kevin cullen

Five years later, we feel the grief like a sixth sense

Boston, MA - 7/4/17 - Ritajayne Rivera, with American themed sneakers with the date of the Boston Marathon bombing written on them during the Fourth of July Pops celebration on the Esplanade on Tuesday, July 4, 2017. Rivera was near the first bomb during marathon. (Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe) Topic: 05IndepenceDaypic
Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe

Has it really been five years?

Sometimes it feels a million years and a million miles away. And then something will happen — I’ll see a survivor on TV or on the sidewalk in the North End or Adams Village — and it feels like yesterday.

I happened upon a house fire recently, in Mattapan, and the smell reminded me of Boylston Street five years ago, when so many lost their lives and their limbs and their sense of security.


I can smell Patriots Day, 2013. I can hear it. God, can I hear it, whenever multiple fire engines or ambulances are racing to a scene.

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I can taste it, when I’m around a campfire and embers create a certain sensation.

I can see it, when I bump into survivors, which happens with more regularity than I could ever have imagined. And I can touch it, when I grab those survivors’ hands or their shoulders.

There are five senses of the 2013 Marathon, a sixth if you throw in grief. And many people in this town and beyond experience all those senses. So we can mark anniversaries until we die, and 2013 will just always be there.

Five years. Five years removed from the initial shock.


Five years is that arbitrary milestone the doctors give you when you’re recovering from cancer. If you’re cancer-free for five years, you’re home free. Or at least that’s what they tell you.

We who live in and around Boston, or simply love Boston, are five years clear of the cancer that detonated the bombs outside Marathon Sports and the Forum, killing three people, dismembering almost two dozen, and leaving another 200 wounded. That’s not counting what it did to the psyches of everyone who has ever walked down by the Boston Public Library, spitting distance to where the ball bearings from the bombs tore into the flesh of man, woman, and child.

But are we five years free of the grief?

A few months ago, I was driving down Gallivan Boulevard, on the way to the Eire Pub, to talk to a man about a horse. As I was turning up Adams Street, I spied Jane Richard standing on the sidewalk, waiting to cross. She probably had just left her part-time job at College Hype, where the great Jack Doherty gives her a few hours of work here and there.

Jane lost her leg that day, and she lost her brother, Martin, who at 8 was a year older than she was. Since the bombing, Jane has been my talisman. A few months after the bombing, she posed wearing her tiger leg, the prosthesis that would let her run if not make her a semblance of the Irish step dancer she was before a couple of losers decided to put a bomb behind her and her siblings. I remember seeing that photo and smiling for the first time in weeks.


“Janey!” I called out through my open window.

It startled her, and she turned and looked in my direction and, without really knowing who I was or why I had called out, she smiled and waved enthusiastically.

I parked in the Old Dorchester Post parking lot and as soon as I turned the engine off, for reasons I can’t completely explain, I began to weep.

I’m not patronizing Jane, because she is a great kid, with great parents and a warm and loving community around her. I know she’ll go on to do good, important things.

But the injustice of what was done to her, the cruelty, the things she won’t be able to do in life just overwhelmed me in the moment.

There is a sadness, ineffable but undeniable, that will always hang over the Marathon until everybody who was alive when the bombings happened is dead. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that. In fact, it’s healthy.

But what gets us, all of us, past the sheer sadness, the sheer pain of the memory of five years ago is the way the survivors are carrying on — Jane, her parents, her brother Henry, the Corcorans, Heather Abbott, the Norden brothers, J.P. and Paul, Adrianne Haslet, Roseann Sdoia, Patrick Downes, Jess Kensky, Rebekah Gregory and her infectious Texas twang, Jeff Bauman. I could go on and on and name more and more but the reality is that while many of these people lost limbs, they lost none of their humanity, none of their resilience.

Then there are the people who ran toward the bombs that day. The first responders, some of whom suffered severe post-traumatic stress after wading into the carnage. Cops and firefighters and paramedics and ordinary civilians like Carlos Arredondo and Rob Wheeler.

On Wednesday, just before noon, I was standing in Copley Square. It was a beehive of activity, all related to the Marathon.

Workers were frantically assembling the huge tent directly across from the Dartmouth Street entrance to the library. It is the medical tent, the place where Krystle Campbell’s body was brought after she fell mortally wounded on the sidewalk, next to her friend, Karen Rand.

As I watched the workers assemble the tent, all I could think of what it was like in that tent five years ago.

When the bombs went off, a Boston cop named Danny Keeler screamed into his radio that they needed to keep the Ring Road open, and to keep emergency vehicles to a minimum, so they wouldn’t clog the roads that would ferry the wounded to hospitals. Danny, a former Marine, if there is such a thing, probably saved dozens of lives with that simple, shouted intuition. Because 90 people were transported to hospitals within the first 30 minutes after the bombs, and they all lived.

Krystle Campbell did not. And not long after she died, while she was still lying in the medical tent, Danny brought a group of young cops to Campbell’s side and told them to pay their respects, because when they were done paying their respects, they were going to go out and find who murdered her and Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu.

Danny led his charges out of the medical tent, and five days later all of them were there in Watertown when they took the second bomber into custody.

A few hours after that, I sat down with Danny and his young cops, at a table in the back room at JJ Foley’s, the venerable South End watering hole. Jerry Foley brought the young cops beers and Danny Keeler, the sophisticate Marine, a glass of red wine.

“To Sean,” Danny said, lifting his glass, and the cops toasted the memory of Sean Collier, the MIT cop assassinated by the bombers.

I think about Sean whenever I see the MIT buildings across the Charles, when I’m driving on Storrow Drive.

What would Sean be doing? Would he be married? Would he have kids?

He’d probably be a cop in Somerville, where I first met him, when he worked there as a civilian, waiting to get called by any police department that would have him.

I like to think that wherever Sean is now, he’s with DJ Simmonds, the fifth victim, the Boston police officer who died in 2014 due to complications from injuries he suffered during the shootout in which one of the bombers was killed. Sean was white, DJ was black, but both of them were blue, cops through and through. They were so similar: tight with their families, upbeat guys who became cops because they wanted to help people.

I stay in contact with Sean’s police academy classmate, Dic Donohue, the transit cop who almost died by friendly fire in the firefight that killed the first bomber — actually, who did die and was brought back to life at Mount Auburn Hospital by a surgeon named Frank Vittimberga. Dic and I are both English soccer fans, and he tweets me, sometimes busting my chops because I support Manchester United.

There are all these little connections, friendships made.

Last fall, when Roseann Sdoia married Mike Materia, the Boston firefighter who held her hand in the back of a police wagon on the way to the hospital, it was a potent symbol. An act of hate brought Roseann and Mike together, and in utter defiance of that hate, they fell in love.

And so we take something like that away, to steel ourselves, to remember that good always triumphs over evil. It gets us through another day, another anniversary.

There is a wonderful Boston police officer named Lauren Woods. When the bombs went off, Lauren raced to the side of one of the most badly wounded, a Boston University student from China named Lingzi Lu. Lauren Woods wouldn’t leave Lingzi’s side, because she didn’t want her to die alone. And even when she knew Lingzi was dead, she didn’t want to leave her alone on the sidewalk.

So Lauren stayed with Lingzi and held her lifeless hand.

Lauren has become very close to Lingzi’s parents, Ling Meng and Jun Lu. She spent Saturday with them, as they are visiting from China. She wears a necklace they gave her. On the end of the chain is a simple L, for Lingzi. A couple of years ago, instead of working the Marathon, Lauren ran it in Lingzi’s memory.

Lingzi came to Boston and never left. And because of people like Lauren Woods, Lingzi and all the victims and survivors will be immortal in the place that matters most in Boston, the place that survives our own mortality, our own memory: our hearts.

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