When Boston District Fire Chief Dennis Keeley sees his chubby-cheeked, red-haired granddaughter Olivia Danz, he often thinks back to the events of April 15, 2013. Keeley was the first incident field commander at the scene of the bombings.
As soon as he arrived, Keeley was overrun with dazed, wounded people. He remembers a man in his 50s who approached with what appeared to be a minor head wound — until he turned around and revealed a line of shrapnel across his back.
He remembers how difficult it was to get uninjured runners and spectators to clear the scene, shouting, “Run for your life!,” at one shocked, stationary couple. He was concerned that there might be more explosive devices in the area.
That day, Keeley didn’t settle back behind his desk at the Columbus Avenue firehouse until after midnight. He fell asleep in his chair. Around 2:30 a.m., a ringing phone awakened him. On the other end, his son-in-law said, “I wanted to let you know your little granddaughter was just born.”
“Talk about an emotional swing,” Keeley said this week.
Keeley, who will write the names of two survivors he has become close to — Sarah Girouard and Michelle L’Heureux — on the back of his race shirt, expects plenty more emotional swings while running the marathon on Patriots Day.
He will join 60 Boston firefighters and a total of 150 from around the country who plan to run — some to finish what they started in 2013, and all of them motivated by what happened last year.
After the scene on Boylston Street cleared, Keeley found himself on the finish line, looking down at his bloody boots. Six months ago, he told a Boston District Fire Chief, “I’m going to run the Boston Marathon. This time when I cross the line, there’s not going to be any bloody boots. I’d like to finish and see a nice blue and yellow line.”
Boston firefighters Dan Cook, Keith Kelly, and Gerry Grealish have the same ending in mind. Like Keeley, they are part of the Columbus Avenue firehouse, which stands a few blocks from the finish line and is home to Engine 7, Ladder 17, District 4. They were running when the bombs went off.
Within strides of Boylston Street, Cook and Kelly were among the 5,600-plus runners stopped along the course. Tired and sore, they made their way toward the site of the bombings. They could barely walk, but their firefighter instinct was to help in any way they could. It was the same for Grealish.
Passing Fenway Park, Grealish saw a crying woman running toward him. He asked her, “Are you all right? Can I help you?” She had gotten word of two explosions at the finish, but it was still unclear what exactly had happened. Making his way back to the firehouse and seeing all the different fire companies called to the scene, Grealish said, “You just knew it was serious.”
After he learned the full extent of what happened, he thought about the 2014 Boston Marathon.
“Right away, I was like, ‘I’m doing it next year,’ ” said Grealish. “[Expletive] them. They can’t chase me out of this.”
On the left shoulders of the shirts the firefighters wear will be the department’s red-and-black memorial ribbon with the initials “MK” and “EW,” honoring firefighter Michael Kennedy and Lieutenant Ed Walsh, who died in the Beacon Street fire March 26. Kennedy had planned to run in the marathon.
Asked what it will be like near the finish when he spots the Boylston Street firehouse where Kennedy and Walsh worked (and which also lost firefighter Frankie Flynn to cancer in January), Grealish said, “Every year, you see people out the windows there, family and friends. A lot of our people will be there, and you’re going to see all of them.
“What’s happened to that firehouse over the past few months, that’s going to be emotional. Then, turning and going right past the bomb site, it’s going to be good at the end, but it’s definitely going to be eerie.”
‘What’s happened to that firehouse over the past few months, that’s going to be emotional.’
While Grealish will be running his sixth Boston, it will be the first for Keeley and rookie firefighter Eddie Dzialo.
Dzialo was watching the race from Boylston Street when the bombs went off, and he thought, “What’s going to happen to the marathon next year?”
When he joined the Columbus Avenue firehouse in May 2013, Kelly asked if wanted to run it. Dzialo jumped at the opportunity.
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” he said. “And there’s no better time to do it than now.”
Much to the amusement of his fellow firefighters, Dzialo’s training has consisted of CrossFit workouts, one 14-mile run on the course, and one 18-mile run on the course. He admits he’s “flying by the seat of my pants in this.”
But with a firefighter’s schedule, training can be a challenge.
“You have a 24-hour shift and you’re supposed to go run 16 miles the next day,” said Kelly. “It’s tough.”
Cook will work a 24-hour shift immediately before he heads out to Hopkinton. And Kelly is scheduled to work a 24-hour shift right after the marathon. Still, the firefighters are eager to get to the start and make their way back to Boston.
When he finally crosses that blue and yellow finish line, Keeley said, “It will be a sense of accomplishment, but this is not a bucket list thing. This is about putting something in its right spot in my heart and my soul and my head. Then, I can say, ‘We did this. Now it’s time to move on.’
“I have no goal other than to cross that line. I don’t care if it takes me five hours or five days. I’ll get across it eventually. Then I’d like to close the book and put the book on the shelf and say it’s done.
“We’d all like to do that. It’s been a long year for all of us.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.