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Amid chaos and fear, a moment of humanity

Marathon bombing survivor Steve Woolfenden (right) was depicted on the witness stand Thursday.Jane Flavell Collins/Associated Press

The sidewalk was still hot, the acrid smoke drifting above Boylston Street, and Denise Richard and Steve Woolfenden, a mom and a dad, strangers, found themselves on the ground, next to their sons, next to each other.

Woolfenden was lying there, his left leg blown clear off below the knee, and he was trying desperately to pull his 3-year-old son Leo out of a stroller, but his fingers were numb.

“Mommy, Daddy!” Leo shouted over and over again. “Mommy, Daddy!”

Blood poured from the left side of Leo’s head where a piece of shrapnel had entered.

Denise Richard, a piece of shrapnel blinding her eye, was kneeling next to Steve Woolfenden, with her back to him, over her 8-year-old son Martin.


“Please, Martin!” she pleaded. “Please, Martin!”

She was willing him to live, to hold on, but the bomb that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had placed 3½ feet in back of Martin tore through him like a meteor, eviscerating his insides.

A Boston cop named Tommy Barrett grabbed Leo and sprinted across Boylston to a waiting ambulance.

With Leo gone, Steve Woolfenden turned his attention to the woman next to him, kneeling over her son.

“Please, Martin,” she kept saying, in what amounted to a prayer. “Please, Martin.”

Steve Woolfenden could see that Martin’s hair was singed, that his eyes had rolled into the back of his head, that his mouth was agape. A pool of Martin’s blood was spreading across the sidewalk. Steve Woolfenden didn’t know if his son would die, but he knew Martin Richard would.

And so he did the only thing he could, the only gesture in that moment, from one parent to another. He rested his hand on Denise Richard’s back.

“Denise turned to me and asked me if I was OK,” Steve Woolfenden said.

And in that moment, the contrast between Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his victims could not have been starker. His victims responding to an appalling act of inhumanity with a simple moment of humanity.


It was the prosecution’s coda, its final witness as it tries to convince a jury to sentence Tsarnaev to death. It was a calculated attempt by prosecutors to illustrate why Tsarnaev doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as the people whose response to his cruelty was to express kindness to a stranger.

Before getting to that point, prosecutors had spent Thursday asking two of Tsarnaev’s victims to explain what happened to them after he detonated the bomb he left outside the Forum restaurant on Patriots Day in 2013.

Marc Fucarile, who had gone with a bunch of friends to watch a buddy finish the Boston Marathon, explained how he spent 100 days in the hospital after losing his right leg. They had to take almost all the skin off his back to graft it on to other parts of his body.

“They slice your skin off then spread it out using almost like a pizza dough roller,” he explained.

It’s been two years, and now they’re saying he may lose his left leg, too. He’s getting treatment at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center because he has what amounts to war wounds.

Heather Abbott was standing in front of the Forum, digging out her ID, when the bomb went off. She lost her left leg. While she sat on the witness stand, Steve Mellin, the prosecutor, asked her to identify 17 people, including herself, from a series of photographs and she did, one by one:


Celeste Corcoran, Marc Fucarile, Erika Brannock, Karen Rand McWatters, Roseann Sdoia, JP Norden, Paul Norden, Adrienne Haslet-Davis, Jeff Bauman, Mery Daniel, Rebekah Gregory, Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, William White, Steve Woolfenden, and Jane Richard.

It was a club no one wanted to belong to. Each of the 17 had lost legs to the bombs left on Boylston Street by Tsarnaev and his brother.

Dr. David King, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, who ran the Marathon that day then rushed to Mass General to take care of the victims, compared the wounds he treated to those he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat surgeon for the US Army.

King’s testimony was mostly technical, but it was essential for the prosecution to prove that Tsarnaev’s crimes were heinous, cruel, and depraved — a legal benchmark needed to justify the death penalty. King said that Martin Richard didn’t die instantly, that he was in excruciating pain as he lay there on the sidewalk, his insides blown out.

And so it was back to that sidewalk, the spot where the prosecution was determined to end, to show the vast gulf between Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s actions and those he left bereft.

Tsarnaev had lingered for some four minutes behind the Richard family, where the three Richard kids stood on a barrier watching the Marathon, before leaving a pressure cooker bomb in back of them. After his brother detonated the bomb outside Marathon Sports on Boylston closer to the finish line, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began hurrying away from where he left his bomb.


The video taken from the Forum surveillance camera shows that he actually brushed past Steve Woolfenden, who was trying to turn around the stroller, which, in the midst of the crowd, was like trying to turn a ship around in a canal.

In his wake, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left behind his bomb, the most vulnerable of children, and any shred of decency.

After the bomb exploded, Tsarnaev was literally out of the picture, and Denise Richard and Steve Woolfenden were on the sidewalk with their sons.

From the sidewalk where he died, Martin’s arms rose in one last gasp of agony. By this time, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was heading to Cambridge, to buy a half gallon of milk.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.