Globe photographer meets woman in Marathon photo
The photograph of a young woman in shock, her legs peppered with shrapnel wounds, her clothing torn, her limbs laced with blood that also drenched the Boylston Street sidewalk beneath her, made its way around the world.
The image, by John Tlumacki of the Globe, came to symbolize the carnage and terror of the Boston Marathon bombings through Nicole Gross’s suffering.
On Friday, after more than a month of treatment at two Boston hospitals, Gross met the man who had brought her private pain into public view.
“Hi, how are you,” Tlumacki said softly as he walked into her room at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown. “How are you doing?”
“So much better,” answered Gross, propped up in bed, as she extended her arms for an embrace.
Better physically, Gross said, as she recovers from a compound fracture of one leg, a nearly severed Achilles tendon, and hearing damage. And better emotionally, Gross added, as she accepts an unsought role as the dazed and battered symbol of a terrorist attack.
“The first week was horrific,” said Gross, 31, a personal trainer and endurance coach from Charlotte, N.C. “Now, I want my face to be one of strength and perseverance.”
Gross is scheduled to leave Spaulding on Saturday and return home with her husband, Michael, ready to tackle what is expected to be a long recovery. Her sister, Erika Brannock, lost her left leg above the knee while the siblings waited near the finish line for their 57-year-old mother to complete her first Marathon.
The meeting with Tlumacki represented part of that process, to put a face with the camera that made her pain an indelible legacy of the two explosions that killed three people and injured 265 on April 15.
“If I didn’t see you, it would just not feel as complete,” Gross told Tlumacki, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s kind of full circle at this point.”
Soon after the bombings, however, the family tried to distance itself from the photograph.
“While there is a public thirst for information, we ask for your patience and some privacy for a while as we work to recover,” the family said in a press release. “We also request that you refrain from using the graphic pictures of Nicole, Erika, and Michael taken at the scene of the bombing, as they are tremendously painful for the family. They are trying to focus on the future.”
Later, as the image became as much a symbol of resilience as horror, Gross’s family asked to meet Tlumacki.
For the photographer, who has worked at the Globe for 32 years, the request was welcomed as a cathartic chance to explain why and how he took the picture.
There had been nightmares and flashbacks, said Tlumacki, 57, who lives in Pembroke. And there had been doubt about his decisions on Marathon Monday, when Tlumacki had been standing at the finish line when the first bomb exploded nearby at about 2:50 p.m.
Within three seconds, he had taken a photograph of a runner, thrown to the ground by the shock waves, facing three police officers frantically trying to make sense of the chaos. By 20 seconds, he had reached a double line of roadside barriers that separated the marathoners from the spectators.
And then there was Gross, sitting on the bloody sidewalk, trying to stand, staring ahead in unfocused shock.
“She was beautiful. But in that particular shot, she’s surrounded by glass and blood and bodies, and she’s still trying to get up,” Tlumacki said. “I think she represented everybody who was hurt by the blast.”
Driven by professional instinct, Tlumacki continued to take photographs, many of which he could not use because they were too graphic.
“I think it’s important for people to see what terrorism does,” he said.
But for two weeks after the blasts, he continued, “I was reliving every second, with images of pictures flashing through my head. I had doubts about whether I did the right thing, whether I was insensitive, and whether I could have done a better job.”
But by doing his job, Gross said, he caught something that compels her to return to the photo, “just to see what you captured.”
The sidewalk barriers prevented Tlumacki from reaching Gross and other victims, he said, but feelings of guilt have persisted.
“Not so much that I didn’t help, but by photographing them when they were down and out,” Tlumacki said. “You’re in a tough situation when you’re a journalist. There was no way to get to you. I’m not trained. I’m not an EMT.”
Gross said she does not remember much after the explosion — “it was all such a blur” — and that she does not question Tlumacki’s instincts to do his job. In retrospect, she said, the photo will serve as a positive.
“I feel that so many people can relate to this,” Gross said of the photo. “When I read it was going global and being labeled ‘iconic,’ I had a better feeling about it.”
Her husband, Michael, echoed that sentiment as he sat beside the bed: “It’s a face to put to this to show that we can get back up,” he said.
Before Tlumacki left, he gave Gross the photo credentials he had worn on Marathon Monday and let her take a picture of Boston Harbor with the camera he had used to record her worst moment.
Gross looked at her legs, extended straight before her, and said: “I’m fortunate I’ve got both of them. I’ll get them strong again.”
Daunting medical bills loom, but friends and well-wishers have started a fund-raising drive for the family at bestrongstaystrong.net.
In the meantime, Gross added, “I’m just ready to sleep in my own bed.”