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BU Remembers Heroes of the Marathon Bombings

As fifth anniversary nears, speakers recall tragedy and heroism


For many people, the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings centers on brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who planted the bombs that killed 3 people, including Lu Lingzi (GRS’13), and injured 260, many of them needing amputations. For journalist Casey Sherman (COM’93), the narrative more properly focuses on heroes.

When a publisher asked him to cowrite what became Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy, the book that was the basis for Mark Wahlberg’s 2016 movie Patriots Day, Sherman, who was touched by homicide himself as the nephew of the Boston Strangler’s final victim, “didn’t want to glorify” the Tsarnaevs, he told a BU conference yesterday. “What I saw in the days after the bombings were examples of pure love.”

At the conference, convened at the School of Law four days before the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, Sherman remembered several heroes from that day, including Boston Police Sgt. Danny Keeler, the police officer Wahlberg’s main character was based on. Keeler had been a prodigious homicide solver, whose corner-cutting with evidence, Sherman said, led to his being reassigned to “babysitting duty” on easy chores—like the 2013 Marathon.

In command at the Boylston Street finish line, where the two bombs detonated, Keeler gave a critical order, Sherman said: “Grab everybody’s cell phone,” along with businesses’ surveillance videos, and “if they don’t give it up, take it.” Overcoming some objections, police did just that, and within days, they had identified the suspects from surveillance videos immediately after the first explosion: “Everybody at the Forum [Restaurant] looked to the left. One person in that frame looked to the right, and walked away. That was the younger [Dzhokhar] brother, because he knew what was happening.”

Casey Sherman

Casey Sherman (COM’93) discussed his book Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph over Tragedy at the BU conference The Boston Marathon Bombing: Five Years On. Photo by Kelly Davidson

Sherman also singled out Tracey Monroe, who aided seven-year-old Jane Richard, injured in the explosions (her eight-year-old brother Martin was killed). As many people “made the right decision to get the hell out of there,” Monroe, the mother of a young daughter herself, charged toward the smoke and the child lying in the street. “Jane’s hair had been singed off. She was covered in soot, and she was bleeding,” her gender unrecognizable. “But without any medical training, Tracey kept her conscious, Tracey kept her alive,” he said.

“If the Boston Marathon bombings happened anywhere else in the country, I do not think the response would have been this quick or the people would have been this united,” Sherman said. He credits the resilience to this “tribal city” and its history of rallying against invaders, be they the British during the American Revolution or “two Chechen brothers in 2013.”

One of that day’s other heroes also addressed the conference. Kelly Nee, chief of the Boston University Police Department, was then a deputy superintendent with the Boston police. She was near Boylston Street when the first bomb exploded. “I thought in my head, please let that have been the scaffolding…” Nee recalled, “anything else but what you kind of instinctively in your gut knew.”

The catastrophe became clear as she saw panicked people fleeing. She didn’t hear the second explosion, as she was desperately trying to move fencing away from the day’s third fatality, Krystle Campbell, so medical personnel could reach her.

“The one phone call that I was able to get out was to my husband and lasted about five seconds,” Nee said. “And all he remembers me saying is, ‘I’m OK.’ And then the phone went dead.”

While Boston has fortified security because of the bombings, “the Boston Marathon is a classic soft target,” Nee said. “You cannot barricade 26.2 miles of race.…I don’t think any plan, probably, could have prevented this.”

Kelly Nee

At Wednesday’s conference, Kelly Nee, BU chief of police, recalled the chaos at the Boston Marathon finish line in 2013, where bombs killed three people. Photo by Kelly Davidson

The Rev. Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, recalled being summoned to Boston Medical Center by the BUPD three hours after the bombings to tend to an injured student.

“Our student lingered and survived,” Hill said. “As soon as she became alert, she said, ‘And where is my friend?’ And this friend was Lu Lingzi.”

An unscripted moment at the conclusion of BU’s memorial service for Lingzi has stayed with Hill: a row full of her family, who were supposed to file out to another room, instead turned to the people in the room where the service was held, and bowed. “I have never seen anything close to as powerful,” he said. “They wanted to meet the moment…in the depths of grief.”

“Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same,” Hill said, reciting a line from theologian Abraham Heschel.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police four days after the bombings; his brother, captured after a manhunt that had greater Boston residents sheltering in place, was convicted on all 30 charges brought against him and was sentenced to death. His lawyers, who had acknowledged their client’s involvement, but said Tamerlan was the one who planned the attack, are appealing Dzhokhar’s death sentence.

Among other speakers were conference coordinator John Woodward, a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies professor of the practice of international relations, Rebecca Ingber, a LAW associate professor, and Peter K. Levitt (LAW’95), a former assistant US attorney for the district of Massachusetts.

The Marathon conference was sponsored by the Pardee School of Global Studies, the School of Law, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Marsh Chapel, the BU Police Department, the College of Communication, the Pardee Graduate Council, and the BU International Affairs Association

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Rich Barlow

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

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