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Remembering the Boston Marathon bombing 10 years later

FMUA / Alamy Stock Photo
April 21, 2023  Updated May 20, 2023 at 3:36 p.m.

For many in Brookline, the connection to the Boston Marathon runs deep.

When runners hit Beacon Street, they know the finish line isn’t far. Crowds of spectators flock to the sidelines, and hundreds of volunteers direct traffic and support race operations, while healthcare providers and law enforcement officers stand ready for what the day may bring.

Ten years ago, on April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line in Boston. As first responders flooded the scene, thousands of runners were halted at the Brookline town line. Three people died from the explosions, and more than 260 were injured.

Brookline was among the communities locked down as law enforcement searched for the terrorists, who killed an MIT police officer before the manhunt ended in Watertown with one terrorist mortally injured and the other, his brother, gravely hurt. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling and upheld his death sentence.

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To mark the anniversary, Brookline.News collected stories and memories from Brookliners who were running, watching and working that day. We invite you to share your memories of the Marathon bombing. Please put “Marathon memory” in the subject line. No longer than 150 words, please.

A race to be finished

Sidhu Gangadharan crossed the Marathon finish line 10 minutes before the bombing. For Sarah Harris, the race ended less than a mile from the finish, at an overpass that now reads “Boston Strong.” It was the first marathon for both.

They were among 30 runners competing that day in the inaugural year of Team Brookline, a town-sponsored group raising money for local non-profit organizations.

From a cheering station at mile 23, Team Brookline program director Nancy Vineberg was enjoying a beautiful day when reports came in of explosions at the finish line. “I remember thinking, how are we ever going to do the Boston Marathon again?” she said. “My second thought was: Where are our runners?”

It took six hours to account for all the runners. Some suffered minor injuries and the blasts knocked others down, but none were seriously hurt.

Gangadharan, 54, a surgeon who lives in Brookline, remembers wandering near the finish line in a daze, foggy from exhaustion and trying to understand what was happening. Once he took a shower, Gangadharan’s first instinct was to head to the hospital to help, but his sore body would not cooperate. “I couldn’t move,” he said. “I was in no shape to get back.”

A few days later, Gangadharan re-ran the last three miles of the Marathon course, just to feel what it was like to be back. “There was a lot of emotion wrapped in it,” he said. “It felt cathartic to run down the race route again, knowing how much tragedy was involved.”

Meanwhile, Harris, 51, a teacher in the Brookline public schools, had grabbed a mylar blanket to warm herself as she tried to find a ride home from the Marathon. Whatever disappointment she felt about not finishing the race yielded to relief. “We were lucky not to have seen anything, not to have been hurt,” she said. “Very lucky.”

A year later, Harris ran the race again, in part to show her students she wasn’t afraid. “There’s so much trust we have to have in our community as we go about our daily lives. And that was a moment where that trust was violated,” she said. “But you can’t live in fear. So there we were, in 2014, back at it again.”

From wedding dresses to chaos

One minute, Sarah Porell was scrolling through photos of wedding dresses on her lunch break. The next, she was surrounded by chaos, trying to bring order to an overflowing emergency room.

Porell, now 54, lived in Brookline and had been a social worker at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for a decade. Patriots Day was an official holiday at the hospital, so staffing was light and the day of the Marathon was typically quiet.

Not 2013. Beepers started buzzing about the bombing and a call from her boss, who was off that day, shook Porell into action.

“You are the senior-most social worker at the hospital right now,” her boss said. “Get down to the emergency department. You’re in charge.”

Porell rushed downstairs and quickly helped with triage as 24 patients, many with severe injuries, arrived at the hospital almost at once.

Job number one was setting up a call center to field calls from families desperate to find their loved ones.

Next, Porell rounded up the social workers on duty that day, along with many who came in to help after hearing the news. She directed them to help with crowd control and to shuttle families to the intensive care unit or surgical waiting rooms.

Later, in the trauma ICU, she checked in with a doctor who had been treating badly injured patients all day. He was Israeli and had worked in hospitals there.

“How are you holding up?” she asked him.

“This happens all the time in Israel,” he said. “I’m used to it.”

Many other hospital staff weren’t, and in the weeks that followed, Porell counseled her fellow healthcare workers.

One, a nurse who had just completed training, worked on the trauma floor that day. “Someone just pulled me aside and said, ‘Can you take her under your wing? She’s having a hard time,’” Porell said.

Exactly a year later, with the flood of remembrances and news coverage, the trauma of the day fully hit Porell.

“I felt really sick, I was nauseous,” she said. “We talk clinically about something called an anniversary response, but I had never actually experienced it myself.”

Porell now lives in West Roxbury and is a social worker at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

“It’s like asking someone where they were the day JFK got shot,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I was at the hospital.”

Iraq to Watertown

The gunshots and explosions in 2013 weren’t a new experience for Detective Russell O’Neill, who had deployed to Iraq twice.

But the location, a quiet neighborhood in Watertown, was something different.

“I never thought I would have that kind of experience here as a police officer,” he said. “It opened my eyes a little bit to the violence that’s possible here in the United States.”

O’Neill, now 41 and a deputy superintendent with the Brookline Police Department, was part of the agency’s Special Response Team in 2013.

He and other Brookline officers were everywhere as the events of that week escalated. They responded to the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier in Cambridge. They guarded three hospitals in Boston. Several were involved in the firefight that killed one terrorist and injured the other.

One became famous after he was photographed bringing two gallons of milk to a young mother locked down in Watertown.

O’Neill was in Watertown as the Tsarnaev brothers exchanged gunfire with officers and tossed explosives from a vehicle. O’Neill remembers confusion and chaos as police radios bombarded officers with messages that were often garbled or false.

“We thought we had learned those lessons from hearing the chaos of 9/11. But communication remained difficult,” he said.

One such moment came with a false report of shots fired at Boston Children’s Hospital. A Brookline officer had been left behind to help protect the campus while other law enforcement flooded Watertown.

“When that came over the radio, I’ve never felt a worse feeling in my gut,” O’Neill said. “That was our one responsibility, our specified task.”

Later, O’Neill helped set up a perimeter in Watertown as officers searched for the younger Tsarnaev brother. O’Neill and his colleagues had not slept in 40 hours.

Authorities eventually captured Tsarnaev, and as O’Neill joined hundreds of other police officers leaving the scene, he witnessed a unique sight.

“People were out in the street,” O’Neill said. “You had to drive five miles an hour. They were waving American flags and celebrating. It was a feeling I’ve never had before.”

Eight floors above bedlam

From his eighth-floor office on Boylston Street, Errick West heard a loud bang.

He was two blocks from the Marathon finish line, meeting with a small group of colleagues, trying not to get too distracted by the crowds of runners, spectators and volunteers below.

West, who grew up in Brookline, didn’t realize something was wrong until he heard the second explosion.

“You could see the smoke and hear the sirens going off, and you see everybody just running. It was chaos,” he said.

West and his coworkers huddled in a conference room, calling family members to let them know they were OK and trying to find out what had happened.

Soon two police officers in tactical gear came up the elevator. They had been sweeping each floor of the building and had finally made it to the top floor.

The officers escorted the group down the back stairwell of the building, one walking in front, one in back, down into an alley. “You could see the effort from them to not only secure the situation, but to get everybody to a safe place,” West said. “I remember how quickly they responded, and I’m thankful for it.”

West broke into a run as the group joined the mass exodus on Commonwealth Avenue.

“Being there, and being in harm’s way, it was something that kind of hit me a couple of days later,” said West, 35, now a general contractor and assistant football coach at Catholic Memorial High School. He lives in Jamaica Plain.

“Had I just decided, hey, let me walk down toward the finish line,” he said, then paused. “I’m thankful that I’m still here, but I could have been a victim of that, too. So yeah, it was definitely scary.”

Juggling victims, killers, and 1,000 messages

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was awash with reporters, and it was Jerry Berger’s job to deal with them.

Berger, 71, was director of media relations at Beth Israel, which treated two dozen victims of the bombing. Its staff also treated both Tsarnaev brothers, the men responsible for the deadly attack.

Over the week following the bombing, the communications team’s pager received more than 1,000 messages, and Berger juggled a complicated set of dynamics. Some patients wanted privacy, and others were eager to talk.

Tensions ramped up when the two Tsarnaev brothers, one badly injured and the other near death, were brought to Beth Israel. The building quickly swarmed with law enforcement officers from the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service, many fully armed in tactical gear. The older brother soon died, and hospital staff continued to treat the younger terrorist.

Beth Israel then held its first news conference in 12 years for the scores of journalists camped out across the street. “You don’t hold pressers at five in the morning,” Berger said, “but it was very well-attended.”

Safeguarding patient privacy proved to be difficult. After several breaches – photos of both brothers taken in the hospital ended up on social media, and a CNN reporter managed to get on a patient floor – information was quickly locked down.

“I was only told Tsarnaev had left the building after he had left,” Berger said. “They snuck him out in a hearse through the morgue.”

Berger, a longtime resident of Brookline who now works as a communications consultant and lectures at Boston University, remembers that week in 2013 as intense and relentless.

“We were on for 10 straight days,” he said. “And that wears at you. There was all this pain and suffering and that’s just going to get to you.”

Searching trash cans for bombs

The trash cans stick out in Mel Kleckner’s memory.

As town administrator in 2013, he oversaw safety and logistics along Brookline’s portion of the Marathon route.

When reports of a bombing at the finish line started to trickle in, he and his team picked up a piece of information that they decided warranted action.

“We were trying to secure all the trash barrels, all along Beacon Street, because there was some suggestion that maybe bombs were put in a trash receptacle,” Kleckner said.

That was one of many tidbits during the disconcerting day that turned out to be false.

“Now we think we know a little more about not jumping to conclusions, and looking at the sources of these types of things,” Kleckner said. “But at the time, all of them were being taken seriously.”

Although the bombs exploded a few miles east, the impact on Brookline was immediate. Thousands of runners were stopped at the Brookline town line, right before Audubon Circle, a little over a mile from the finish line. Some were angry and confused. They had been training for this moment for months or years.

Kleckner’s mind immediately went to his deputy, Melissa Goff, who had taken VIP tickets allocated to the town.

“The first thing I thought about was her, and whether she was sitting at the finish line,” Kleckner said. “It’s hard to separate the personal from the professional.”

Goff, it turned out, was not at the finish line, and Kleckner’s three teenage sons watching the race were also standing away from danger.

Kleckner, 65, who retired as town administrator in 2021, said that the Marathon bombing shifted the way he and other leaders thought about big events, including the U.S Open golf tournament that took place in Brookline last year.

“I was proud that we were in the mix of things and we were trying to learn whether there was any continuing threat,” he said. “Everything changed after that day, I felt, in terms of preparedness and intelligence.”