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Bombing survivor drawn to trial by hope for answers, release

Bomber’s seeming calm unsettled his victim

Marathon bombing survivors Heather Abbott (left) and Karen Rand McWatters, with husband Kevin McWatters, exited court together Wednesday after the trial’s first session. John Blanding/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It was still dark outside when the alarm woke Heather Abbott, in a hotel room above the Seaport District. Before she opened her eyes or silenced the beeping, she knew it was time. Today, the trial was starting at last.

Today she was going to see the person who took her leg.

She lay still a minute, gathering herself for the day, while the silent hotel slept on around her. Then she pushed off the covers and sat up, reaching for the prosthetic leg she’d left by the side of the bed.

The coil of anxiety that had been with her for days curled back into place around Heather’s neck and shoulders. She dressed and pulled on her black boots and repacked her bags. Outside, the heavy, wet March snow had turned to rain. A pack of runners sped by on the street below, ignoring the slush in the gutters, probably training for the Boston Marathon next month.

On Marathon Day two years ago, April 15, 2013, Heather had risen in the dark, just like this day. With a close-knit group of friends, she’d traveled to Boston from her home in Newport, R.I. They made the trip together every year.


Heather had been standing just outside the door to Forum, about to go inside the restaurant, when the second bomb exploded yards away. Her left leg was amputated one week later.

Since then, she had spent little time dwelling on the bomber. She had resolved, from the first days after her surgery, to take back the life she’d had before, conceding nothing.

She had returned to her job in human resources, gone back to running, even resumed wearing high heels with a special prosthetic made just for that. That leg was in her luggage now; she’d worn it to dinner the night before.


Heather stepped into the empty hallway and struggled with her bags to the elevator. Making this long walk to her room the night before, after working all day and driving up from Rhode Island, she had felt frustration and a flash of anger. Tomorrow I’m going to see him, she’d thought. The person who did this to me. The same thought resurfaced later that night, when the familiar throbbing started in her injured leg, the discomfort once again keeping her from sleep.

When people asked Heather whether she was angry, she told them no. She could tell some people were surprised by that. And maybe it was strange that she hadn’t felt that way. But the bomber was, to her, an abstraction, not a person. He was a fuzzy courtroom sketch; a silent, malevolent force. Maybe going to the trial would make it happen; maybe she would finally get mad.

And that, she had come to believe, that was something that needed to happen: “Seeing him in person will make him more real for me, and I’ll feel some emotions that I haven’t felt . . . It’s a long process, and this is another step.”

In the deserted hotel lobby, she called for her car; the valet promised it would be there in three minutes. The rain had stopped; the day was beginning to lighten. Three minutes closer to seeing him, she thought.

Busy building a new life

It hadn’t been easy for Heather to make the time to be here Wednesday, as busy as she found herself these days. The bombing had changed everything, but not just in the ways she expected. Afterward, she started counseling other amputees, to give them hope by sharing her recovery. She agreed to give a talk about her experience, and that led to speeches all over the country. She spoke of accepting her loss, accepting that she couldn’t change it, and told how that had allowed her to move forward.


Most recently, she had started the Heather Abbott Foundation , navigating a maze of unfamiliar red tape and plunging into grant writing, public re- lations, and fund-raising. The goal was to help amputees whose cases, unlike hers, had never made headlines or spurred a flood of donations. Getting her life back had not been cheap; prosthetics are costly, and out of reach for most people.

“I can’t keep walking into these hospital rooms and telling people about something they can’t have,” Heather said she had realized. “I have to find a way to make it happen.”

Now, with the hour approaching 9 a.m., she took her seat inside the federal courtroom on a wooden bench four rows back, behind the table where the prosecution sat.

Beside her were Richard “Dic” Donahue and his wife Kim; Donahue, an officer with the MBTA’s Transit Police, had nearly died in the gunfight with the bombing suspects. Other people she knew were sitting nearby, too, including Bill and Denise Richard, parents of 8-year-old Martin, who was killed, and Jane, who lost a leg.


She didn’t see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev enter the courtroom, and when she looked up and realized he was there, she was startled by the sudden reality of it. As often as she had imagined it, she was still caught unprepared. She watched him from across the room, this stranger who had dropped a backpack full of shrapnel and explosives behind the crowd and then walked away. She was braced for anger, but no anger came. He looked smaller than she had expected.

“Inexcusable,” his lawyer called his actions. And then, thought Heather, the lawyer made an excuse, blaming what had happened on Tsarnaev’s older brother.

As witnesses started to testify, describing the scene of the bombing, she felt herself pulled backward, to a day that would always be a divide in her life, and the lives of the other survivors, a dark bridge between their before and after.

Heather had worked hard since then to keep her gaze trained ahead. In court, she could not. Witness after witness described what that day had been like. She fought back tears and glanced at the defendant, watching for a reaction, for a clue to the thoughts in his head.

He rolled a pencil on the table, his posture suggesting indifference. It’s his life that’s on the line, she marveled. How can it be he doesn’t care?

The bench was unforgiving, and she shifted in her seat, propping one leg on the other and then switching back. It was hard to catch every word being said, for Heather and the others who had lost hearing in the blasts, until court staff distributed headsets.


Yet her attention never wandered. Every story echoed her own, and brought back the fear, smoke, and pain. The people she felt closest to were here, waiting their turn to testify, doing something impossibly painful and brave. She wanted them to look out from the stand and see her face. She knew that she belonged here, and she would not look away.

Questions unanswered

The last witness of the day was Karen Rand McWatters, who had lost a leg. She had gone to the race with her best friend, Krystle Campbell, and she described their final hours together — how they’d posed for a photo in the Public Garden, laughing at themselves, two locals, playing tourist.

She told how they’d lain on the ground side by side, their faces pressed together, after the first bomb exploded at their feet, and how she kept holding tight to Krystle’s hand, until her friend stopped talking and her hand went limp.

Then it was over, the trial’s first day behind them, all of them one day closer to its end. US marshals flanked Tsarnaev as he left the courtroom. Heather watched him go, walking easily, on two good legs.

Then she felt the anger she had waited for all day. She got up and started moving toward the door. She could not say whether she would return. It had been much harder than she had expected, each vivid detail pressing on her like a weight. Her careful study of the bomber revealed nothing, no hint of who or what he was, either now or then.

Outside the courtroom door a great glass wall sloped skyward, the gray harbor and gray clouds beyond it. Somewhere, her cellphone buzzed with unseen texts and e-mails, supportive notes from friends and a million things to do.

She stepped through the door into the natural light of the hallway. Karen McWatters was there, and Heather turned to embrace her. The two of them stood there together, and Heather started to cry.

Jenna Russell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.