apart from one another? I didn’t know what to make of it. I stood there shaking, wondering how long it would take to get things cleared up, and feeling guilty for watching something, it seemed, I was not supposed to see.
I watched Harry run off and looked around at the chaos. One lane of traffic on Boylston had been cleared of volunteers and runners; emergency vehicles flew by, running over discarded green Gatorade cups. “We need more wheelchairs,” a medical volunteer to my left said, and within seconds, two people ran by me with empty wheelchairs and disappeared into the smoke. Then a cop on a walkie rushed in front of me: “Do you have anymore wheelchairs? We need them up here.” Then another cop: “We need you to move to the sidewalk, we need this space for emergency personnel.”
There was nothing I could do. There were no more uninjured runners emerging from the haze. I had no medical training. Harry was right. The marathon was over.
I didn’t think to check my cellphone until arriving at the Back Bay station for the subway. I didn’t want to look at it, or especially care what the media or anybody else said. I just kept replaying what I’d seen in my head. Then I started thinking about my fellow volunteers, and about how I’d been looking forward to this Monday for weeks.
The train came, and I robotically boarded then sat slowly. At first I wondered if the other passengers–many of whom were looking at me–knew what happened. Then I realized they did; I was wearing the bright yellow Adidas volunteer jacket, while around my neck hung my credentials and a plastic tag with my name and years of service (one) that allowed me access to the finish area. Though I didn’t ask, I wanted to know what they were thinking. I wondered where they were when it happened, and where they were going.
In the days that followed, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel or respond when people asked me how I was doing. I had been there and it was extremely terrifying, but I wasn’t injured. Or displaced from my family or friends. All I had to do after the bombs went off was go home.
At first, I recognized a a mix of anger and sadness in myself. Up on that chair with Harry, I had the best view, the best job. While directing runners through the first few blocks of the finish area was our primary responsibility, Harry and I also spent a lot of time congratulating them. We both knew what it felt like to finish a marathon, and liked to tease them by saying, “Who wants to turn around and run back to Hopkinton?” Almost every time I asked, there were a few joking but enthusiastic shouts. Otherwise, a lot people naturally cried as they finished, something I remember doing after my second marathon, when I finished in under four hours. Harry liked to pick those runners out and say, “There’s no crying at the marathon.” In return, they’d generally smile or laugh.
Come Marathon Monday, I’ll be back on a lifeguard chair on Boylston Street. I want to do it because I know how meaningful it is for a runner to complete the race, and because the finish line is a truly special marker of the end of months of not just training runs, but also sacrifices, early mornings, early bedtimes, declined drinks, healthy eating habits, and constant explanations to people who don’t understand why you would ever want to run 26.2 consecutive miles. I want to be there when the runners have those moments, whether they’re running to prove something to themselves, or to someone else. Mostly, though, I want to be there for the people who weren’t fortunate enough to make it that far last year.