I never really saw his face, just his body crumpled on the ground at my feet. It was Bill Iffrig, a 78-year-old runner who fell hard when the first bomb exploded on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. I had instinctively started shooting photos, and right in front of me, Bill, wearing a brilliant orange shirt, tumbled in front of three charging Boston police officers, one with a gun drawn. A blue haze filled the air as Bill was helped to his feet and across the finish line.
We both were so lucky we weren’t injured. I continued to shoot photos of those badly injured and being helped by first responders and spectators. I did not see Bill again until April 3 of this year, 10 years later. I flew across the country, to Marysville, Wash., to photograph him again — this time on our terms.
His son Mark keeps a framed copy of my photograph, which graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, on a bureau in a room of the memory care facility where Bill lives with his wife, Donna. Bill and his wife both suffer from dementia, and Mark could not guarantee what his dad would be like when I arrived.
I brought with me the same Canon camera and lens that I photographed Bill and the officers with in 2013. Remarkably it still works, even though thousands of photographs have since passed through that camera.
Through several locked doors, Mark escorted me to his parents’ living quarters. I saw Bill as the door swung open. He was sitting in a wheelchair next to a table that had a framed copy of the magazine cover photo. Bill’s head was bowed in sleep.
“Dad, Dad, John’s here. The photographer that took that photo of you came to see you.” Mark said loudly. Bill’s hearing has not been the same since the bombing.
As I raised my camera, Bill raised his head slowly. He was groggy. When he saw me, he stared for a moment and then reached out with his left hand toward the Sports Illustrated cover. He rested his hand there, and pointed in an apparent silent acknowledgment that he knew who I was.
I focused on Bill’s chiseled face, and just as I did a decade ago, I captured a spirited man, a determined man, and now, a different man. The runner in my photo is now sedentary and unable to stand on his own. He wears Velcro strapped sneakers and his feet lie flat on the floor.
He closes his eyes. Then, he opens them again. I realize he knows I’m here. I also know it’s difficult for him and it’s also difficult for me to see him like this. As I spoke to Mark about the challenges ahead for his father, he held back tears. We then abruptly changed the subject and Mark announced that it was time for coffee and doughnuts.
“Dad, you ready for your doughnut?” Mark yelled. He wheeled his dad next to me at the kitchen table and we ate doughnuts and sipped coffee. We laughed and looked at photos Mark had of his dad when he climbed Mount St. Helens before it erupted.
It meant so much to me to photograph Bill under different circumstances.
In the time spent shooting and listening and talking, I felt that I had come full circle as the 10th anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing approached.
It was such a long journey to take such a simple photograph of an inspirational man. I shook Bill’s hand, said goodbye, and walked out through the locked doors.
I hope Bill understands how much I appreciate him living his days with my photograph displayed in his room, because that photograph will never fade from our memories.