IN THE SAVANNA OF THE BACK BAY, a few tenths of a mile from the devastation, all the herds were charging toward her. The runners were fleeing something awful, screaming about explosions. The authorities were shouting something urgent, commanding everyone to follow the stampede away from the chaos on Boylston Street.
Instead, Natalie Stavas ran toward it. She isn’t a cop or firefighter and had every right to flee. But something compelled her to head toward the trouble. The petite blond who lives in the South End and was competing in her fourth Boston Marathon, this time with an injured foot, jumped over a barricade on Hereford Street and sprinted down a back alley. As she approached Boylston, a couple of blocks from the bloody finish line, a cluster of cops barked at her to turn around. She refused, screaming: “I’m a kids’ doctor! Let me help.”
Months after the Marathon bombings, Stavas, now 32, smiles in embarrassment at how that comment must have sounded at the time. During the interviews she gave in the immediate aftermath, she substituted “pediatric” for “kids” in her reconstructed dialogue, which somehow sounded better. By now she knows her choice of words really doesn’t matter. Whatever she said was enough for the police to let her through. “A kids’ doctor is still a doctor,” she says, “right?”
Stavas, a pediatric resident training jointly at Boston Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital, saw blood everywhere. She could even taste its metallic tang in the smoky air. There had already been two blasts. Chances were good there would be more. Still, she rushed in to help the wounded.
So did 32-year-old high school custodian Dan Marshall and 57-year-old ironworker Larry Hittinger. After the second bomb exploded, Marshall and Hittinger each charged into the mayhem to try to aid the injured.
Much has been made of “Boston Strong,” the bumper-sticker summary of the city’s resilience in the face of the Marathon attacks. But that collective muscle was formed by the fibers of thousands of individual acts of bravery and compassion. Runners and spectators busted down the metal barricades that the bombs had cruelly turned into cages for the injured. Medics, police, and other first responders stabilized the victims and whisked them into ambulances. Dispatchers, thanks in part to extensive disaster preparedness training, managed with expert precision the crushing flow of patients to Boston’s many respected hospitals. And the staffs of those hospitals rose to the challenge at every level, from the top trauma surgeons who put the victims back together to the housekeepers who quietly kept up with the unprecedented amount of blood soaking through emergency-room sheets. The contributions continued that night and in the days after the blasts, when residents opened their homes to stranded runners, and hotel employees worked without pay to feed and house the hundreds of investigators who had swarmed the area in search of answers.
Each of these individuals is deserving of credit and thanks. But as symbols of the remarkable sacrifice on display during that unforgettable Marathon Monday, it’s hard to top people like Stavas, Marshall, and Hittinger.
“I saw carnage, a lot of blood, body parts, amputations,” Marshall says. “Stuff everyday people shouldn’t see.”
A custodian, an ironworker, a kids’ doctor in training, these everyday people did much more than simply witness the carnage. They became civilian first responders, rushing in to help when they had no professional obligation to do so and when the powerful human instinct for self-preservation was telling them to head the other way. In recognition of their selflessness, and as representatives of the many others who behaved heroically to make that afternoon of April 15 less awful, Hittinger, Marshall, and Stavas are our 2013 Bostonians of the Year.
LARRY HITTINGER KEEPS a receipt in his wallet, a reminder of his last carefree Marathon moment before the blasts. It’s a receipt from the Atlantic Fish Company for $34.51. Hittinger, who now lives in Saugus, and a group of his buddies were just finishing their drinks at an outdoor patio table, getting ready to move to the steakhouse a few doors down. Hittinger signed the receipt, leaving a $10 tip, just seconds before the first bomb went off. He thought it was a prankster lighting an M-80 firework. Yet there was no doubt what the second bomb was, since it exploded just a few yards away.
Near the street, Hittinger spied a child who appeared to be hurt, so he raced that way. He felt an immediate connection, perhaps because the child looked to be about the same age as his granddaughter. With a plume of smoke hovering in the air and lots of soot covering the child’s hair, he couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. What was unmistakable, though, was the child’s thigh had been blown open, like a hamburger patty had been slapped on it, with blood all around.
“What’s your name?” Hittinger shouted.
The child responded, but it was too loud for Hittinger to hear. A stranger handed him a belt, and Hittinger used it to make a tourniquet for the battered leg. The child started to spell the name, but still it was too loud. So Hittinger put his ear right up to the child’s mouth. At last, he understood. The name was Aaron, a boy.
On most of his ironworker jobs, Hittinger serves as a union steward, looking out for the rest of the crew and paying especially close attention to the sounds around him. “If you hear an ambulance siren on a job,” he says, “that means somebody’s hurt.” He leaned on that hearing acuity now, detecting a distant ambulance approaching.
Hittinger connected with a first responder named Mike Ward, and together they carried 11-year-old Aaron Hern to the ambulance just as it was approaching. Ward later said Hittinger showed such steely calm that he assumed he was trained in emergency response. In fact, Hittinger’s medical training consisted of only a few first aid courses taken 36 years earlier.
Hittinger pressed on, helping a different medic tend to an injured woman. When the medic briefly struggled to use surgical tubing to make a tourniquet, Hittinger took over, telling her: “I’m an ironworker. I tie knots for a living.”
After helping a dozen or so victims into ambulances, Hittinger scanned Boylston Street. “Everybody was looking up,” he says, “but nobody was looking down.” If there were more bombs, he figured they might be in the sewers, so he walked the street, checking each manhole cover. From all his years in construction, he assumed he’d be able to detect any signs of tampering.
“Every second you’re thinking the next bomb is about to go off,” Hittinger recalls. “But I’d made my decision, and there was no turning back.”
ALTHOUGH THEY’D never met, Dan Marshall hadn’t been far from Hittinger when the bombs went off. Marshall, who lives in Beverly, and his girlfriend and another couple also had been sitting at a patio table of Atlantic Fish. But he had just walked over to the sidewalk to cheer on a runner friend who would soon be approaching the finish line. When the second bomb exploded, Marshall, a former college hockey player with an athletic build, was blown back. The blast gave him a concussion and ruptured his eardrum, muffling the shrieks around him. His buddy pulled him to safety with the rest of their party on the patio, but Marshall ran back toward the injured.
He found a grief-stricken woman huddled over her young son. He removed his belt and used it to try to stanch the bleeding where the boy’s arm had been blown away. He took off his shirt and gave it to someone to use as a tourniquet on another victim. All the while he tried to comfort the mother of the boy, who turned out to be 8-year-old Martin Richard. A custodian at Danvers High School, Marshall had no training in trauma medicine or even first aid. He was operating solely on adrenaline and the lessons he had gleaned from watching war movies.
While he was tending to Martin, his buddy, Mike Chase, was helping care for Martin’s 7-year-old sister, Jane. The two men had been pals since their days playing on their high school baseball team. But they’ve grown much closer since the Marathon, talking through the horror they saw, says Marshall, now 33, engaged to his girlfriend, and working for the Danvers electric department. “What we witnessed,” he says, “it’s not something you want to keep inside. It you do, it will eat you alive.”
WHEN STAVAS GOT to the site of the second bomb, the first victim she encountered was a college-age woman who was grievously injured, covered in blood, and not moving. Despite having worked as a critical care nurse and then as a medical resident, Stavas says, “I’d never seen anything like that in my life.”
She performed chest compressions on the young woman while others also tried to help. It wasn’t until days later that Stavas came to believe the woman had been Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi, who, along with Martin Richard and Krystle Campbell, was killed by the blasts.
Making her way down Boylston, Stavas found a young woman in front of Lord & Taylor suffering from a gaping groin wound. She shoved a T-shirt into the wound and yelled for EMTs to get her into an ambulance. She applied an improvised tourniquet to the lower leg of a young man whose foot had been partially blown off and treated another whose tibia was protruding out of the skin, assuring him, “You’re going to be OK.”
Stavas says she was simply reacting. There were people in need of help, and she had a particular skill set that she knew could be valuable. “I just thought, ‘I need to get those people to safety.’ ” She later met a woman who had been at the finish line with her 8-year-old daughter. “She used her skill set to get her daughter to safety,” Stavas says. “At that moment, that was her job.” Stavas stresses that the mother’s job was every bit as important as her own.
WHAT MOTIVATES PEOPLE to run toward danger? What makes them willing to risk their lives so that strangers might live?
Just outside Houston in the summer of 2009, a 54-year-old grandmother named Shirley Dygert nervously prepared to take her first sky dive. Dave Hartsock, the veteran instructor who would be strapped to her for the tandem jump, assured her she would be fine. But during the jump, their parachute failed to open all the way, and their backup chute got tangled. “I’ll be honest with you,” he told her as they plummeted toward the ground. “We’re in trouble.” A few hundred feet before impact, Hartsock made a remarkable choice. He used his control toggles to rotate his body so it would be underneath hers, thereby cushioning her fall. The decision spared the grandmother’s life, but left the then 44-year-old instructor paralyzed from the chest down.
Science writer Elizabeth Svoboda uses this story in her new book to try to answer the same question she poses in its title: What Makes a Hero? After scouring the available research, the San Jose, California-based Svoboda says she found several themes common to everyday heroism. Two of them were evident at the Marathon.
First, like Stavas and Hittinger, the people committing the selfless acts tend to have special abilities they can put to use during a crisis. And the confidence in those abilities is enough to override the potent countervailing phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” where people fail to help a stranger in distress because they assume that someone else will.
Second, people are more likely to commit heroic acts if they tend to view others not as members of a different tribe but rather as members of the same human family. This theme emerged from research by political scientist Kristen Monroe into what distinguished those who intervened to aid Holocaust victims from those who simply stood by. Because the rescuers tended to see the victims as fellow human beings rather than focusing on their different religion or ethnicity, they were more motivated to intervene. Svoboda says they were also more likely to view their actions as normal rather than heroic.
“It’s how you’re built,” Hittinger says. “I became a tough guy growing up because I didn’t like bullies. I beat up the bullies so they wouldn’t pick on other kids.”
For many who intervene, a fear bigger than personal injury helps motivate them into action: If they failed to act, how heavy would the guilt be? When Svoboda asked the paralyzed sky-dive instructor if he’d make the same decision again, he said: “Absolutely. I just did what needed to be done.”
That response is nearly identical to how Marshall explains his decision to run toward danger. “I was just doing what I had to do,” he says.
Hittinger is even more succinct. “I had no choice.”
Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.