The Who2 Blog

The Boston Marathon Explosion: An Earwitness View

Yup, we were down there this afternoon.

My wife Julie and I met at Boylston and Massachusetts Avenue about 2 pm to join the festive Boston Marathon crowds and watch the late runners come in.  

The Red Sox game was just letting out, so a cross-current of Red Sox jackets were swirling into the wandering mob of race fans and early finishers in their post-race mylar blankets.

Bars were busy, of course — you hardly need an occasion for that in Boston. Pleasant day, bar windows open.

I wanted to head straight down Boylston to the finish line where all the action is, but my wife, being practical-minded, reminded me how absurdly jammed the finish line gets. Even if you can fight your way close, it’s impossible to move down there. And she can’t see over crowds anyway.

So we walked a few blocks up to Commonwealth Ave. and found a spot (I won’t say “grassy knoll”) where people were watching the runners come through the Mass. Ave underpass and up a final rise before turning for the finish line.

A festive crowd. 

Some had better seats than others. 

By now it was about 2:40. These runners had started between 10:00 and 10:40, so they were in hour four of their run. The runners were old guys in knee braces, gray-haired women, smiling college kids… regular folks, not elite athletes. Some looked exhausted, a few walked…

…and some were energized to be so close to the finish line, like this gent high-fiving the crowd.

We moved down to the corner of Hereford, where runners turn right off of Commonwealth Ave. and head toward Boylston. At this point they’re just over five blocks from the finish line.

Suddenly: a loud BOOM! down toward the finish line.  It was a resonant bass boom rather than a bang or a kapow. Julie and I looked at each other, wondering if it was a weird-wrong boom or a normal-wrong boom, like a car collision or (as she put it) a bus running into an overpass.  (That happened near Harvard Square a few months back.) 

Then a second BOOM.  So… probably not a car collision. We all looked that direction but couldn’t see smoke or anything unusual. 

I checked the time: It was 2:49 pm. I’ve always had this nutty notion that if I was ever at a major accident, a bank robbery or a plane crash or something, I would remember to check the exact time. I think I’ve imagined myself reporting to the gathered police, “It was 8:14 exactly,” possibly while adopting a Sherlock Holmes-type manner. So I can say that this was 2:49 exactly.

But we still weren’t jumping to conclusions. This shot was taken about 20 seconds after the second explosion. We’d had a major transformer explosion downtown last year… could that be it again?

The runners kept flooding past. We could see cops listening to their earpieces, looking extra-attentive, but most spectators turned back to the race. Then the first sign of real trouble:

We ran out of runners. The police had blocked off the race somewhere up past Mass. Avenue. A last few runners trickled through, still going strong, followed by cops in lime-green vests filling the intersection. 

No sirens, no shouted announcements, no other signs of trouble. The cops sort of milled around for a bit.  Things were strangely calm.

Everyone turned to their phones. 

Things started happening. The police moved the spectator barrier from Hereford…

And cop cars started flying through, sirens running. We started to see people flooding out from Boylston.  But nobody knew what had happened.

We went a block down to Gloucester Street and then turned up towards Boylston to see what was going on.  At Boylston, about three blocks from the finish line, things were a little jumpier. Lots of milling around, but some people were jogging or running.

The police were clearing the streets and sending people down the way we’d just come. Foot traffic started to get a little brisker.

These two women looked a little panicky and tried to make a break down Boylston to the west.

A cop hauled them in…

…and sent them past us down Gloucester.

We did see a few people crying or comforting each other. Still, none of the rest of us had any idea what was going on. We got a good inside view of the strangely calm chaos around such an event: people milling around, asking each other what they knew, talk of seeing smoke… but nobody knew what was going on, even just a few blocks from the event.

This woman climbed out the side window at Whiskeys, apparently not wanting to go out onto Boylston. 

I got to the corner to take a look east down Boylston toward the finish line.

Lots of lime-green vests, but not much else to be seen at this distance. We’re actually fairly close to the event here: that’s the Mandarin Oriental hotel a block down on the right (with the flags). The second explosion was across the street near there, between Fairfield and Exeter.

At the far left top left of these photos you can see the arched windows of the Boston Public Library, where the finish line is and where the first bomb went off.

I had no sense of craziness or panic from the crowd or the police here. In fact, I’m surprised now to see how close to the bomb site we were at this point.

At this point the cops started aggressively pushing people away from the scene and we went with the flow.

Right here I went into 9/11 TV flashback mode. “Wow, this looks like all those people walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Again, you can see things look pretty calm. Lots of people on cell phones, and snatches of conversation: “We’re down here but can’t see anything” and “Mom, I’m OK, mom.”

We saw a dude with a bloody foot get carried into this ambulance.  Another guy (being hugged here) got off the ground and seemed to be OK.

A young Boston Guy started yelling at me as I took this shot. “Do you HAVE to take that photograph?” I stupidly said “Yes, I do.”  He shouted, “People are injured and you’re taking pictures. You’re disgusting.” Fortunately his girlfriend pulled him off in the other direction in that Boston Girlfriend way.

Maybe he was right? But it honestly didn’t occur to me not to take a picture. I didn’t feel ghoulish. Everyone had their cell phones out.

A few moments later the same couple walked by me and I heard him say to her, “Yes, I am going to yell at people. That’s what I do.”

Choppers finally appeared overhead as we walked back towards Mass. Avenue — a little late in the game, it seemed like. The news response seemed slow in general, I suppose because we were there to hear the start of it all.

Lots of people watching and wondering.  Julie had parked in her usual work space, which is underneath the reflecting pool at the Christian Science Church plaza.  (Northeastern University rents a lot of space in that complex.)  

Down in that part of town there were still a lot of walkers, but not crowds. The car traffic was bad and cops were directing traffic.

We weren’t sure if it was better to jump in the car then (in case they locked down the city) or wait for traffic to clear. We decided to wait a bit and ended up going to grab a late lunch at a Japanese restaurant nearby, because, well, what are you gonna do?  There, on TV, we finally got a look at the footage of the explosion and could see clearly what happened. We realized it was a good thing that we hadn’t fought our way down to the crowded finish line after all.

An hour later we walked back to the car and were able to get out of the garage and drive east toward the Fenway.

We got into a traffic jam on Storrow Drive, but you can do that any day of the year.  We made it home in surprisingly good time, about 45 minutes or so. No doubt it helped that today is a Massachusetts holiday — Patriots Day — and lots of workers were home

We turned on the TV and saw the president talking about the bombs we’d just heard downtown a few hours earlier. 

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