I was already feeling anxious at 4:45 a.m. on April 15, 2013. I needed to get to the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass., where at 6 a.m. I would appear live on camera for Boston.com to preview the 117th Boston Marathon.
I planned to host three pre-race live interviews before heading to Copley Square to film the finish line for the next six hours, just as I had for the three previous Patriots’ Day races.
For my first “Finish Line Scenes” on April 19, 2010, the idea was to produce a three-minute video that shows the diversity of the runners crossing the finish line — especially the first-time finishers and charity runners — while capturing the raw human emotion at the end of a 26.2 mile run. I shot about five hours of footage for that three-minute online package.
Patriots’ Day 2013 was shaping up to be a perfect Marathon Monday. Unlike the oppressive 89-degree temperatures during the 2012 marathon, the cool, sunny weather felt perfect for runners and spectators.
There were a couple of good story lines heading into the race. Marblehead’s Shalane Flanagan was running in her first Boston Marathon and was one of the favorites to win. Legendary local father and son Dick and Rick Hoyt were set to run their 32nd and final marathon as a duo.
After I filmed the post-race reactions of Lelisa Desisa Benti and Rita Jeptoo, the male and female winners, next was keeping a lookout for Flanagan. Though she finished a respectable fourth, I was able to capture her disappointment and secure a quick interview. My video in 2012 had set a high bar: the Boston Athletic Association took it to the 2012 London Olympics in hopes of recruiting more world-class runners to the 2013 race in Boston. There was work left for me to do.
My plan was to hunker down on the finish line until sundown and keep the camera rolling for cartwheels, marriage proposals and over-the-top costumes. Some runners cry tears of joy after completing the marathon in memory of a loved one. These scenes are much more compelling to my audience than anything involving an all-business runner hoping to set a personal best.
At 2:49 p.m., I was standing just to the right of center of the finish line, about 10 yards away from where the first pressure cooker exploded on the sidewalk in front of Marathon Sports. My camera was rolling for more than a minute before the bomb went off.
It wasn’t a bone-rattling explosion like you might imagine — more of a muffled thud with a large plume of smoke that ran straight up the mid-level buildings on that block of Boylston.
My first thought was that it might have been a fireworks celebration that perhaps went awry for the Hoyts’s finish. But 13 seconds later, the second explosion went off just over a block away. “We’ve had an attack,” I said into the camera’s microphone.
In a split-second, I went from sports video producer to accidental war correspondent.
I pushed my way toward the sidewalk unsure if there were more explosions coming. For some reason, I felt safe inside the fence on the course.
I’ll always remember the sound of the flags flapping in the wind where there had been no wind moments before. And of course, I’ll never forget the sights I witnessed that day, sights I panned from, just out of view.
After posting the breaking news on Facebook and Twitter, I spent the next 15 minutes — as wheelchairs, victims and medical staff whizzed by — trying to reach my then-editor, Matt Pepin, to dictate a quick story and find out if I should stay where I was to capture more footage and conduct interviews or get back to the media center and upload what I had captured on video.
In a haze, I made my way back to the parking garage to get my computer, then to the media center in the Copley Plaza Hotel. I was shaking from the chaos but I knew I had to cut some video and get it uploaded to the site right away. Once the video was confirmed as posted, I took a breath — though it didn’t last long.
The first call came from Doug Gottlieb of Fox Sports radio. I didn’t understand why he wanted to talk to me but I quickly realized the video had gone viral. I was soon on air with Brian Williams of NBC and Scott Pelley of CBS. The rest of the night was one phone call after another. A CNN camera crew made it into the locked-down hotel and grabbed a room to shoot a segment before I was to go on air with then-CNN host Piers Morgan. After an 11 p.m. phone-in from my house with Bob Ley on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” I finally called it a night after an 18-hour day.
The next morning, after two early radio interviews, I found myself standing on the corner of Arlington and Boylston Streets, talking to Matt Lauer when the “Today” show came on at 7 a.m. The media appearances continued for the next three days — leaving me little time to process what had happened on the finish line.
In some ways it was therapeutic — I was talking about it so much that I didn’t have time to dwell on it. But I could not stop thinking about the victims, the survivors and their families. My former Boston Globe colleague Chad Finn said it best when he wrote, “Boston isn’t a city, it’s a family.”
This tragedy was personal for me.
I’ve been the fan watching the race from the sidewalk. I knew many of the people in the bars and restaurants that day. I spent most weekends in the Back Bay. I had completed two Boston Marathons in 1999 and 2000, raising money for Dana-Farber’s cancer research team. And for the previous three years, I was planted on the finish line getting up-close, raw reactions from runners.
Once the focus shifted to finding the perpetrators, I quickly faded from the media spotlight. I could go back to covering sports. But the bombings were front and center again when I covered the Red Sox’ first game back. That’s when David Ortiz declared, “This is our [expletive] city!”
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The next year, I was one of 467 people given a bib number for what the Boston Athletic Association described as being “personally and profoundly impacted by the events of April 15, 2013.”
My quads gave out in Wellesley, but I promised myself I would run down Boylston Street in honor of those who died and were injured in the bombings, and I did.
In the months that followed, I found myself featured in a YouTube conspiracy video with claims that I was working with Dick Cheney’s cabal, that the bombings were a government ruse, and that I was the same government witness who appeared on a local New York City eyewitness report on Sept. 11, 2001. All nonsense, but I learned quickly that it comes with this territory.
After running in 2014, I again shot video for Boston.com from Newton’s Heartbreak Hill in 2015 (videographers can no longer be on the finish line). In 2016, I attended the annual marathon watch party at Abe & Louie’s on Boylston Street. Last year, I watched from afar in Naples, Fla. On Monday, I will again be a spectator in Copley Square.
The post-2013 Boston Marathon feels a lot like the pre-2013 Boston Marathon, just with a bit more gravitas and a lot more security.
Marathon Monday has always been Boston’s unique holiday. The Red Sox play an 11 a.m. game at Fenway Park. The marathon lasts most of the day. The parties go into the night. Those traditions continue five years later.
Since the “Boston Strong” mantra came into our vernacular, we’ve seen so many other adoptions of the sentiment in trying times: “Orlando Strong,” “Las Vegas Strong,” “Parkland Strong” and so many other voices carrying the come-together message.
In the years following the bombing, there have also been multiple marathon-related television documentaries, two Hollywood movies and even a Boston-based play titled “Finish Line,” in which a character portrays me. I haven’t seen any of the finished productions. I probably will at some point, but I lived through it so closely — from my work, to the dozens of interviews recounting what I saw afterward, to the showdown in Watertown just across the river from where I live. I didn’t feel the need to see it all play out again so soon.
What has been wonderful to see is how so many survivors have become positive influences for people facing challenges, and it’s been amazing to see the advances in prosthetics technology for amputees, in part due to the efforts made by many of the Boston bombing survivors as well as so many ongoing fundraising efforts.
Most say, I can’t believe it’s been five years, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
After my marathon footage went worldwide, I received many emails. Some said I should have shown more close-ups of the carnage, or I should have dropped the camera and helped the injured. But a U.S. Army sergeant commended me for being able to capture the scene while sparing the viewer most of the graphic images I was witnessing.
“That’s how we like to see the media do it when they film on the battlefield,” he wrote.
Steve Silva is a managing editor at Dirty Water Media, covering Boston’s professional sports teams. Follow @SteveSilva on Twitter.