The blasts occurred 100 yards – and thirteen seconds – apart in rapid succession just as thousands of runners neared the finish line and sent them scrambling for cover. Video footage showed an explosion off to the side, with some runners toppling over from the concussion. Smoke billowed into the air, and photos of the chaotic scene showed a sidewalk slicked with blood.
Some 23,000 runners took part in the race, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious marathons. Established in 1897, the race is one of Boston’s biggest annual events. It includes running through nearby Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley and Newton, and winding up in downtown Boston, near Copley Square, not far from the landmark Prudential Center and the Boston Public Library. It is held on Patriots Day, which commemorates the first battles of the American Revolution, which took place at Concord and Lexington in 1775.
When the bombs went off, the spectators’ cheers turned to screams. As sirens blared, emergency workers and National Guardsmen who had been assigned to the race for crowd control began climbing over and tearing down temporary fences to get to the blast site. Blood stained the pavement, and huge shards were missing from window panes as high as three stories.
The first loud explosion occurred on the north side of Boylston Street, just before the photo bridge that marks the finish line. The second explosion was heard a few seconds later.
The explosions occurred about four hours into the race and two hours after the men’s winner crossed the line. By that point, more than 17,000 of the runners had finished the race, but thousands of others were farther back along the course. The runners came from at least 56 countries and territories.
The attack was apparently timed for maximum carnage: the four-hour mark is typically crowded at the finish line because of the slow-but-steady recreational runners completing the race and all the relatives and friends clustered around to cheer them on.
Runners who were in the medical tent for treatment for dehydration or other race-related illnesses were pushed out to make room for bombing victims.
All cell phone towers in Boston were shut down and the airport was closed as police set up a wide perimeter around the scene. Repercussions extended from Massachusetts to Washington, where President Obama was briefed by top officials, the White House increased security, and the Justice Department and FBI mobilized to fully investigate what had happened.
In a brief appearance at the White House, Obama expressed sympathy for the victims of the blasts and declared that all the necessary resources of the federal government would be assigned to assist Boston officials in determining the cause of the explosions.
“We still do not know who did this or why, and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts,” Obama said. “But make no mistake – we will get to the bottom of this… They will feel the full weight of justice. Boston is a tough and resilient town. Residents will pull together, take care of each other and move forward. The American people are with them every step of the way.”
A White House official called the explosions an “act of terror,” saying authorities have much to learn about who was behind it.
“Any event with multiple explosive devices, as this appears to be, is clearly an act of terror, and will be approached as an act of terror,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “However, we don’t yet know who carried out this attack, and a thorough investigation will have to determine whether it was planned and carried out by a terrorist group, foreign or domestic.”
There were initial reports of another explosion at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston which turned out to be an unrelated fire. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick urged people to “stay out of crowds” as they made their way home.
“I saw it go off and smoke billowed up. Everyone just stopped and hunched down,” said Pam Ledtke, 51, from Indianapolis, who was about 75 yards from the finish line when the explosions went off. “They didn’t know what to do,” Ledtke said. “All of a sudden, people were screaming.”
Medical tents erected to treat cramps or dehydration at the finish line were immediately converted into triage centers, with doctors running into blood-spattered streets to assist the wounded. Race volunteers turned into impromptu emergency squads, jumping over tables piled with Gatorade bottles to tend the wounded and using lanyards as tourniquets.
Many Boston shops and schools were closed Monday, and many people who were off from work were out on the city’s streets. Security at the marathon was carefully planned; hundreds of police officers and other emergency workers lined the route. But the 26.2-mile course is by definition open and sprawling. The police commissioner said the entire route was swept twice for explosives, once early in the morning and once about an hour before the first runners crossed the finish line. But he noted that there was “unrestricted access” to the area around the race, suggesting that the bombs could have been brought in after the sweeps.
Mary Gibson, ran the marathon. “An event like this is the perfect target for someone who wanted to do harm and cause panic,” she said. “Lots of people in one place .â€….â€…. many out-of-town tourists who really don’t know where they are going. I know this: Marathons in big cities will never be the same.”
Nickilynn Estologa, a nursing student who was volunteering in the block-long medical tent designed to treat fatigued runners, said five or six victims immediately staggered inside. Several were children; one was in his 60s.
“Some were bleeding from the head; they had glass shards in their skin. Another woman was lying on a gurney as emergency personnel raced through the tent, giving her CPR. I just can’t believe anyone would do something like this,” Estologa said.
“I saw two explosions,” reported Boston Herald journalist Chris Cassidy, who was running in the marathon. “The first one was beyond the finish line. I heard a loud bang and I saw smoke rising.” The blast “looked like it was in a trash can or something,” he said. “There are at least a dozen that seem to be injured in some way.”
Police established a crime scene around the Prudential Center, which is near the finish line. The blast occurred about 300 yards from the finish line.
Authorities in New York and Washington tightened security precautions in the wake of the blasts. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent all of its bomb technicians, explosives officers, explosives specialists and canine officers from their Boston and New York field divisions to the scene, as well as some investigators from Washington.
Obama received a briefing around 3:00 p.m. from homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and other members of senior White House staff in the Oval Office.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the blasts.
Paul Cummings, a 44-year-old runner from Portland, Oregon, was in the medical tent near the finish line getting a leg massage when the explosions occurred.
“It didn’t sound like a water main blowing or anything else. It sounded like a bomb,” Cummings said. “As soon as I heard it, I knew it was a bomb. It was just a loud explosion, and then another. You can’t hear a noise like that and think anything good happened.”
As police started bringing wounded people into the tent, Cummings quickly got up and left. “I just thought, ‘I’m out of here.’”
He stepped out into Copley Square to the sounds of wailing sirens, people shouting and crying and police imploring the crowds to leave the area.
Jay Hartford, 46, a nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital, was about 800 yards from the finish line when he heard the explosions. “Some people hit the ground, in shock,” he said.
“Police along the route started pushing barriers across Boylston, to keep runners from approaching the finish line.
“‘Stop, turn back!’ the police shouted to oncoming runners,” Hartford said.
Hartford called his wife and four sons, whom he had just seen along the route, and told them to go straight home.
Steve Silva also was near the finish line when the explosions occurred.
“It was just immediately [evident] there were injuries, right in the middle of the spectator crowds,” Silva said. “There was blood everywhere, there were victims being carried out on stretchers. People are crying. People are confused.”
Medical workers from the nearby medical tent dashed to help the victims, the eyewitnesses said. Volunteers jumped over tables piled with Gatorade bottles to attend to the wounded.
John Hampson, 19, a photographer for the Tufts University student newspaper, said race officials yelled at the bystanders to flee, warning of a third bomb that had not exploded.
When the bombs went off, “There was a huge cloud of smoke, like a giant ball,” said Hampson.
One explosive seemed to go off in a building and another in a crowd of onlookers about six people deep.
Hapmson described the scene as “…horrifying. I felt it, and I saw the cloud… It was awful. Then people were coming by on stretchers.”
Dr. Alastair Conn, Chief of Emergency Services at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, stepped outside to brief reporters on the situation. He responded to a question about the preparedness of his staff to handle trauma on this scale and said, “About two years ago we asked the Israelis to come across and they helped us set up our disaster team so that we could respond in this kind of manner.” Speaking of the damage, he said, “Absolutely this is like a bomb explosion that we hear about in the news in Baghdad, or Israel, or some other tragic place in the world.”
A woman who was a few feet away from the second bomb, Brighid Wall, said that when it exploded, runners and spectators froze, unsure of what to do. Her husband threw their children to the ground and lay on top of them. Another man lay on top of them and said, “Don’t get up, don’t get up!”
After a minute or so went by without another explosion, Wall and her family headed to a Starbucks and went out the back door to an alley. The windows of the bars and restaurants were blown out.
She saw between six and eight people bleeding profusely, including one man who was kneeling, dazed, with blood trickling down his head. Another person was on the ground covered in blood and not moving.
“My ears are zinging. Their ears are zinging,” Wall said. “It was so forceful. It knocked us to the ground.”
Competitors and race volunteers were crying as they fled the chaos. Authorities went onto the course to carry away the injured, while race stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site.
Roupen Bastajian, a state trooper from Smithfield, R.I., had just finished the race when he heard the blasts.
“I started running toward the blast. And there were people all over the floor,” he said. “We started grabbing tourniquets and started tying legs… At least 25 to 30 people have at least one leg missing, or an ankle missing, or two legs missing.”
Dr. Alastair Conn said, “This is something I’ve never seen in my 25 years here… this amount of carnage in the civilian population. This is what we expect from war.”
The Boston Marathon honored the victims of the Newtown, Conn., shooting with a special mile marker in Monday’s race.
Boston Athletic Association president Joanne Flaminio previously said there was “special significance” to the fact that the race is 26.2 miles long and 26 people died at Sandy Hook Elementary school.
Particularly touching was the death of 8-year-old Martin Richard. His mother and 6-year-old sister were very seriously injured.
They had gone to get ice cream and then returned to the area near the finish line. “They were looking in the crowd as the runners were coming to see if they could identify some of their friends when the bomb hit,” U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a friend of the family for 25 years, said.
Martin’s father and older brother, Henry were not seriously injured; doctors removed ball bearings from Bill Richard’s leg, Lynch said. “Ball bearings are meant as anti-personnel munitions,” he said. “They were trying to cause carnage here.”
But Dr. Stephen Epstein of the emergency medicine department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said he saw an X-ray of one victim’s leg that had “what appears to be small, uniform, round objects throughout it – similar in the appearance to BBs.”
Reportedly, the explosives were put in 6 quart pressure cookers, placed in black duffel bags and left on the ground. They were packed with shrapnel consisting of shards of metal, nails and ball bearings. Pressure cookers would increase the force with which ball bearings and other metal pieces would explode outward. Doctors who briefed the media described seeing such pieces – nails, shrapnel and pellets – in patient’s tissues, indicating that the bombs were packed to inflict the maximum damage.
Ron Walls, chairman of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the objects were “clearly designed to be projectiles and were built into the explosive devices.” Michael Zinner, the hospital’s chief of surgery, compared the bombs to improvised explosive devices similar to those used in the Iraq War.
This type of bomb has also been used in Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Pakistan, according to a FBI and Homeland Security intelligence report in July, 2010. One of the three devices used in the attempted bombing in Times Square in May 2010 was also a pressure cooker.
“Placed carefully, such devices provide little or no indication of an impending attack,” the report said.
The Pakistani Taliban, which accepted responsibility for the Times Square attempt, denied any role in the Boston attack.
While many were quick to place the blame on Islamic terrorists, there were those who weren’t so sure. Richard Barrett, formerly U.N. coordinator for an al-Qaida and Taliban monitoring team who has also worked for British intelligence, said the relatively small size of the devices and the timing of the blasts suggest a domestic attack rather than an al-Qaida-inspired one.
“This happened on Patriots Day – it is also the day Americans are supposed to have their taxes in – and Boston is quite a symbolic city,” said Barrett, now senior director at the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies.
David Axelrod, former Obama advisor said that the president didn’t refer to the act as a terror attack on Monday “because the word[s terrorist attack] has taken on a different meaning since 9/11.You use those words and it means something very specific in people’s minds. And I’m sure what was going through the president’s mind is – we really don’t know who did this – it was tax day. Was it someone who was pro–you know, you just don’t know. And so I think his attitude is, let’s not put any inference into this, let’s just make clear that we’re going to get the people responsible. Anything you say can have reverberations around the world.” By Tuesday, Obama called it terrorism. He added: “The American people refuse to be terrorized.”
There were reports of a Saudi national who was trying to flee the scene being held and of two Arabic-speaking men being pulled off an American Airlines plane heading to Chicago. Authorities took pains to say that there were no suspects being held as of press time.
While he did not take the blame for the bombing, Mohammad al-Chalabi, convicted in an al-Qaida plot to attack U.S. and Western diplomatic missions in Jordan in 2003, said, “American blood isn’t more precious than Muslim blood. Let the Americans feel the pain we endured by their armies occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and killing our people there.”
“We will go to the ends of the Earth to identify the subject or subjects who are responsible for this despicable crime, and we will do everything we can to bring them to justice,” said Richard DesLauriers, the FBI agent in charge in Boston.
On Tuesday officials discovered a ricin poison-laced letter sent to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), uncovering the material at an off-site location where congressional mail has been screened since anthrax-laced letters were sent to Capitol Hill in 2001.
The Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this article.