BU Today

Campus Life

Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombings

BU symposium relives a horrific week


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.”

Boston Marathon bombing survivors, Leading Cities Through Crisis Lessons from the Boston Marathon, Boston University Initiative on Cities, IoC

Marathon bombing survivors Patrick Downs and his wife, Jessica Kensky, watch a video on the city’s recovery at the symposium. Photo by Cydney Scott

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.”

Boston Marathon bombing survivors panel discussion, Leading Cities Through Crisis Lessons from the Boston Marathon, Boston University Initiative on Cities

A panel on lessons from survivors: survivors Karen Rand (from left) and David Fortier, Spaulding Hospital physical therapy director Cara Brickley, and Boston Public Health Commission executive director Barbara Ferrer (SPH’88). Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

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.”

Mayor of Boston Thomas M. Menino, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Leading Cities Through Crisis Lessons from the Boston Marathon, Boston University Initiative on Cities

Governor Deval Patrick (left) greeting former Boston mayor Thomas Menino. After their experience dealing with last year’s Marathon bombing, “we’ll be friends forever,” Patrick said at the BU symposium on the tragedy. Photo by Cydney Scott

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.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

15 Comments on Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombings

  • The sheep dog on 03.26.2014 at 5:32 am

    If we learned anything from this tragedy it is 1) that our government cannot protect us; 2) that terrorists can strike anywhere anytime and 3) that terrorists rarely attack the same target twice. That said, a populous that is vigilant and self-reliant is our best method of defending ourselves. The sheople who look to the police and government for solutions are sadly misguided and need to wake up. The shoe bomber and underwear bomber were thwarted by civilian passengers. The FBI new of Tsarnaev and dropped the ball. Police cannot be everywhere and terrorists will have new a “unexpected” plan for their next attack. Be vigilant, be self-reliant and be safe but never sacrifice your essential liberty for temporary security because your government tells you have to.

    • A lowly sheep on 03.26.2014 at 3:20 pm

      Just curious . . . do you not think the residential sweep conducted in Watertown was a significant factor in Tsarnaev being forced to hole up in a backyard boat, which ultimately led to his capture? Do you think the “police state” tactics, as I’m sure you’d call them, of the authorities in this situation could have effectively led to his capture if Watertown “never” sacrificed essential liberty for temporary security because the government said so? Please be specific; I’m a fan of Ben Franklin quotes too, but platitudes are always nice until it comes to practical application. I’m just having a hard time finding anything constructive in your comment. Maybe you could check back in with Alex Jones, see what he has to say, and follow up.

      • The Sheep Dog on 03.26.2014 at 8:37 pm

        He was injured that is why he was holed up. So no, frankly I do not think he would have not hunkered down until dark anyway. It was also a citizen who found him after the police lifted the lock down; without may I remind you ever finding him. So do you really think the lock down was about finding him and protecting your safety when they lifted it without finding him? Are you really that naive?

    • nick rynno on 03.27.2014 at 11:17 am

      RE: “3) that terrorists rarely attack the same target twice.” The World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists twice – February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.

      Many lives were saved after the marathon bombings because of well trained EMTs, Fire, and Police – part of our government.

      • The Sheep Dog on 03.27.2014 at 3:06 pm

        What part of rarely do you not understand?

        I have no problems with ETM or police responding appropriately and effectively to any problem. And in fact I commend the Boston PD and everyone else including the private citizens who rose to occasion to help the injured in the immediate aftermath. I also commend the Boston PD for is subsequent investigation despite being stonewalled by the FBI. But I do have a problem with a militarized police exercise locking down of an entire city ostensibly searching for a perp from house to house and then lifting the lock down while the “reason” for the it remained at large. Why do you seen to have such a hard time seeing how nonsensical and ineffective this response was and how your acceptance of it opens the doors to erosions of liberty in the name of security?

  • Chris on 03.26.2014 at 9:35 am

    Interesting. Did they not discuss the stationing of the National Guard on the Common and in subways, the ranks of armored police vehicles on our roads, or the shutting down of 5 cities on the Friday after? Of all the events of that week to provide lessons for the future, one would think the militarization of a city would be a major one.

    But of course, if we honestly examined the pros and cons of filling the streets with armed people does, maybe we wouldn’t have the excuse to shut down Fenway during the World Series final or stop kids from wearing backpacks on college campuses near the marathon route.

  • anonymous on 03.26.2014 at 11:27 am

    Thanks for this article. I think it’s also important to remember how many media outlets reported that there was a Saudi kid at the site, which led a lot of people to suspect that people of Middle Eastern descent were behind the bombing. I hope that at this point we’ve all learned that people of any background and any religion can do terrible acts, whether Caucasian, Middle Eastern, East Asian, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, etc. I am glad that (so far as I saw) there wasn’t too much prejudice coming through in the community and media, despite some people jumping to conclusions.

    • The Sheep Dog on 03.26.2014 at 8:42 pm

      And tell me according to your stellar research indicating that people of any background can commit such acts exactly how many Jews, Asians, Hindus, and Buddhists do you know of who have committed similar acts of terrorism on US soil in your lifetime?

      • JM on 03.26.2014 at 11:58 pm

        Take it to the Alex Jones forum, please. This is a place for civilized conversation among adults.

        • The Sheep Dog on 03.27.2014 at 9:37 am

          Ad hominem remarks with no substances only serve to make you look silly. Come on you two can do better than calling me names when I ask you for real data. And why attack Alex Jones? He has not even posted anything here.

        • Uh huh on 03.27.2014 at 9:53 am

          What is the problem? You deride and dismiss rather than address the point – which is a valid one. There is nothing civilized or intelligent about such behavior.

          Just say what you really mean “Don’t confuse me with the facts”.

          Same goes foe you anonymous. Call someone a bigot and end the conversation.

          We all know the ideology that motivated this act of terrorism. It was the same ideology behind 911 and the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks around the world. That is not bigotry it is reality.

          Playing the ostrich out of a fear of offending or a fear of danger does not give you the right to call others bigots. You are not entitled to your own set of facts.

          Spare us the histrionics and address real issues.

      • anonymous on 03.27.2014 at 12:00 am

        Well I stand corrected. Looks like bigotry and chauvinism is alive and well here at BU!

  • DM on 03.26.2014 at 9:16 pm

    First, before we go rewriting history with 2nd rate college news articles, dead terrorist #1 was not killed during a gun fight with police, he was killed at the conclusion of one when his cowardly brother, almost dead terrorist #2, ran him over with a stolen SUV as he fled the scene and tossing more explosives at police that were at the time saving the life of MBTA Officer Dick Donahue.

    Second, who do you think those National Guardsmen were? Where do you think they live? What do they do when they are not serving part time? Some of those that stood posts around the blast sites, on the T in the days after and driving the armored vehicles or holding that perimeter in Watertown on that Friday attend classes with you today. They are quiet professionals that do their job when called, to add extra needed capabilities when your democratically elected Governor determines that they are needed. What would the alternative have been on Friday morning? What if almost dead terrorist #2 had chosen a house to hide in instead of a boat, and then perhaps he would have chosen a family to torment for 12 hours instead of scrawling hate speech on the inside of the boat as he did. Ask yourself what you would be writing here today if a family or families were murdered in their homes because the police didn’t act decisively as they did? Do us a favor, don’t make your rejection of authority and distrust for those that serve a suicide pact for the rest of us.

  • The Sheep Dog on 03.27.2014 at 6:54 am

    I have never seen such a mentality of dependent victimhood in my entire life. What has happened to this country? What happened to spirit that showed the British the proverbial door, settled the west, and won WWII?

    But what bothers me most is your apparent misguided trust in the same government that failed to stop Tsarnaev plans in the first place and then lifted the lock down knowing full well that his brother was still at large possibly holed up in someone’s house terrorizing more innocent victims as you propose.

    May I also remind you that throughout history there have been many examples of naive well intentioned young men and women who volunteered to served their countries and in the process committed all sorts of atrocities in the name protecting their people. Just look at the misguide sheep who will soon be wearing hair cuts just like their feckless leader in the North Korea.

    I for one have seen enough of the failed policies of our government and the corruption at all levels to not trust it with anything.

  • Free American on 04.08.2014 at 9:18 am

    I pray for those that suffered. I pray for those that risk their own lives to protect us. I pray for those who will never get it, and I thank God everyday for the freedoms this country provides us. Those that are unhappy or anti-government, feel free to go live in another country and let me know how that works out for you. God Bless America

Post Your Comment

(never shown)