Few could have imagined last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. What the bombers themselves likely didn’t imagine was that they were attacking a city that had relentlessly drilled for such a catastrophe—not just security personnel, but players usually sidelined in other cities’ disaster rehearsals.
That preparation saved lives, speakers said Monday at a daylong symposium on lessons from the bombings, hosted by BU’s Initiative on Cities (IoC). Despite wave upon wave of injured, doctors and nurses at area hospitals “made the best care better and lost not one” of the wounded transported from the scene, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told more than 150 mayors, senior government officials, emergency and public health responders, and others in the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom. Three people died from the bombings, one of them BU student Lu Lingzi (GRS’13).
Former Boston mayor and IoC codirector Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) said trust between city leaders and residents, forged over many years, effectively deputized the latter into a volunteer force that assisted officials in the disaster. “People opened their doors to shaken runners” and performed other services, he said, while city employees threw away their job descriptions, helping with chores from clearing sidewalks “of blood and debris” to finding plywood to board up blasted windows.
“Leaders should try to build cores of citizen responders,” looking for ways to involve them in, and inform them of, city needs on a regular basis, Menino advised. “No city will be able to manage a crisis and rebuild…without the help of its people.”
Unusually for emergency personnel, in the minutes after the blast, medical responders welcomed rather than rebuffed citizens’ help with the wounded, and “that saved lives,” said Richard Serino, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the time of the bombings.
Leaders shared personal memories of last April 15 and the almost weeklong hunt for the bombers that culminated in a manhunt in Watertown, Mass., the Friday after the attack, while area residents were asked to stay indoors. Alleged bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police; his brother, Dzhokhar, is awaiting trial.
Among the wise and consequential decisions in the hours after the attack, Patrick told the audience, were designating the FBI to lead the investigation; having political leaders like himself and Menino make “personal contact with the victims and their families, a profound, but also meaningful” outreach; Menino’s idea within hours to create One Fund Boston as a way for the public to donate to the victims; and the “shelter in place” residents were asked to observe during the manhunt.
Integrating hospitals, universities, businesses, and other groups beyond law enforcement into exhaustive emergency planning before the Marathon was a move other cities are sure to emulate, panelists said.
“Planning, training, exercising,” summed up James Hooley, chief of the city’s Emergency Medical Services. “Sometimes it gets a little boring, repetitious, until you see what happens in the real world.”
Kate Walsh, president and CEO of Boston Medical Center (BMC), BU’s affiliated teaching hospital, echoed the mantra about constant rehearsal, while noting the necessity of discarding the rule book at times. For example, in the chaos after the bombing, frightened families showed up at BMC in search of relatives who were being cared for elsewhere. The only way to help was to phone counterparts at other hospitals, asking for patients by name. Privacy laws prohibit that, she said, and “I shouldn’t say this with the cameras running, but I personally violated them that day.”
Survivors who spoke lauded the care they received. But among the problems, Barbara Ferrer (SPH’88), executive director of the city’s Public Health Commission, cited occasions when “people were transferred without identification” to various hospitals, including panelist Karen Rand, who lost a leg in the blast. Rand’s family spent 12 hours after the bombing trying to find her, Ferrer said, adding that public health officials also need better contacts with the military, whose war experience has yielded the most advanced resources for dealing with bombing victims.
One Fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg, who also oversaw the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, distributed more than $60 million in assistance to victims of the bombings and the fund has collected $12 million more since. Feinberg said the fund’s operations could be a blueprint for future compensation efforts; key to its success was political leadership that “did not merely support One Fund. They created it and promoted it on a soapbox.” He recalled that Patrick and Menino rejected his suggestion to channel donations through foundations, instead creating a special, public nonprofit through the city. Although Feinberg had feared that approach would eat up months, “we had a 501c3 in a matter of days.” As a result of such steps, One Fund dwarfed compensation for victims of other horrific tragedies, including the mass shootings at Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Col., and Virginia Tech, according to Feinberg.
To objections from some that compensation decisions were unfair, Feinberg retorted, “Did I say it was fair? Bad things happen to good people every day in this city, and there’s not a One Fund Boston to distribute money.” Compensation can never be justified from victims’ perspective, he argued, but only from the community’s perspective, to “show the perpetrators of this horror how we take care of our own.”
The symposium was held the day after 60 Minutes broadcast interviews with FBI personnel about the decision to publicly release photos of the Tsarnaevs to help with their capture. Former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, now a fellow at Harvard, said he pushed for that decision, and he defended it against criticisms that it prompted the brothers to flee in desperation; during that flight they murdered MIT police officer Sean Collier.
“I knew we had information that was vital to my officers out on the street,” Davis told the audience, saying he also wanted to protect the public: “People had a right to defend themselves against these suspects. Terrorism is a deadly business….Tragically, Sean Collier was assassinated in his cruiser. But he had the opportunity to see those pictures….I think he was snuck up on, and murdered by cowards.”
Menino, who announced recently that he is battling cancer, looked hale at the daylong symposium. He and Patrick were mobbed by photographers as they chatted before the event, and although he ascended and left the podium slowly, he beamed at the crowd as he returned to his seat.
This year’s Boston Marathon is Monday, April 21.