What Was It Like To Be Near the Explosions at the 2013 Boston Marathon?

Runners gather near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon.
Runners gather near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon.

Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Jane Yu, student, Harvard Business School:

I was running in the marathon toward the end when I received a call from my friend, who very calmly told me there were two bomb explosions and I should be careful. This was around 3 p.m. He said he’d keep me informed. I grew really concerned, and a nearby runner told me he had heard the same thing, but it turned out the “bombs” were just problems with the electrical wires near the finish line. His story seemed more probable, so I assumed my friend was misinformed.

As I passed the 25-mile mark, I noticed a lot of people were walking in the other direction, calmly. Police men who were routinely minding the edges of the marathon path seemed calm as well, although they were speaking into their walkie-talkies more frequently than before. I kept running, assuming the other people were simply spectators leaving after their friends had finished and the “bomb” really was just a problem with the electricity. But suddenly, someone in my training group grabbed me and told me not to continue. She confirmed there were indeed bombs up ahead, and they closed everything off up ahead.

We gathered as many people from our group we could find and everyone made their way to an acquaintance’s empty office building, where there was heat and water. It was getting pretty cold at that point, especially with singlets and shorts on.

I went to go look for my friends and family. As I got closer to the finish line area, there were hundreds of people roaming the streets, looking really confused and lost. The air smelled sharp and smokey. I saw some people crying and hugging each other. Police had cordoned off lots of areas and were directing people to go around five to six blocks away from the affected site. I was shivering, limping, and disoriented … and desperately trying to get my cell phone to work so I could get in touch with my family and friends (it kept dropping calls). A random woman on the street saw me standing there, cold and distressed, and without any hesitation she took off her coat and put it around my shoulders. When I turned to thank her and ask her how I could return it to her, she acted surprised that I’d asked. Another woman saw me walking around and she invited me into her home to have a warm drink and calm down. When I refused, she ran into her home and got me some warm pants and gloves. She dashed off, probably to help someone else. I’ll always remember the kindness of these strangers, who really helped me without expecting anything in return.

I eventually met my loved ones at a friend’s apartment in the area. It was soon evacuated also because there were reports of an undetonated bomb in the nearby park. As the building’s residents trickled out, two ambulances and two school buses full of soldiers swarmed the area. Everyone around those few blocks seemed hyper-vigilant and a sense of muted panic was everywhere. 

My friends and I then walked to our car, which was parked at a nearby hotel. On our way there, I noticed there were soldiers holding large rifles standing at every street corner. It looked like a war zone.

I came home (15 miles away) and spoke at length with some other friends who were near the finish line. One friend was close enough to the blast to have slightly injured her ear from the deafening noise. She said after the first bomb went off, no one really knew what to make of it. Some people even believed it was a cannon to celebrate the race, but she found that odd because it was so late into the day. But once the second one went off moments later, everyone started panicking and shoving each other. She saw a man jump on top of a moving taxi in a desperate attempt to flee the area. She saw elderly people being shoved to the side as masses of people tried to run away, scared that more bombs would go off in the area.

Now, although I’m home safely, I’m still having a hard time sleeping, and it’s nearing 4 a.m. Marathons are supposed to be happy and inspiring events. The last mile of this year’s marathon was dedicated to the 26 victims of Sandy Hook, whose families were seated at the finish line as guests of honor. I still remember, quite vibrantly, the encouraging, cheering faces of spectators along the sidelines of the first few miles, as well as the inspiring people who ran alongside me: the blind runners, the soldiers, and the cancer survivors. It’s impossible to juxtapose the beautiful moments of the day’s beginning with the horrifying events of the end in my mind without an overwhelming amount of sadness. My heart is with those who were affected by the blasts, and my gratitude to those who have and are helping others get through this all.

Answer by Alex Song, hedge fund analyst:

I work about a block and a half away from where the explosions occurred. I live about three blocks away, so I was very close to where the action was.

At around 2:50 p.m., I was at work, on the 36th floor, facing west, where I had a clear vantage point of the last mile stretch of Boston Marathon finish line. That’s when I heard a massive bang outside. It doesn’t sound like anything like the explosions you hear in movies, with the bass cranked all the way up. It sounded much more like a loud pop, or fireworks on the 4th of July (now I know). I glanced outside and saw a lot of white smoke, and people running in every direction. That’s kind of when I figured out that something was wrong, but I still didn’t know what was up.

About 10 seconds later, I saw the second explosion about another block to the west of the original explosion. I think that’s when people at the office figured out that something was seriously seriously wrong. We work in the tallest building in Boston, so for good reason, we evacuated immediately. People quickly grabbed all of their stuff. We ran down 36 flights of stairs.

A ton of people were milling around in the lobby when I got there. I thought that was a really bad idea, so I quickly got out of there with a few co-workers and headed straight to the South End (a much quieter neighborhood to the south of Back Bay, where the explosions took place, and where all the people were crowded in one place).

The next several hours were mostly spent in shock. We watched the local news but really, no one had any answers. Most of that time was basically spent checking Twitter, Facebook, and Bloomberg for any updates. There was next to no cell phone service for the whole afternoon (parents and girlfriend both tried calling me repeatedly apparently), but texts and emails were working perfectly so at least I was able to keep in touch.

At about 8 or 9 in the evening, I finally decided that things have probably quieted down in the Back Bay and decided to head home. My path took me straight through the Copley Square area, which is completely quiet and mostly deserted. There were a ton of soldiers milling around, lots of ambulance vans, lots of news vans, and literally hundreds if not thousands of tagged yellow plastic bags containing the personal effects of the people who fled. Hopefully they get their possessions back at some point.

That’s about it. This was a horrible event. The site of the explosions wasn’t just a random street in Boston, and it wasn’t merely the Boston Marathon finish line: it is literally one of the most highly trafficked streets in the city. I’ve been to most of those stores/shops in that one-block stretch of Boylston St. more times than I can count. There’s a Lenscrafters there, a Dunkin Donuts, an awesome restaurant called Uno, and a Max Brenner (one of my favorite restaurant chains anywhere). It’s terrible to think that things won’t be the same again for a long time. No one deserves this.

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