My Brush with a Terrorist (and How it Changed my Life)– The 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing and Watertown Terrorist Attack.
The day I realized I was in love with my girlfriend, Jillian, we almost died.
April 15, 2013 started out, like it did for everyone in Boston, as the perfect spring day. After a brutal winter, it felt like the sun had finally decided to show its face, and Jill and I decided to try to take in one of the first Red Sox games of the season. We sat in Fenway Park, eating hot dogs and watching Dustin Pedroia smack the ball over the Monster. The sky was clear– the weather almost ironically pristine considering the events that followed. Life didn’t get much better. We talked about the future, and the kids we both wanted, and all the things we wanted for ourselves, and for each other. And when the last ball was hit, we decided to take a walk down Boylston Street to take in a little bit of the Boston Marathon.
This was only my second Patriot’s Day (a holiday we, in Massachusetts, made up, because we decided we can do that kind of thing) in Boston, and I’d always wanted to watch these crazies who actually choose to run twenty six plus miles straight. Around 2:30pm, we settled in at mile marker 25, pushing our way through the massive swells of people to cheer on the runners. At 3:00pm, we decided to head home, beginning our trek back to the car which was parked several blocks away. Still immersed in the crowds and sounds and excitement, I didn’t think much of it when I heard a paramedic say “well we’d have to stop the whole race and turn everyone around.”
As we got closer to the car, a few scattered pedestrians were running and shouting into their cellphones. Police car after police car wailed down the streets. I told Jill it was probably a false alarm. That these kinds of things happen all the time in EMS. And then, a man on his phone ran by shouting about a bomb exploding in the Prudential building. I squinted straight ahead, the Prudential building looming in the foreground, looking for any sign of fire or smoke.There was nothing. Yeah. Probably just a false alarm
We picked up our pace, though, because I told Jill this was all “just a little too 9-11 for me.” It wasn’t until we flipped through Twitter that we found out the truth– two bombs had exploded at the finish line of the Marathon. Less than a mile from where we’d been standing.
Jill and I were lucky that day. Certainly much luckier than the hundreds of injured, and the three who lost their lives. And there are much more heroic and harrowing Marathon stories than ours. But this isn’t a story about that day.
I mention that day only because we escaped what was a horrible, life changing moment for so many, and could have been for us as well. And because I knew, that day, that I loved Jill. I’d known for a while, actually. In fact, really, I knew back in February, during the northeast’s epic three foot snow storm, where we stayed in together all weekend, made beef borigone and drank too much wine. But I hadn’t told her. Because it was insanely too soon… And also, because it could wait. On April 15, though, when we finally made it back to the safety and comfort of her Watertown home, it couldn’t wait.
Of course, I didn’t tell her. Days went by, and though the tragedy of the bombings didn’t ebb, my immediate feelings of mortality did. There was time again. Time for the perfect moment, time to make sure she felt the same… Wasn’t there time?
It was just after 11pm on Thursday the 18th. Jill and I were fast asleep already, preparing for an early work day, when several incoming text messages jarred us both awake. I tried to ignore them, but a few minutes later, she called for me, the fear immediately evident. Her friend in California had been watching the news. A shooter was at large in sleepy little Watertown. We rushed to the living room and turned on the television, while I insisted on keeping all of the lights off. If there really was a killer out there, I didn’t want him to know we were home.
Watertown is small. Very small, actually. And not the kind of place you’d ever expect to house an international terrorist. Jillian’s mother grew up there. And her parents, and their parents. The last thing anyone expected was for the Tzarnaev brothers to end their murderous rampage there.
We spent the rest of the night holed up in the bedroom, the house pitch black, listening to news reports on the static of Jill’s laptop. Over and over again we heard police warning residents not to leave their houses or answer their doors for anyone, and stay away from the windows. Meanwhile, a few streets down, word got to us that the older of the two brothers, who we’d just learned were the suspected Marathon bombers, had been shot and killed. And Zhocar Tsarnaev was still on the run… In our town… Maybe even in our back yard. It was the most terrifying night of my life. Something about hiding in a dark house, with nothing but the crackle of what sounded like an old radio telling us there was a nut job on the loose trying to kill us was more than a little unsettling.
Morning came, and with it, a little bit of reprieve from the terror that had haunted us. Tsarnaev was still out there, and the town, as well as the greater Boston area, was on a mandatory lockdown. We didn’t go outside that day, but pictures shown on the news later displayed an eerily almost post-apocalyptic Copley Plaza, with not a soul on the streets. The shelter-in-place order remained for the entire day, while we eagerly watched the events unfold on TV. Just outside Jill’s bedroom window, SWAT teams armed with enormous assault riffles had taken over the streets, and armored cars and tanks were the only vehicles on the roads. Helicopters buzzes overhead. It was a scene out of a movie. One that I really never wanted to see.
Around 5:00pm, the Governor announced a lifting of the ban, and Jill and I debated leaving the house to go to the grocery store. I was changing my clothes when she shouted to me from the living room. Several police and SWAT trucks had pulled up on our street.
“It’s probably just another false alarm,” I reassured her. But as I looked out the window, more and more officers were arriving, until both our street, and the cross street were full. In a matter of minutes, each officer left their vehicle and ran down Franklin Street, riffles pointed ahead, yelling orders we couldn’t hear. The news, which was still on in the background, reported a breaking story: “body found in Watertown back yard.”
My first, and most horrific thought, was that Tsarnaev had invaded Jill’s neighbor’s house, and killed them. And then, the news quickly revealed the body was found in the neighbor’s boat. And whoever it was, was still alive.
But we didn’t have time to hear anymore before the first round of twenty to thirty gunshots shattered the air. Even growing up in rural New Hampshire, I’d heard only a handful of gunshots in my life, and they were all hunting riffles. Jill’s upstairs apartment was tiny, with windows throughout the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, and even the bathroom. I searched frantically for a safe place to bring us, where one of what was probably many stray bullets wouldn’t make its way into Jill’s house. Even the hallway was in the direct line of fire. So I grabbed Jill and pulled her into the only confined space I could think off– the bedroom closet (I know, the irony…). She still laughs at me today for this, but I hold to my decision. We closed the door as best we could while I held her, waiting for the noise to stop. When it finally did, we ventured out, trying to decide what to do next. Jill called her downstairs neighbors to check on them. They were in the basement.
“Can we get there from here?” I asked. We could. But we’d have to leave the apartment, and enter the downstairs unit first. We made our way as quickly as we could, managing to make it down stairs before the firestorm started again. As we huddled in the basement with her neighbors, listening to the news stream on a laptop, we waited. More explosions echoed outside the walls, and then, the news feed cut out. Family and friends who knew we were on Franklin Street were calling and texting, keeping us updated on what was happening right outside the door. It had come out that Tsarnaev was the body in the neighbor’s boat. And he was alive, and desperate. We hatched our escape plan incase the gas tank on the boat that Tsarnaev was hiding in exploded (a possibility that had seemed likely to the news at the time). I held Jill, my arms shaking violently. I’d never felt death quite so close as I did that night. I loved her. And I hadn’t told her. There wasn’t time. And now, we were going to die.
After what felt like days, the noises stopped, and our family on the outside confirmed what we’d felt was impossible. Tsarnaev was in custody, and no one else had been injured.
When it was safe, we left the confines of the basement, and took to the streets with every other resident of Watertown to watch the police cars and ambulance take away the man who had terrorized a city, a country, and now just a tiny town.
We didn’t die that day. But I did tell Jill I loved her the very next morning. What happened on April 15th was a tragedy. And what happened on April 19th was the subsequent triumphing of good over evil. I still choke up when I remember the feeling of standing next to her on what is now our front porch, watching the first responders clear our street. There were a lot of lessons to come out of such a horrible week in the great city of Boston. But the most important I took away was not to wait. Because there isn’t always going to be time. And you may not get the chance to say that thing you were too afraid to say.
A couple of months later, I moved into that same house on Franklin Street. And I will never again wait to tell her how I feel.