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Kevin Cullen

Choosing to focus on the heroes, not the Tsarnaevs

A bouquet of flowers were put on the Marathon finish line after Friday’s sentencing.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

We are what we carry and what we remember.

So what will we carry and remember when it comes to the attack on the Boston Marathon, a dark piece of our history that reached what many hope was its last chapter with Friday’s verdict?

I’ll remember the choices people made. The heroes who emerged. The awesome dignity of the families most grievously hurt, a dignity sustained right through the last second of the trial.

I’ll remember a city that stayed true to its best self, even when it had every excuse to fall apart.

And I’ll try, as many of us will, to let the name Tsarnaev fade to black.


Choices. In the chaos that followed the bombs, people had to make them, split-second decisions in many instances. It’s important now, as our focus shifts, to remind ourselves again of what they did.

Benny Upton, a Boston firefighter, saw a man in ragged clothes whose foot was hanging on by a thin thread of flesh, propped up against a wall. There were others, screaming, moaning, all around. But Upton locked eyes with the guy and went to him.

There were paramedics and EMTs from Boston EMS, and they went from person to person, splayed across the sidewalk, and chose whom to treat first. Their decisions were based on training, on experience, but some of the wounded were stunned, angry, when they were passed over. There were choices to be made, a hierarchy of victims, and in the end dozens of people who could have died didn’t die because of those choices.

Lauren Woods, a Boston police officer, was ordered to leave the side of Lingzi Lu, a Boston University graduate student who had died as Woods comforted her on the sidewalk outside the Forum. A superior officer told her there could be more bombs. Lauren Woods chose to stay. When Lingzi’s parents came from China to Boston for her memorial service, Lauren Woods embraced them and told them, “She wasn’t alone when she died.”


Bill Richard had an impossible choice. He knew that his 8-year-old son Martin was dying because Martin’s body had been shredded by the bomb that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placed 4 feet in back of him. But Bill Richard had to get his 7-year-old daughter Jane, her leg torn off, to someone who could save her. And so he left his wife Denise, kneeling over their son, and ran to save Jane.

After the bomb outside Marathon Sports exploded, the vast majority of bystanders followed a basic human instinct and ran away. Carlos Arredondo chose to run the other way, toward the bomb. He wasn’t a cop. He wasn’t a firefighter. He wasn’t a paramedic. He was just a guy. He raced to the side of a stranger named Jeff Bauman, lying in a pool of blood. Carlos helped Jeff into a wheelchair and saved his life.

You saw the picture. Everybody saw the picture of Carlos, in the cowboy hat that somehow never fell off, running alongside as Jeff was being rushed down Boylston Street to a hospital. Jeff lost both of his legs, but he lived, helped identify the bombers, and defies them every day on his prosthetic legs. Jeff and Carlos, strangers that day, are brothers today, a piece of each other.

Rob Wheeler was a college kid and had just crossed the finish line. When he heard the explosions, he chose to run back. His attention was drawn by Krystara Brassard’s screams. Despite her own wounds, Krystara was pleading for someone to help her 51-year-old father, Ron, who was bleeding out on the sidewalk. Rob Wheeler pulled the sweaty shirt off his back and tied off Ron Brassard’s leg, saving his life. When Rob graduated from Framingham State a couple of months after the bombings, the Brassards were in the audience.


Natalie Stavas, a young doctor at Children’s Hospital, was running the Marathon with her father when there were two loud booms and they and other runners were stopped about a half-mile from the finish line. There were cops there with their hands up to stop her, and normally Natalie Stavas obeys police commands. But not this time. She ran by them toward the injured, grabbing belts from stunned bystanders, tying off legs.

Celeste Corcoran was in so much pain after the shrapnel from the bomb outside Marathon Sports ripped through her legs, she actually wanted to die. But then she thought of her kids, she thought of her husband, Kevin, and she chose to live, she willed herself to live.

“Hell, no,” she said.

Of course, the Tsarnaev brothers made choices, too, and they actually had much, much more time to make them. They spent months listening to the jihadi propaganda that promised them paradise if they murdered innocents. They spent more months preparing their bombs, preparing their minds, dehumanizing the strangers they would kill and maim.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lingered for four minutes behind a row of children that included Martin and Jane Richard. He chose to leave his bomb there, in back of those kids, and that is why, I have no doubt, 12 people chose to sentence him to death.

It was not an impulsive act by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to kill. It was a considered choice. It was not an impulsive act by jurors to impose the death penalty. It was a considered choice.

Friday’s verdict means that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will eventually end up on death row in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. It is far from certain whether he will make it to the death chamber. The appeals will come. The glacial legal process will play out, and his case will constantly make itself known, like an antsy dog, scratching at the back door.

The selflessness that played out on Boylston Street on April 15, 2013, the triumph of decency over a cult of death, the courage of those who lost loved ones and limbs to move forward, the foundations and memorials in the names of those who died — they ensure we will carry and remember what’s really important.

The harder question is, how do we forget the Tsarnaev brothers? How do we write them out of the narrative, so that the legacy of the attack on the Boston Marathon focuses on those worth remembering?

On Saturday morning, I bumped into Fred Hussey outside a Starbucks. He was helping some Hingham High girls raise money for girls’ sports. I’ve known Fred for more than 20 years. His kids and my kids went to school together. I didn’t know until Saturday that he missed being hit by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s bomb by about 10 seconds.


Fred goes to the Marathon every year with his college buddies, and they were right next to the patio at the Forum before deciding to move up Boylston to a pub called Lir. They were walking that way when the bombs exploded. Given the timing laid out at the trial, it would appear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brushed past Fred Hussey and his college buddies as he made his escape.

Fred Hussey went to Mass every day for a month after the bombings. He prayed for the victims, the survivors. He still does. He wonders why them and not him. But he didn’t follow the trial and says he will ignore anything in the future about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He won’t read a word. He will turn off the TV and the radio.

“I don’t think about him,” Fred Hussey said. “It’s a choice.”

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