Remnants of the Boston Marathon bombing memorial: Fragments of tragedy, and our best selves
The four white wooden crosses are encased in cardboard now, pushed up against a wall deep inside a humidity- and temperature-controlled section of a secure facility about 40 miles from the finish line where they once stood.
Each cross bears a familiar name: Martin Richard. Lingzi Lu. Krystle Campbell. Sean Collier. And each cross is just a bit too big for its box, protruding from between the flaps of the box top, as if yearning to be seen again.
Five years after the bombs went off, the physical remnants of the 2013 attack on the Boston Marathon — thousands of artifacts that once made up a sprawling public memorial anchored by these four crosses — have been carefully and respectfully preserved.
Hats and shoes, posters and cards, vials of holy water, and half-spent candles fill hundreds of boxes filed away here, at the storage firm Iron Mountain’s warehouse in Northborough and in the city’s archives in West Roxbury.
Sifting through it all, you can begin to hear the story of a time in Boston that has become, in some ways, sacred.
“For me, to this day, every time I talk about it I have goosebumps. Sometimes I cry,” said Ides Figueiredo, who nearly completed the marathon that year but was stopped at Kenmore Square after the explosions.
Now, her racing bib from that day sits in a box in West Roxbury.
“I thought that it didn’t belong to me,” said Figueiredo, who waited a while to go back, carrying flowers, sneakers, and her bib, to the finish line she never quite reached. “It was so emotional.”
Poring over these things feels both archeological and urgent. The artifacts have been examined infrequently in the years since the memorial was packed away. But they retain a powerful emotional resonance for the people who lived through those days.
The stories of those who lost their lives, and of resilient survivors struggling through terrible injuries, continue to be well and poignantly told all over Boston and the world. The movements and motivations of the brothers who set the bombs have been well-mined, too, their wasted lives chronicled exhaustively.
For many, the story of those days in 2013 was not quite so dramatic, the physical connection not quite so direct. Because the Marathon’s reach is vast, most surely did not know those who died or were injured.
But, as the myriad remnants of the memorial attest, the bombing and its aftermath changed something in them all the same.
“I didn’t feel much about the strength of the community before,” said Mark Minnucci, who was standing with his wife about midway between the two bombs when they exploded. Now 37, the engineer who moved to the area in 2005 said living through the bombing changed something in the way he felt about his adopted home and the Marathon.
“I felt, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter how many bombs terrorists plant. There’s nothing they’re going to do that is going to crumble the fabric of this Boston community,’ ” Minnucci said. While the Marathon’s boundless positivity was already inspiring, he said, the strength of the community that surrounded it after the bombing “made it something important to me in a way it wasn’t important before.”
Minnucci’s sneakers sit in a box at the city archives — he’d written his name on them before he left them at the memorial — and seeing a picture of them, five years later, he seemed to struggle for words.
“It’s funny, it was really poignant,” Minnucci said. “I remember tying the laces together and hanging them up on a fence. To see them again. . . . Five years. I hadn’t internalized that it had been five years.”
Five years is a long time, and it isn’t.
“Seems like it’s been two or three,” said Kevin Brown, the 63-year-old carpenter who made one of the crosses. Brown had no particular connection to the Marathon or the bombing but was for several weeks the memorial’s tireless, self-appointed attendant. Brown, who now lives in Roslindale, would make the trek to Copley Square from Brockton every day and spend 12 hours helping people place their offerings, making sure nothing was stolen, and protecting the memorial from the rain.
That time was special for Brown, who found purpose in guarding the memorial. But the years since have been rocky. His grandson died in a car crash in 2016. A few months ago, Brown had back surgery. For the first time, he hasn’t prepared anything to commemorate the anniversary; he said he wasn’t sure whether he’d attend the Marathon this year.
Brown has not been out to Iron Mountain to visit the things he spent so many days tending.
After the bombing, the Boston-based company offered its services, free of charge, to sort and store materials from the memorial in perpetuity. Researchers visit from time to time, and the materials are occasionally loaned to museums.
Iron Mountain employees volunteered their time, picking through oversized trash bags and saving everything that could be preserved. Employees worked to digitize the thousands of letters sent to the city and other items left at the memorial.
“You’d open a card, and there would be hundreds of origami butterflies,” said Alisha Perdue, the company’s community engagement manager.
The workers bore the emotional weight, too.
Christian Potts, the director of corporate communications, said the psychic energy of all that sadness and love would follow him into his car, where he’d spend the first 15 minutes of his drive home crying.
The city archive holds smaller items, mostly paper, but not entirely. People left sports jerseys and flags, holy water and hand-carved crucifixes. Someone left behind a patch from the Austin, Texas, police department, which five years later had to contend with its own bombing attacks. Someone else left behind an Alcoholics Anonymous medallion commemorating 17 years of sobriety.
The family of Jesus Sanchez left behind a handmade poster:
From a Boston September 11th Family
To the Boston Marathon Families:
We’ve been where you are
We know how you feel
We feel your pain
Sanchez died on United flight 175, which left Logan Airport and crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
And then there were offerings from the children. Folder after folder is full of carefully decorated cards, construction paper, and drawings that they left. Brown, as familiar with the contents of the memorial and the spirit of that time as anyone, said the things children left still move him the most.
“Bless them God,” one child wrote above a magic marker cross, “From Curt.”
A heartbreaking note to Martin Richard featured a drawing of two figures strolling happily. They were labeled “Jesus Christ” and “you,” and they were walking together in heaven.
A Northeastern University project, Our Marathon, collected the digitized items along with stories, interviews, and videos. In its earliest days, the project was a place for people to share their stories, said Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, professor and chair of the English department at Northeastern. Soon, it became clear that the project could also serve an important historical purpose, capturing the moment for researchers who wish to study it.
“Everybody had a story about the way it sort of directly affected them,” said Dillon, who served as one of the primary investigators for Our Marathon.
Through a collaboration with WBUR, a series of oral histories reached into parts of the community that experienced the aftermath of the attack in different, more complicated ways. Interviews touched on the understandable nervousness some in the Muslim community felt about possible backlash after the bombings, and on the frustrations some in the black community felt about an outpouring that seemed to leave behind black victims of violence in city neighborhoods.
That the moment of civic unity felt distant or even exclusionary to some is part of the story, too.
Listening to the interviews, looking at the pictures, holding the scraps of paper and old shoes, it’s as if the story can only be fully told by everyone all at once. For those of us who were not here to live through it, its enormity begins to reveal itself.
The Marathon’s roots in the community are in part what moved Anne Stanton Mikulski to write and leave a poem at the memorial. It’s in the city archive now, and a part of family lore.
Like so many whose lives changed that day, Mikulski wasn’t a runner or a victim or a hero. She was there to cheer on a family friend who was running on behalf of Mikulski’s brother, Bob Stanton, who was battling prostate cancer. His family and friends and caregivers at Dana Farber called themselves Team Bob.
That dynamic — for every runner, countless supporters — is a big part of what defines Boston’s marathon.
And that same spirit is what buoyed and sustained the city after the attack. It’s the energy you can feel as you hold the tattered, precious things buried in so many boxes. It’s a force people also took away with them; it can’t be contained in a cardboard box.
Mikulski’s loved ones were unharmed that day, but “it had a very powerful effect on, I think, all of us.”
A few days later, not long before the memorials that sprung up on Boylston Street were carefully moved to Copley, Mikulski left a copy of her poem, which begins:
For the race of your life
Bob Stanton died in 2015, Mikulski said, more than a decade after his initial diagnosis. But Team Bob will still be in its usual spot in Newton on Monday, cheering on his daughter.