By Dagny Crepeau and Holly Winkelhake
BU News Service
In 2013, Anna Booras, a pre-med student at Boston University, was volunteering at the Boston Marathon for the first time as a college freshman. She’d signed up to volunteer with two friends, both as a fun way to spend the afternoon, and as a way to gain a bit more experience in her field. As a first-time volunteer, she was placed in the medical tent stationed at the finish line, and assigned small tasks. Most of her time that day was spent running to the bus that had shuttled runners in from Hopkinton, in order to retrieve the belongings of those who couldn’t finish the race.
During a lull in activity in the tent, Booras said she ventured outside to watch the finish line for a few minutes. As she recalls, it was “the most unfortunate timing.” Standing just a few yards from the finish line, Booras saw the first bomb explode. Smoke obscured the scene for several moments, during which confusion spread among onlookers. When the smoke cleared, the carnage became apparent. It wasn’t long before first responders began carrying the wounded into the tent.
“The worst part was looking at a patient’s face and seeing them look fine,” Booras said. “And then looking down at the rest of [their body] and realizing that they weren’t fine.”
Booras recalls initially wanting to run, afraid for her own safety. But seeing the calm determination of the doctors in the tent as they tended to the injured changed her mind.
“They were all focused on helping people,” Booras said. “They weren’t running, they weren’t scared. That’s what I remember the most.”
Two days after the bombing, Booras’ ears were still ringing. Although the ringing eventually subsided, Booras has lived with the lasting effects of what she saw. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder just a few days after the bombing, and the sound of sirens, however distant, still wakes her up at night.
Brittany Costa watched the same scene from a different vantage point. A member of the U.S. Army Band and Army Reserve, Costa was marching the Marathon with her platoon for Tough Ruck, an organization in which military members march the marathon route carrying rucksacks bearing the names of fallen service members. As Costa’s platoon neared the finish line, they heard the first blast and assumed they were hearing fireworks. By the time the second blast erupted, they knew something was wrong.
“A huge black ball of smoke was coming towards us down Boylston Street and police and EMTs were screaming at everyone to run, so we did,” Costa said. “It wasn’t until a little bit later that we all realized a bomb had gone off.”
At the finish line, Costa recalls finding those unfortunate enough to be within the blast radius injured and crying. As members of the military who are trained to administer first aid, she and her fellow platoon members acted as first responders on the scene.
“We were there before most of the ambulances and EMTs showed up. We were able to help carry a lot of people to medical tents, if they needed it, or if they just had some minor cuts and bruising we were able to treat them pretty quickly with supplies we got from nearby medical tents,” said Costa.
In the wake of the devastation, the Boston Athletic Association has implemented several new regulations designed to better prevent and address such emergencies in the future. Among new protocols, backpacks and other large bags are now items of suspicion by default — they’ve been barred from the pre-race dinner, as well as from the race itself. Runners are forbidden to carry anything larger than a fanny pack during their 26-mile odyssey, which means that military members hauling their rucksacks for Tough Ruck are no longer able to participate with them.
The medical tents at the Boston Marathon also underwent some marked changes. Beginning in 2014, the tents’ many entrances and exits were condensed into a single entrance and exit, both of which are funneled; that is, anyone entering can only enter through the designated entrance and leave through the designated exit.
The medical staff grew from 1,400 volunteers in 2013 to 1,900 in 2014, a number that the BAA has continued to meet every year since. Trained therapists and psychiatric professionals entered the medical tents for the first time the year after the bombs went off. In Booras’ words, they “float” — that is, they aren’t tied down to any particular station inside the tents, but instead walk around, offering help where needed.
At this year’s 120th running of the Boston Marathon, Booras will serve for her fourth year in the medical tent. Despite the psychological toll of her first time as a volunteer, Booras has found the strength to return every year since, considering her participation a gesture of respect to her fellow medical personnel, and to those injured or killed in 2013. She said she also considers her continued participation a personal triumph over fear.
“If we stopped and gave up and didn’t continue with our lives, we’ve lost.”