JOHN TLUMACKI/APRIL 15/BOSTON
I’ve covered 20 Boston Marathons; this is the fifth year I covered the finish line. I’ve become used to the routine: Shoot the wheelchair races, the elite men and women. Then you get the local favorites. That’s the best photos: people in costumes, holding hands, cartwheeling across the finish line. It’s a celebration of the Marathon, it’s so joyful. An average person can feel like a hero. It’s a sacred event — that all came to an end.
I was standing on the finish line when the first bomb went off, maybe 40 feet away. My camera was jolted from my face. My first impression was a cannon salute. Then maybe a manhole cover exploded. I didn’t feel it in my ears as much as my whole body. I’ve been at shootings and fires where people died. I’ve been to Uganda and covered war refugees. I’ve seen terrible things. I’ve never covered an event where a bomb went off. Everything you’ve learned not so much hardens your feelings but prepares you. All those things told me to instinctively run forward and not backward. Runner Bill Iffrig fell in front of me. That picture of him on the ground is within five seconds of the first bomb. Three police officers just ran right at me, and I ran toward them. I didn’t know how bad this was until I got to the railing and saw what I saw. That’s when I began to realize that this might be terrorism.
The force blew toward the stores; there were few injuries on Boylston Street itself. People on the sidewalk were not as lucky. One of the victims was Sydney Corcoran from Lowell; she was standing feet from the first bomb. She lost massive amounts of blood. Those men put a tourniquet around Sydney’s leg. They basically saved her life.
Not far from Sydney was her mother, Celeste (pictured), whose life was saved by her husband, Kevin, who used his belt to stop the bleeding in her leg. She lost both her legs. In the same frame, Nicole Gross from Charlotte, North Carolina, sits stunned as she tries to comprehend what just happened. Her red jersey is tattered from shrapnel, and her leg is severely injured.
I realized my responsibility was to document what I saw, to show to the world what terrorism had done. I photographed for another 15 minutes; it seemed like an eternity. I knew at some point the police would throw me out. My pictures were all over the world by the afternoon. I did four live TV interviews that night. I felt an obligation to talk about it.
The way I have dealt with this is by knowing I haven’t abandoned those victims. I dedicated the rest of this year to photographing the Corcorans’ recovery. Sydney’s dream was to go to her senior prom, which she did; she’s a freshman at Merrimack College now. The day I left them at the finish line, I thought maybe they had died. To be able to hug them is a miracle. I met Nicole before she left Boston and we hugged. I apologized for the photo, but she thanked me for it. She said it raised so much awareness about her injuries and put a face on the victims of terrorism. I gave her my Marathon credential as a keepsake.
At Celeste’s home in September, after I photographed her and Sydney throwing out the first pitch at a benefit softball game in Lowell, Celeste asked me if she could look at the photos I took of her lying on the sidewalk being helped by Kevin. She said she never saw her legs that day, though she tried to sit up to see them. They were amputated in surgery. She sat with my laptop on her daybed with Sydney and viewed several photos, including the one (with Nicole Gross). She was OK with them, and even felt a certain closure at knowing what the bomb damage did to them. She was so strong to be able to do that.
The Globe has already asked me to cover next year’s Marathon. I will be there. It’s not the finish line it used to be for me; it’s haunting. Kevin Corcoran asked me to photograph Celeste crossing the finish line; I will do that for her.