From mile 25.5, a little more than a half mile away, the explosions sounded like cannon fire. They came one after the other.
It was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard in Boston. On any other day most people would think right away something terrible had happened. But on Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, a holiday that celebrates the first shots of the American Revolution, you might expect to hear a cannon, even downtown, even at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. That’s what I wanted to believe when I heard it. It’s just part of the party. But that isn’t really what I thought the moment I heard the explosions. The first thing that went through my head, was “My God, that’s a bomb.”
At the sound of the blasts, most spectators lining the race course paused for a moment, then turned back to cheering on runners. But a handful of mostly younger people like me immediately reached for their phones and went to Twitter.
The Red Sox game had just let out and there were even more people on the streets than when the elite runners came through a couple hours earlier. Mobile networks were jammed with traffic and I had trouble getting a signal. I saw unmarked police vehicles rushing up the wrong way of Commonwealth Avenue, headed in the direction of the finish line. Police began pressing their fingers to their ears, listening to the radio squawk. As stoic as they tried to remain, some of them looked shaken. I got through on the phone and saw the first tweets. Explosion. Blood everywhere.
For maybe two minutes, it was as if it was just news from some other city where these kinds of things happen. Not Boston. Not less than a mile away from where I was standing. There are people shaking cowbells right next to me, for God’s sake! There’s no way there could have been an attack.
More police were rushing toward the finish line in cars and motorcycles. The first ambulance came through. But again, this is Marathon Monday. Of any day of the year in Boston, this is the one day where you tune out sirens and loud booms. Of the thousands of people in Kenmore Square, only a few started to look nervous. More people began reaching for their phones. The word started getting around.
“Oh my God!”
Then a police officer in the standard neon yellow they wear for the marathon walked into the middle of the course and held up his hands. For thousands of runners who had trained for months, some even years for this moment, they could not believe their eyes. Less than five minutes from the finish line and they were being told to stop. I snapped a picture of disoriented, woozy runners hunched over in pain. Thousand more began piling up behind them. On Twitter, the news kept coming. Many injured. The marathon press room was in lockdown, and reporters were snapping pictures of Copley Square from a hotel room. The first images of the chaos at the finish line came up on Twitter.
I caught a smell of something like chemicals in the air. Meanwhile, people along the course kept cheering on the runners, all now standing and getting cold. Runners began walking over to the sidelines, asking to borrow phones. Someone handed a shivering older runner his jacket. A girl ran past me, tears streaking her mascara.
I started getting calls and tweets, texts and emails. Everyone wanted to know where I was, was I safe? Was I at the finish line? It struck me with a chill that this is the rare day where everything is measured down to the last foot. Having run the marathon twice myself, I knew exactly how far away I was from the attack. The underpass at Mass Ave. Point seven miles. That final little hill that every runner hates right before you turn onto Boylston. Some drunk kid behind me, seeing that everyone was getting quiet shouted out, “Let’s get f—ing drunk!” People were still laughing and rattling cow bells. I got a lump in my throat. Point seven miles was a world away.
I knew it was time to get the hell out of there. I’m not a reporter any more and I couldn’t do any good mulling around. I crossed Mass Ave to get to my bike when I saw a young family wearing Red Sox caps walking in the direction of Copley. I stopped them and asked if they’d heard what was happening.
“Yeah,” the father said, “There was an explosion, right?”
“It sounds like a lot of people are hurt,” I said. “I would stay away from Copley.”
“But,” he looked down at his son, who was maybe eight. “That’s where our hotel is. We’re staying at a hotel in Copley.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say except, “I think you should go get a coffee.”
He nodded, looking confused.
What else were they going to do?
- Live Blog: Explosions At Boston Marathon Finish Line
- Obama: “American people will say a prayer for Boston tonight’
- Listen Live: WBUR coverage
- Twitter: Latest updates from Boston Police Department
- Photos: Explosions at Boston Marathon finish
Boston Marathon Bombings
Three people were killed and more than 170 injured when two bombs exploded on April 15, 2013 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Cognoscenti Contributors Respond
- Kevin Donovan: Explosions Sounded Like Cannon Fire
- Jim Walsh: They Picked On The Wrong City
- Robin Young: Our History Will Be A Guide For The Future
- David Ropeik: Why Terrorism Works
- Eileen McNamara: The Redemption Of The Man In The Cowboy Hat
- Alex Ashlock: The Scenes I Will Remember
- Sharon Brody: Suddenly Calling Boston Home — With A Vengeance
- E.M. Swift: Spectator Sports Will Never Be The Same
- Anita Diamant: After The Bombs, Pop-Up Landmarks Of Consolation And Solidarity
Related Coverage from WBUR, NPR and AP