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William Rivers Pitt | “WTF Bombs?”: Taking Back the Boston Marathon

“Boston is recovering, but has not yet recovered. All of us who were in the city on that terrible day, and the days that followed, are changed for having been through it.”

Remembering the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings in Copley Square of Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo: Ingfbruno / Wikimedia Commons)

One year from now, when the new spring sunlight shines down upon Boston’s best day, we will be in the streets to cheer the runners and remember the lost. We will never forget, but we will not cower or crouch. We will be there with family and friends to celebrate the place and the time and the event that is uniquely and completely ours. It will not be taken from us by anyone, ever. This is Boston.

– “Climbing Heartbreak Hill,” William Rivers Pitt, 17 April 2013

The first hint that something had gone terribly wrong came via a text message on my phone. My friend David, an endurance runner with several marathons under his belt was running his first Boston Marathon, and it was a very big deal, because he is a Boston boy born and bred, and had come home to do this incredible thing we had grown up watching and cheering together.

I was in my apartment in Brighton, in the process of missing the marathon for the first time in my life, because my daughter was only two weeks old and I wasn’t going to be more than ten feet from her side. David’s wife Michelle was down on Boylston Street waiting for him with their two young sons. She and I had been texting back and forth on his progress. I couldn’t be there, but I wanted to know the minute he crossed the line, so I could share in his achievement in some small way.

At 2:45 p.m., Michelle texted me that he had just crossed the finish line.

Four minutes later, at 2:49 p.m., I received another text from her. It read, “wtf bombs?”

I turned on NECN, the New England version of CNN, more out of curiosity than concern, because Boston is a very old city with very old utilities, and stuff goes “Boom” all the time. A transformer could have shorted out, a water main could have burst, or a couple of cars could have collided – very common events, all, that Michelle may have mistaken for explosions. In the space of five minutes, NECN’s coverage transformed from happy, lighthearted reporting on the doings of the day to confusion, and then to darkness.

Because she was not mistaken. She was, in fact, right in between the two bomb sites when the first went off, and then the second, and she was caught in the tidal surge of panic with her two children as some ran away from, and others toward, the sound and the smoke and the screaming. Michelle and her boys took shelter in a storefront, and spent the rest of the day trying to find David, which they eventually did, unharmed.

My friend David, his wife Michelle, and their two sons will carry the events of that day with them forever.

My friend Mike was only steps away from the second bomb when it went off, and he saw every horrible thing that is aftermath, the blood, the bodies, the severed limbs, people on fire on the sidewalk, other people frantically putting them out and applying tourniquets to the places where a leg or a foot used to be.

Everyone in Boston was not there when it happened, but everyone who was in Boston for the marathon last year has a story to tell about that day.

Almost everyone.

I did not know Martin Richard, the eight-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street a year ago today in an explosion that left his father without a leg, on fire, and riddled with shrapnel, that took his sister Jane’s leg, that put a ball bearing through his mother Denise’s eye, that left his older brother Henry remarkably unmarked but deeply scarred all the same. I did not know Lu Lingzi, the Boston University graduate student from China who died steps away from Martin Richard. I did not know Sean Collier, the MIT police officer allegedly gunned down by Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev during their wild, bomb-hurling flight across the city three days after the Marathon attack.

I knew Krystle Campbell. She worked behind the bar at the Summer Shack on Dalton Street next to my bar, right off Boylston and two blocks from where she died one year ago today. My bar only serves beer and wine, so my friends and I would often tromp down the sidewalk to the Shack for Jameson shots when the mood arose. More often than not, it was Krystal who would pour for us, flashing her brilliant smile and bright blue eyes.

She was transferred to another restaurant well before the bombs went off, and I never saw her again until I saw her picture in the paper one year ago this week, and it will bother me for the rest of my life that I can’t remember our last conversation. Her hometown of Medford is building a peace park in her honor, in honor of everyone who was lost and wounded, in honor of the marathon itself, and in honor of a city that is stronger now at the broken places, but ineffably and irretrievably sadder as well.

Boston is recovering, but has not yet recovered. All of us who were in the city on that terrible day, and the days that followed, are changed for having been through it. When, some months later, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry tried to sell the country on the idea that flipping cruise missiles into Syria would not actually be like a real war, my reaction was immediate and dynamic: Really? It sure as hell will be like a real war to the civilians on the receiving end of the detonations…and I think now, to no small degree, my reaction was grounded in what happened at the marathon. The new American pastime is being blasé about blowing up strangers in faraway places…until it happens to your town, your friends, your heart. My family and I moved from Boston to New Hampshire four months after the marathon, yet a part of me is forever in that old city, and always will be.

“wtf bombs?”

I still have that text on my phone. I can’t bring myself to delete it. Even in its 21st-century garbled American online-ese, it sums up perfectly the astonishment of the day. The Boston Marathon is the singular event of the city, a party from pillar to post heralding spring and athletic achievement and the deepest sense of community, and one year ago today, two people chose to tear it up. Beyond the death and agony those two caused is the sorrow-freighted fact that such a wonderful, unique event will never, ever be the same.

Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, Sean Collier and Krystle Campbell have no stories to tell. They are the story, they and those who survived and now live lives permanently changed. I have tried over this last year to honor them with my words, to remember them, and I have shed tears for them more times than I can count. Even now, a year later, my hands shake when I try to explain all this.

I can think of only one way to honor them properly. On Sunday, I will climb into my car and navigate the springtime-muddy dirt road that leads to Route 101. I will turn east, cross the border from New Hampshire to Massachusetts, and find Route 2. As I pass the Belmont exit, where the road rises, I will see the skyline of Boston laid out before me. I will slip through Cambridge, pass through Watertown, park my car at Murph’s house in Brighton, and on Monday morning, I will go to the marathon.

That day will not belong to the bombers. It will belong to us. I will honor the lost and the scarred and the city entire as best I can by reclaiming that day with my simple presence.

If you’re looking for me on Monday, you’ll find me on Boylston Street.

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