Captain Paul Glora was working a detail near the finish line when he heard the blasts and raced to the scene, using all the bandages he had with him, then belts to apply tourniquets to those with the worst wounds.
The veteran firefighter had been a Marine, but he was not prepared for what he witnessed in the moments after the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
“It was the first live mass casualty I’ve seen,” he said. “I’m coping with it. . . . I really feel sorry for the wounds that some of those people experienced, the innocent people who were hurt.”
At a ceremony on Boston Common on Monday, Glora and other firefighters stood at attention as Fire Department Commissioner Roderick Fraser issued commendation ribbons in the blue and yellow colors of the Boston Marathon to about 150 Fire Department personnel who responded to the blasts on Boylston Street.
The four yellow bars on the ribbon reflect the three people killed at the Marathon April 15, as well as MIT police Officer Sean Collier, who was shot to death three days later.
“This was a very traumatic event for the entire city, and for those who responded,” Fraser said. “There’s no question that the quick actions of firefighters saved lives. This was a small way for us to say, ‘You did a great job that day, and thank you.’ ”
The Fire Department had 57 firefighters working near the finish line and sounded two alarms after the bombings, drawing nine engines, six ladders, and one rescue truck.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with using weapons of mass destruction to carry out the attacks, which injured more than 260 people. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged mastermind of the bombings, died April 19 following a shoot-out with police in Watertown.
While dispatchers worked to ensure enough personnel made it to the bombing scene, firefighters worked quickly to dismantle jersey barriers separating spectators from runners and used whatever equipment they had to aid victims, many with horrific wounds. Some used their own belts to create tourniquets and improvised bandages to stanch wounds.
Kevin Meehan, who has worked as a firefighter for the past decade, drove one of the engines to Boylston Street and then went to work to treat victims.
“It was [like] nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I hope never to see anything like that again,” he said.
He and other firefighters said they sought to clear the area as quickly as possible, out of fear that there might be another bomb.
“We were just waiting for something else to happen,” he said. “That’s all that was going through people’s minds: that there were secondary devices.”
He said he felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the carnage. “We were outnumbered by the number of patients,” he said. “You almost didn’t know where to begin.”
He also used belts to create tourniquets and treated victims whose limbs had been severed by the force of the bombs.
“Sometimes people try to call us heroes — police and fire — but we’re not heroic,” he said. “We’re just doing what they pay us to do. The heroic people were the people who don’t have the training, weren’t being paid, and just did it because they knew it was the right thing to do.”
Benny Upton, a firefighter at the department for the past five years, was trying to persuade college students a few blocks away in the Back Bay to stop barbecuing illegally when he heard the blasts.
“I knew it was an explosion,” said Upton, a former Marine who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s a very distinguishable sound.”
His crew drove a few blocks to Boylston Street, hooked a hose to a hydrant, and, when they realized there were no fires, went to work administering first aid.
He saw people with bones sticking out of their skin and others missing feet. There were people with deep lacerations and others clearly suffering from shock.
“There were so many people who needed to be transported,” he said.
But there weren’t enough ambulances and they ran out of backboards and other equipment. “So we started just carrying people . . . just getting them out of there,” he said. “All we were thinking about was the next one, when’s the explosion happening, and where is it happening.”
He appreciated receiving the commendation. “It’s nice to be recognized,” he said.
Commissioner Fraser, who had left his department’s command post near the finish line shortly before the bombers struck, said all firefighters on duty that day have received counseling.
He attributed the relatively small death toll to the quick work of first responders, including his firefighters.
“They expected a lot more people would not survive, and the fact that they did is miraculous,” he said.
Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesman, said the idea for the commendation ribbon came about shortly after the attacks. He said the department waited until Monday to conduct the ceremony for scheduling reasons.
Only about half of those who served during the bombings could attend, but all will receive the commendation.
“This was an incident unlike anything we’ve had before, and it obviously impacted the city and those who were there in many ways,” he said. The ceremony “was a way to say thanks to the firefighters and help them deal with everything that happened.”
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.