Nothing can defeat the heart of this city. Nothing. Nothing will take us down because we take care of one another.
—from my remarks at the interfaith service held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston after the Marathon bombing
“Mayor, we’ve just had a major explosion at the Marathon!” my security aide, Sergeant Mike Cunnife, shouted from the doorway of my hospital room. “Not one, but two.” I flicked on my TV and saw wild footage of racers staggering out of a storm of debris and police running into it. While I watched in horror, an announcer said that an incendiary device had just been detonated at the JFK Library in Dorchester. The news crawl reported that police had found “multiple explosive devices in Boston.” Dear God, I thought, how big would this get? If two bombs (or three), why not ten? If on Boylston Street, why not elsewhere — why not anywhere? If these wounded spectators, the ones who must be sprawled on the sidewalk under the white cloud, why not others lining the route five deep for miles? As the smoke cleared, I caught sight of a Marathon banner on a lamppost with my signature beneath the slogan This Is Your Moment.
The first bomb went off at the finish line across the street from a small grandstand. If I hadn’t broken my leg, I would have been sitting there cheering a runner from my staff who crossed the finish line minutes ahead of the blast. With my grandkids. In the front row. A district fire chief, I later learned, sent the bomb squad to search for a possible third unexploded bomb planted under the grandstand.
As the first bomb exploded in an endless loop on television, something else came back to me, something my son Tommy, a police detectives, had told me in passing. He’d be on Boylston, he said, near the finish line.
A press conference was scheduled for five o’clock at the Westin Hotel. My nurses at Brigham and Women’s Hospital had less than two hours to fit me with a walking cast and a catheter. I called Governor Deval Patrick and said if I wasn’t there, to start without me. Delay was our enemy. Either public officials would fill the information hole or rumor would.
My doctor advised me to stay put. It was important to keep the leg elevated. (I had a history of blood clots.) It was vital not to put weight on my foot. On Saturday a steel plate had been screwed into my right ankle. This was Monday. Too soon to move, too risky . . .
“I don’t care what you say, doc, I’m going,” I said. My city had been attacked. I had to be out there.
Dot Joyce, my press secretary, reported that casualties were arriving at the front entrance of the Brigham, and reporters were collecting in the lobby. I couldn’t leave that way. Not unless I wanted microphones thrust in my face with victims being stretchered into the ER behind me.
Waiting in the hallway while I dressed, Dot and Mike saw something out the window that took their breath away. Sixteen stories below, police were surrounding a car stopped in the middle of the street. Mike got on his cell. Someone had abandoned the car. Inside was a suspicious package. It was being checked out. Mike would be told when it was safe for me to leave.
That was the atmosphere in Boston. Fear was spreading.
We took the freight elevator to the loading dock at the back of the hospital. Mike and Dot loaded me and my wheelchair into my SUV. Mike pulled out onto Francis Street. As we passed the front of the hospital, TV reporters began frantically gesturing to their cameramen to get a shot of the departing mayor. Mike turned left on Huntington Ave, heading downtown toward the Westin.
The police scanner crackled. The superintendent was redeploying his forces from the Marathon route to historic sites like Faneuil Hall, to the train stations, to the hospitals. Mike flicked on the blue lights. When the traffic knotted, he tapped the siren.
Dot had drafted some remarks for me to deliver. We discussed points to hit. Boston was strong, its people resilient. We would get through this if we stuck together . . . Half-heard words on the radio distracted us. We resumed talking for a few minutes, then the siren went off. The sound was hell on the nerves.
The sunny April day had been warm enough to draw tens of thousands outdoors to watch the race but cool enough so the 23,000 runners did not risk dehydration. The first part of the drive down Huntington, it still looked like the same day outside — Boston Before. We came up on the other side of the short tunnel beneath Mass Ave in Boston After. Lower Huntington had been turned into a staging area for state and city SWAT teams. Gray military-style vehicles lined the street. Black-clad officers were everywhere, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, muzzles pointing down. It was like entering a war zone. But where was the front? And who was the enemy?
If government didn’t act calmly and confidently, I was afraid the solidarity seen by millions after the bombing might fray. Episodes of vigilante violence against strangers had marred the aftermath of 9/11. That must not happen in a Boston teeming with “strangers”— Marathon competitors and fans from everywhere.
I wanted the focus to be on the heroism of the first responders, on the resourcefulness of the nurses who saved lives in medical tents equipped to treat blisters, and on the decency of race watchers who took stranded runners into their homes. Instead of telling that story, I worried that the media would continue to highlight the mayhem and the manhunt. Leaving my room I had heard a TV talking head say, “State and city authorities are treating Boston as a city under attack.”
So when security people at the Westin meeting urged the governor to declare a state of emergency, I said that was exactly the wrong thing to do. We needed to reassure citizens that we were taking the right steps to safeguard the city. Not scare the hell out of them. Governor Patrick agreed.
At the press conference, I made my points about the strength and resilience of Boston’s people. Within hours Emerson College students had created the hashtag #Boston Strong, and that legend was appearing on T-shirts selling online.
In photographs of the event my head is bowed, as if, in my first quiet moment since the bombs went off, the blow to the city was hitting me for the first time. I remember feeling grief for the dead and injured, and rage at the terrorists who splattered blood on the century-old Boston Marathon. And I was frustrated that at Boston’s worst moment I couldn’t be at my best.
At a second press conference on Monday evening, I said Boston would be open for business on Tuesday morning: “People returning to work tomorrow will notice an increased police presence in the city. They should not be alarmed.” Only the area around Copley Square —“the largest crime scene in Boston’s history”— would be closed off.
Leaving the Westin, I asked Mike to drive to the finish line. We got close enough to see FBI and ATF agents picking over the shrapnel, nails, ball bearings, backpacks, duffel bags, and cell phones littering Boylston Street. I didn’t realize it then, but the body of eight-year-old Martin Richard still lay on the sidewalk. The police commissioner, Ed Davis, called with that news. He said family members were anxious t...