Boston Marathon tragedy: The week we’ll never forget

Neil Swidey reflects on a city’s return to something like normalcy.

Boston, MA -- 04/22/13 -- Parents walked their children to the Neighborhood House Charter School, where Martin Richard attended, on Monday morning, April 22, 2013, for the first time since the Boston Marathon bombing. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)
A week after the attacks, classmates of Martin Richard return to their school. (Photo: Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
The Boston Globe

ON THE FIRST DAY of the week we will never forget, I pulled my dusty bike out of the shed, inflated the tires left languid by a long winter, and went for a ride. The sun was bright and the wind was strong as I headed for Heartbreak Hill. Along the route, I locked eyes with runners, walkers, and other bikers. Some were skinny, some sculpted, some plump and perspiring. I tried to smile or nod at all of them. A few smiled or nodded back. Most did not. I took no offense. This is Boston, where smiles have to be earned. Besides, I was happy to be out on this Sunday for my first ride of spring. And I knew warmth would arrive the next day.

Every Marathon Monday, Boston finds its better self. It is more gracious, more welcoming, at once more intimate and more international. The elite runners from East Africa are nearly as anonymous as the bucket-listers huffing their way along the course for charity, so the applause is evenly distributed. Strangers cheer on strangers, kids hand out orange slices, tribalism takes the day off. Scan 52.4 miles of sideline, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single “Yankees Suck’’ T-shirt.

After horror hit at 2:50 on that Monday afternoon, our better self extended its stay. It had never been needed more than during the 102 hours that followed those twin blasts.

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It steeled us during the immediate aftermath, when first responders and bystanders rushed in, putting their lives on the line to save others, and when physicians who’d been competing in the Marathon kept running all the way to the hospital to help out. It steadied us through the memorial service on Thursday, when President Obama demonstrated how words, if strung together artfully and delivered honestly, can sometimes be enough to start the healing. And that better self, in the face of Friday’s order to stay indoors and off the roads, somehow allowed a city of scofflaw drivers and reprobate double-parkers to respond with monastic obedience.

More than a few eyewitnesses compared the week to living through a real-life movie. It certainly felt like one at points, particularly during the lock-down, when a 19-year-old on the lam, like some super-villain from a Batman film, managed to bring an entire metropolis to heel.

And it provided the kind of cinematic moments and twists that would be irresistible to screenwriters. The hobbled mayor rising from his wheelchair to stand at the cathedral lectern. The doctor hearing gunfire outside his Watertown window, racing to his workplace, and finding himself thrust into the effort to save the life of one of the men who had started that gunfight, Suspect No. 1. The cornered and bloody Suspect No. 2, hiding under the tarp of a boat called Slip Away II.

Of course, it was no movie. It was a hideous theft of innocent life. That made the other coincidences even crueler. The two police officers from different departments, one grievously injured and one fatally shot, having trained together at the academy. The first responder recognizing 8-year-old victim Martin Richard as his daughter’s friend.

Those coincidences also reminded us what a small, interconnected town Boston really is. While the carnage was thankfully far less than on September 11, 2001, something about its scale and different character made it seem more personal. On 9/11, the targets — the World Trade Center, the Pentagon — were symbols of power. In contrast, the Marathon is a symbol of non-threatening community.

I found myself thinking about the fatalistic lesson that Ken Feinberg, who will administer the One Fund Boston for Marathon victims, had told me he had taken away from his work as special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund: “Be careful about planning more than a week ahead.”

After the capture of Suspect No. 2 on Friday night, celebrations erupted across the city. Improbably, throngs of college kids cheered for cops, chanting “B-P-D.” 

The following afternoon, on the last day of the week we will never forget, I hopped on my bike and headed for Heartbreak Hill. Once again, I locked eyes with runners, walkers, and other bikers. Some were skinny, some sculpted, some plump and perspiring. I tried to smile or nod at all of them. A few smiled or nodded back. Most did not.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.