The Second Blast

As an eyewitness to the Boston Marathon bombing, I have been asked several times to tell my story. Although I drafted plenty of ads, speeches and articles during the crisis, writing a personal memoir is altogether different. I was in deep shock for so long that I just couldn’t find the right words.

Today I’m inspired by these lines from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

As Boston commemorates the 1-year anniversary of the tragedy, I am determined to fail better.

April 15, 2013. I was working with the Communications team at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Each year the hospital hosts a signature fundraising reception at the Mandarin Hotel, inside a 2nd floor ballroom that offers a stunning view of the finish line. That’s where I was stationed, along with more than 20 other staff.

Beyond the Mandarin team, Spaulding literally had dozens of lives – my colleagues’ lives – on the line that day. The CEO himself was running in the race. So was the COO. Umpteen Spaulding volunteers were also running, including the CEO’s son. Spaulding physicians and physical therapists were staffing the medical tent.

To top it all off, my 13-year-old niece and her mother, my sister-in-law, were watching from the finish line on Boylston Street below. The night before I tried to convince them to join me as Spaulding’s guests at the Mandarin, but my niece wanted to be “as close to the finish line as possible, right on the street – where all the action is.”

Having worked as a human rights activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the early 1990s, I know what a bomb sounds like.

I heard the first blast.

With my face pressed up against a floor-to-ceiling window, I could see and hear the second blast on the street below. I remember the glass moving. If that Mandarin glass hadn’t been so strong, I probably wouldn’t have a face any more.

The worst part of all was having a perfect view of the second blast…while knowing that my family was down there – somewhere – in the chaos.

I don’t really remember the next 15 minutes.

Somehow my old “Belfast instincts” kicked in [To this day, I’m still not sure whether these “Belfast instincts” are valuable survival skills…, or the last vestiges of PTSD…, or both].

After the second blast, no one knew how many more bombs might still explode. The “Belfast instincts” told me to escape to a place where the buildings were low, as far as possible from the marathon crowds. Although I had a sprained ankle, somehow I ran pain-free into the South End, where I collapsed in a heap on the front steps of someone’s immaculate townhouse. I had run so quickly from the carnage that many pedestrians in the South End hadn’t yet heard the sirens — when they saw me melting down, they just thought I was some overworked executive having a panic attack. I started frantically dialing my niece’s cell phone. No answer. I tried her mother’s cell. No answer. I called my husband in Switzerland and told him I was alive. Then Boston’s entire cell phone network shut down.

As it turned out, my niece had left the Sugar Heaven candy shop (which was basically ground zero for the second blast) a few minutes before the bomb. Apparently fashion trumped sport on that particular afternoon. Having grown bored with the marathon (as only a 13-year-old could do), my sugar-fueled niece suddenly had the urge to shop for a new pair of shorts. She was making a beeline for H&M and had already dragged her mother several blocks away from Copley Square when the blasts hit.

The weeks that followed the bombing marked one of the most intense chapters in my professional life. Spaulding was gearing up to open a new, state-of-the-art facility in Boston. As you might imagine, every piece of communication related to the opening of the new facility – from press releases, to ads, to newsletters and speeches – had to be completely rewritten to suit Boston’s somber, post-marathon environment. Everyone in my department was working 24/7.

With Mayor Menino instructing us to press ahead, Spaulding shifted our 550-attendee gala from Friday, April 19 (the day of the lock down/manhunt/arrest) to Saturday, April 20th. Amid fears of more terrorism, and with less than 24 hours notice, 350 of the 550 guests – including the Mayor himself – attended Spaulding’s gala on Saturday evening. Suddenly the new hospital had become a symbol of resiliency; a place where our wounded city would literally find its strength again.

And then there was the media onslaught. Ultimately Spaulding treated 32 marathon patients, including 15 out of the 16 amputees. The press coverage – which went on for months and included the cover of People magazine as well as an extended segment with Brian Williams on NBC’s prime time news magazine Rock Center – was unprecedented in the hospital’s 40+ year history.

In order to do my job, I had to keep talking and writing about the bombing, day in and day out. Sometimes I just closed the door and cried over my keyboard. Although I have handled “crisis communications” in the past, most notably in the aftermath of 9-11, never have I been expected to function in high gear on “crisis communications” when the very same crisis had impacted me so personally.

Just when I felt that life was beginning to return to normal, a young man named Robel was arrested in connection with the bombing. Robel had been a classmate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and he was accused of lying to authorities during the investigation.

When Robel’s photo appeared on CNN, I recognized him immediately.

His mother Genet, a gifted social worker who has dedicated her life to helping survivors of domestic violence, had worked with me for nearly 7 years at the International Institute of Boston (IIB).

Suddenly my email box was filled with messages from former IIB colleagues, all urging me to sign affidavits and appear in court to support Genet. The Belfast instincts returned. I felt like Alice in the rabbit hole, freefalling into some twisted Wonderland where children blow up other children, where justice is administered by the media, and where you cannot divorce your professional and personal lives – no matter how hard you try.

What kept me going was the deep conviction that, as a storyteller, I had to do everything possible to make sure that Spaulding’s key role in the crisis was understood and appreciated…that softer voices could be heard amid the media cacophony…that privacy would be guaranteed for witnesses who were too traumatized to speak…and that ultimately, readers around the world would learn that Boston will not be brought to its knees by terror.

Now, one year later, the new Spaulding Hospital is nationally regarded as an icon of healing and recovery. In defiance of the 2013 bombing, more runners have registered for today’s race than ever before. Meanwhile, my high-spirited niece grows bolder and even more gregarious with each passing day.

As for me, I am still writing stories. What a thrill it would be to fail – even once – at the level of Samuel Beckett.