As the seconds ticked by, Pat Foley knelt on the sidewalk, watching in growing desperation as ambulance after ambulance, packed with people, passed without stopping. The Boston firefighter twisted tight a makeshift tourniquet in each hand — one bleeding victim on his right; another on his left — and tried to reassure the man and woman on the ground that help was coming.
A few feet away, Boston Police Officer Shana Cottone was shouting at the ambulances, frantically trying to wave them down, seized by the overwhelming fear that the people on the sidewalk would bleed to death there at her feet.
“We’ve got to get them out of here right now,” she thought. “There are a million hospitals, but we have to get them there.”
Nearly a week after the bombings, the emerging stories of survivors and their saviors still resonate, each tale its own vivid apocalyptic world.
Foley and Cottone, the firefighter and the police officer, were within 50 feet of the second blast when it happened Monday. Both were on the ground among the victims within seconds.
Foley, 58, a Dorchester native and 34-year veteran from Engine Company 21 on Columbia Road, saw a woman who had taken off her belt. “Gimme the belt,” he barked, his instincts taking over. “I need more belts,” he told the dazed spectators around him, kneeling down to cinch one tight around a young man’s badly injured leg.
Cottone, 27, a native New Yorker who fell in love with Boston as a student at Northeastern, bent over the woman on the ground, her leg also badly damaged, whose bleeding was proving harder to stem. She pulled the woman’s I.D. out and scanned the card for her name: Roseann.
I can’t feel my leg, said the woman on the ground.
“I swear it’s there,” Cottone told her, taking her hand, calling her by name, resolving to give her hope, no matter how unlikely that her leg could be saved. “I swear on my life, your leg is there.”
She turned to the young man on her right, a spectator who may have smelled of beer but now gamely clutched the belt around the woman’s leg. I’m afraid to hurt her, he told the police officer. “You need to pull that thing tighter,” Cottone told him. “Pull it tight until your hands go numb.”
It was time; they had to go. Cottone looked up. A police wagon was coming toward her, the heavy van normally used to transport prisoners and often stationed close to big events in case of trouble.
It was not an ambulance, not even close. But it could get them where they had to go.
Quickly, as gently as they could, Cottone and Foley lifted the two victims into the back of the van, still gripping the tourniquets. They were aided by another firefighter, Michael Meteria from Engine Company 33 on Boylston Street. The two firefighters crawled into the back and knelt on the metal floor, each one half-cradling a victim in their arms while propping the injured bodies, laid on top of strapless backboards, on the unforgiving metal benches. Cottone leaped into the passenger seat in the front.
The heavy metal doors slammed shut, plunging the four passengers in the back into blackness. The van lurched forward, into the parting crowd, Cottone hanging out the window yelling at people to move.
When the lights went out in the back, Foley recalled, the man in his arms was afraid that he had died. The firefighter reassured him, turning on a pocket light he had in his bunker coat. He listened as the victim asked again and again for his wife, agony etched in his face.
The ride was rough and bumpy, but it lasted less than five minutes, the first responders said. As the driver backed the van down into the ambulance bay at Massachusetts General Hospital, the male victim’s cellphone rang. Somehow, he managed to answer it.
It was his wife, said Foley, and it was clear she did not know about the bombing.
The man held out his phone, pleading with Foley. Please, he asked the firefighter. Talk to her.
Foley took the phone. We have your husband, he told the woman on the line. He’s hurt, he’s stable. You should come to the hospital.
I’m sorry, he told her. I have to hang up now.
Outside, security guards banged angrily on the side of van, telling the driver to move out of the way of incoming ambulances, unaware of the critically injured patients inside. When the doors swung open and daylight flooded in, the firefighters, now covered in blood, blinked in the glare.
Hospital staff helped lift the victims out of the van and settle them on gurneys. Moving with the victims, the firefighters, Foley and Meteria, clambered outside into the spring air, each man still twisting a belt-fashioned tourniquet.
Don’t let go, the medical staff told them as they started moving. So the firefighters jogged beside the gurneys into the hospital, their viselike grips still holding back the flow of blood.
Inside the hospital, a nurse reached out and took the tourniquet from Foley. As he watched the victims roll away, the firefighter felt for the first time the ache in his hands.
Cottone couldn’t stop thinking about Roseann all that night and the next day. When she heard that three people were dead, her wish was constant: “Please, please, don’t let it be her.”
Later, the first responders learned that both of the victims had lived. Roseann Sdoia, the woman transported in the back of the police van, had her leg amputated above the knee.
Cottone and Meteria returned to the hospital to meet her last week; Foley is planning to visit the man. whose name could not be confirmed.
“I was just so glad to see her,” Cottone said. “I’m so happy she’s going to be OK.”