“4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through The Eyes Of The Runners”

Excerpted with permission from “4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through The Eyes Of The Runners”
© 2014 Hal Higdon

Bombs on Boylston Street

The first bomb exploding was loud, unbelievably loud, unbearably loud, piercingly loud. Rock concerts, fireworks, gunfire, dragster racing, space shuttle launches: All produce noise levels approaching 150 decibels. The explosion on the north side of Boylston Street most certainly was near that level. That is loud enough to cause serious ear damage, even to pierce eardrums. Several runners unlucky enough to be near the first explosion realized several weeks later that they still could not hear out of their left ears. They were not bleeding, they had not been struck by shrapnel, they were not among the count of “victims,” but they were among the injured, even though they failed to realize that fact at the time.

A wide-angle image published several days later in the New York Times captured the moment of horror. The image came not from a photograph, but from the WBZ-TV broadcast of the race. Several dozen finishing runners appear in the image. A diligent researcher at the Times dutifully recorded many of their names, tagging them for online viewers: Vivian Adkins. Hillary Anderson. Alan Hagyard. Joe Curcio. Demi Clark. Those are just a few, and none of them yet have reacted to the horror. Tracy McGuire is in the photo just in front of Adkins, although the Times failed to tag her. A yellow explosion behind the barricades, behind the row of flags beside the course, behind the spectators. The cloud of smoke had not yet started to rise over the heads of those who would be critically hurt. The time on the finish line clock shows 4:09:43, indelibly setting that time in the minds of all runners, not merely those shown in the picture, not merely those who had finished, not merely the 23,000 who started Boston that day, but every person throughout the world who might get unlucky some day and become a victim of terrorists simply by standing in the wrong place and the wrong time.

The horror! The horror!

4:09:43.

And 13 seconds after that, the second bomb exploded with a noise as piercing as the first. Because the explosion was farther down the course, away from the mass of photographers hovering over the finish line, it was not recorded as readily by the Times and other news sources. On CNN and other channels that over the next several weeks would play and replay and replay the images of horror surrounding 4:09:43, the second explosion appears only as a cloud of smoke in the distance.

But it was no less real.

And the world never again would be quite the same.

Approaching the finish line, Tracy O’Hara McGuire, 37, a stay-at-home mom from Portland, Oregon, directed her attention toward the grandstands to the right, in front of the Boston Public Library, seats reserved for VIPs, friends of the B.A.A. She knew Chris, her husband, would be seated there. He worked for adidas, one of the marathon’s major sponsors, thus had entry to that area.

“Chris saw me, but I did not see him,” Tracy McGuire would write later. What she did see—and feel—was the explosion of a bomb on the left side of Boylston Street.

It was 4:09:43.

Hers was one of the more remarkable stories posted to Facebook in the days and weeks following April 15, 2013: “I stopped dead in my tracks. I was not confused. I was not disoriented. I was nearly deaf from the explosion, but I knew immediately that it was a bomb. The other runners around me seemed not to understand. They didn’t know whether it was a celebratory cannon, or fireworks, or what. They kept running. I had no doubt what I saw, and it was bad, very bad. One minute I had been looking at hundreds of people along the finishing stretch, on both sides of the street, left and right. And suddenly the people on the left were blown up, right before my eyes. Would they emerge from the rising cloud of smoke unharmed? No, they would not.”

McGuire’s instincts took over. She immediately turned and began running backward on the course, what she hoped and expected would be away from harm. But, no: “Suddenly another bomb went off in front of me. I thought to myself, wait, I was just there. I had just slapped the hands of those people. Chaos ensued, with people screaming, crying, frantic people everywhere.”

At this point Chris McGuire lost track of his wife. People seated around him in the grandstands rose as one, fearful that the next explosion might envelop them in its evil arms. They scrambled for the exits. In fact, reports soon would circulate on TV and online (part of the fog of war) that as many as a half dozen bombs had been planted under the grandstands. Those reports would prove untrue, but the sensible thing for anyone located near the marathon finish line was to get the hell away as fast as possible! If stunned runners and spectators could not immediately figure it out, the police began shouting for them to do just that.

Dr. George Sheehan, who for so many years served the Boston Marathon as its philosopher figure, often joked that as a skinny runner, he was more suited for “flight rather than fight.” There was nothing funny about Sheehan’s option now. Tracy McGuire very definitely had chosen the flight mode: “I took off to the other side of the street, hurdled a couple of barricades, jumped over a garbage can, and bolted for survival. I was moving like Usain Bolt, and this was after 26.198 miles. At any moment, I expected more bombs to explode all around me.”

Fleeing, Tracy negotiated with God. Since she expected more bombs to explode, she prayed that He either let her or Chris survive. “I didn’t care which one of us it was, and actually preferred that it be my husband, for the sake of our kids. I prepared to die, and actually was at peace with it.” However, that did not stop Tracy from trying to save herself. She started to run again, through a restaurant, through the kitchen, out a back door. Her instinct was to get as far away from Boylston Street as quickly as possible before another bomb exploded. She screamed for people to evacuate, but many did not believe her and told her to calm down. “I wanted to tell them I had just seen people get blown up before my very eyes, but a handful of people still were celebrating at the bar!”

She continued running away from the carnage and encountered a mother and two small children, a girl and a boy around 5 or 7, the same ages as her own two children. The children were screaming, in hysterics. She hugged the little girl, who had brown, curly hair, and told her everything would be okay. Their mother stood there in shock, paralyzed. McGuire snapped her fingers in front of the mother’s face and urged her to move. Eventually she did. McGuire ran with them for about a block, but eventually they became separated.

She started to feel more comfortable the farther away she got from the finish line. Tracy was relieved that she did not hear any further explosions, but where was her husband? Seated in the grandstand, he would have been as close to the first explosion as she was. She borrowed a cell phone from a stranger. Chris answered her call. Tracy experienced a sudden feeling of relief.

So did he. “Where are you?” he asked.

“I’m two blocks away.”

Chris said that he was still at the finish line. “It’s nasty,” he said.

Tracy would learn later that Chris had fielded her call standing in the middle of Boylston Street, looking for her, watching police shove barricades aside to get at victims, watching medical personnel carrying those same bleeding victims past him in stretchers, on wheelchairs, wondering where his wife had disappeared to after the two explosions. Was she safe? She was, and they agreed to meet at their hotel, the Marriott Copley. Within a few minutes they were reunited.

As close as she had come to the finish line, within the last hundred meters, Tracy McGuire is not listed as one of the finishers of the 117th running of the Boston Athletic Association Marathon. She would not be alone.

MORE: “4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through The Eyes Of The Runners”

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