BOSTON -- Children were running the base paths of Fenway Park when they heard what sounded like two claps of thunder.
They had cheered a Red Sox victory with one out in the bottom of the ninth on this sunny Monday afternoon. Within minutes of their triumph the professionals left the field and the children took over. They were running the bases one after another as if mimicking the way little Dustin Pedroia had run them not quite 20 minutes earlier, when he scored the winning run from first on Mike Napoli's double off the Green Monster.
It was supposed to be the perfect day for families in Boston: To celebrate Patriots' Day with the annual 11 a.m. Red Sox game, to make the run around the bases, and then to walk down the short hill from Fenway Park that funnels out to Kenmore Square, where thousands of runners were passing by like slower, suffering versions of Pedroia as they approached the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Around and around the bases their children ran, even as the Red Sox staff began to receive word on their phones of what was happening one mile away at the finish line. It was to be a day their parents would never forget.
"You know how once in awhile kids will grab a microphone and it makes that loud noise?" said Steve MacDonald, the spokesman for the Boston Fire Department. "That's what I thought had happened. I heard it and I thought, did a kid grab a mike?"
MacDonald was working the finish line of the Marathon on Boylston Street as the elite runners came through one after the other. At the appropriate time, he had walked around the corner to his car in order to turn on the radio. "I sat and caught the end of the Red Sox," he said with the typical Boston accent. "They won in a walk-off in the ninth."
He was back on the street when he was startled by the noises. Then his radio began to chatter. "I heard the emergency in the voices of the firefighters," he said. "They were saying, 'We need some help down here quick."'
"Some of our people were pretty much overwhelmed at first," said John Henderson, a superintendent in charge of operations for Boston Fire. "I didn't recognize it at first, because I came in after the event happened and was dealing with it the rest of the day."
Henderson explained that firemen are used to dealing with terrible events. The routine of what they do enables them to overcome the trauma: The first responders are sent to deal with the fire, and then more responders are called as needed in waves.
"This was so different," Henderson said. "It was instant chaos. There was screaming on the radio. People were calling for help. They were feeling helpless to an extent. These IED mines were cutting peoples' legs off. These were innocent people. It was indiscriminate. These were families and there was no rhyme or reason or understanding for it."
And yet the firefighters and other responders continued to do their jobs. They performed heroically, and then at night, when more than 170 casualties had been treated or taken to the area hospitals, Henderson began to realize the impact on the people around him. They had seen children and parents cut down horrifically and senselessly.
"The main purpose of having firefighters there is in case a fire alarm goes off in the building along the course, so they can go and check it first before we send in a truck to disrupt the Marathon," MacDonald said. "We're there hoping we don't get a fire alarm. Were we prepared for the explosions? Of course not. No one was."
That night, as the chaos gave way to sadness, Henderson recognized what his firefighters had been up against. "We had stress teams come in, to go over the issues they were dealing with and support them," he said. "I've been here for 39 years and I've seen all kinds of situations -- hurricanes, massive fires. This was different. They needed help to deal with what they'd been through."
"My first instinct was that this was some sort of odd underground explosion," said Adam Hawk, a former Marine who serves as general manager of the Baseball Tavern near Fenway Park. "My first thought wasn't that somebody blew up the finish line at the Boston Marathon."
He ran the race in three hours 53 minutes. "After you cross the finish line, it takes a really long time to get through -- you get your bottle of water, you get your medal, you get snacks and it takes 10 to 15 minutes to get to where the buses are so you can get your bags. I was two or three blocks ahead of it when it happened, and it didn't sound the way I would have thought an explosion like that would sound. It didn't sound as loud."
He looked over his shoulder and saw the smoke of the first of two explosions. It did not take long for him to realize what happened. There were sirens and golf carts flying by and people running everywhere.
"In that area there are so many police officers and medical staff along the route," he said. "What was so impressive to me is that within two to three minutes of the explosion -- I don't want to say it was organized, but it was a thoughtful process to how they were moving people about, and sending people this way and that way and not inciting panic. There was smoke but there wasn't a reason to be frantic. There was certainly a sense of urgency and you could see it in peoples' eyes. But people were doing their job. That kind of blew my mind."
Hawk kept his cellphone with him during the race and was able to answer it now amid the chaos. It was his wife. She was a half-mile further up the course. "She asked me, 'Did you hear that? What was it?"' he said, and by now the cops and firefighters and doctors were hurrying all around him to save lives. "I said, 'Oh, it was nothing. Don't worry about it.'
"She definitely yelled at me later in the night, wanting to know why I didn't tell her." But the answer was obvious to him. The responders hadn't panicked him, so he didn't want to panic her.
"I came out of the tunnel five minutes after the bombs went off," said Doc Rivers, coach of the Boston Celtics, who was on his way home from work. "What I saw was people directing traffic in the street. And they were not police officers. They were Bostonians, and on Huntington Avenue they were getting all of the cars to go over to the left. Every single person was in work mode. This city has such a pride, it's just unbeatable."
For nine years Rivers has been living downtown nearby the finish line of the Marathon. He had been looking forward to walking along the route and taking in one of his favorite days of the year.
"I love to watch the people walk around in their little silver warming jackets, because you can see they've just accomplished something," he said. "You can see them in the restaurants wearing their medals, and it's not just them -- it's the people with them who are happy for them. I love walking around the city and seeing the joy. You can see that they accomplished one of the goals of their lives. They wanted to run in the Boston Marathon."
Instead, he watched them take on another kind of outcome entirely from his downtown condo overlooking the Boston Common. Governor Deval Patrick had asked everyone to stay indoors, so Rivers followed the instruction. He was sad and angry, and yet he was inspired. He watched scenes of runners hugging each other. He could see strangers helping one another and he didn't need to hear the words in order to understand. What he saw reminded him of why he lived in the city.
"Think about it: This is where the Revolution started," Rivers said. "These are the right people to handle this. This is the town that can handle this. I guarantee you, next year's Marathon will be the best of all of them. It's almost like, 'You're not going to tell us how to live.' That's how you feel living here. It's funny how many people I've talked to -- they're all like, 'Next year we're going to have the best marathon.' They're already thinking that way."
I heard nothing.
I was in our suburban home Monday, a half-hour up the coast from Boston, when my teenaged son sent the kind of text that sets a father's priorities straight: "Whatever just happened, we're okay"
I phoned him and he told me about the two explosions he and his mother heard nearby. I turned on the TV and told them about the explosions, and I could hear him reciting the information to my wife and her twin sister, a local track official who used to work the Boston Marathon finish line but received a change of assignment this year. They were in the car and leaving the city before the governor went on TV to warn everyone to go home. It is not much of a story, thank God.
The next morning I was in Boston, walking where they walked one day earlier. The leftovers of the race were not cleaned up. It was as if time stopped, as if the Marathon had finished just now. The trash cans along Newbury Street were overflowing and placards littered the sidewalks. It was a sunny Tuesday morning and the loose papers danced as if whipped up by the blades of the helicopters overhead. There appeared to be police everywhere you looked.
A man stood in a doorway smoking a cigarette and reading the Boston Globe for news of what happened around the corner. White TV trucks sat on the edge of the Public Garden with large white satellite dishes tilted on their roofs like coins spinning on edge and frozen there. A trim couple in their blue and yellow Marathon jackets were standing beneath the statue of George Washington on horseback, his bronzed head turned to face the bomb sites. "We actually felt the explosion," the woman said to a stranger.
I thought about the steps that were being retraced by everyone who was in Boston the day before: By the children at Fenway, by the runners who finished or could not, by the survivors of the loved ones who have died, by the victims and those who helped save them, and there are so many more people to think of. I thought about how the race is like an artery that runs through the city and replenishes it to make an old place feel young. I thought about how the Marathon will not be about rejuvenation next year but rather about defiance. Mostly, I thought about my son and his mother, and how they meant to walk toward the explosions. In the minutes before 2:50 p.m. they tried to approach the finish line but it was too crowded. There were too many people, unsuspecting and innocent, who had no idea how unfortunate they would be to have the best spots on this most perfect day.