People helped each other in many ways after bombings at Boston Marathon.
By CHRISTOPHER HUGHES Boston Magazine
Out of the terror and tragedy at last year’s Boston Marathon bombings came many stories of people helping others. Some were stories of heroism and bravery, but there were also stories of those who helped in a more subtle way. Their acts of kindness were often relatively small—food, use of a cell phone, shelter from the cold—but they were timed in a manner that caused them to make a big difference.
The running community, local residents, and people from all over the world collectively stepped up, showed their support, and began defining what it meant to be “Boston Strong.” Tim Island, whose story follows, said he was proud of how the citizens of his adopted hometown responded to the tragedy. “Boston had one of its finest days after its worst event,” he said.
A Kindness Movement
Elizabeth Pederson of San Francisco, California, was celebrating her 2013 Boston Marathon finish with friends when the bombs went off. She was near the finish, but not close enough to understand the full extent of what had happened. As she headed for her hotel, she and two friends helped out various runners in need, to the extent that they could.
When Pederson and her two friends encountered a distraught runner by the side of the road, they offered her use of Pederson’s cell phone, gave her money, and helped her formulate a plan for meeting up with her family. The three didn’t think much about the encounter. “It did not really seem like a big deal to us at the time, given what was happening,” Pederson said.
A few days after the race, Pederson received a text message that began, “Dear Wonderful Stranger…” and it was from Jennifer Dranoff, the runner Pederson had helped reunite with her family. “She just went through how much this short interaction meant to her, and I was really floored by it,” Pederson said.
“I couldn’t be a capital H hero, that wasn’t in my ability on that day. All I had the opportunity to do was small things like hand out half-drunk bottles of water and let this girl use my cell phone. And that seems pretty ordinary and not very remarkable. So to have someone report back, ‘Actually, you doing that made a huge difference for me and I’m so thankful,’ really made me reevaluate all the missed opportunities that we have every day to do small, ordinary, everyday things that…make all the difference to someone,” Pederson said.
The interaction led Pederson to create the website kindthis.com, which encourages people to commit acts of kindness to honor those affected by last year’s bombings, and log those acts on the site. She has set the goal of “raising” one million acts of kindness.
“None of us can solve terrorism individually. None of us can cure cancer or [fix] any of the really serious issues affecting our world, but we can all do something. If you think about all of us who share this vision for a different and better world, if we all link arms together and do the one thing that we can do, even if it’s small, there’s real power in that,” said Pederson.
Pederson will run the 2014 Boston Marathon as a member of “Team MR8,” raising funds in honor of the bombings’ young victim, 8-year-old Martin Richard.
The clothes out of his dresser
John Buonaccorsi of Shutesbury, Mass., was with his daughter, running her first Boston Marathon, when she was among those stopped on Commonwealth Avenue when the race was halted. Local residents were offering water, bathrooms, clothing, and cell phones to the runners. But one in particular made a strong impression.
“The one that still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it is the fellow who had brought out drawer full of his shirts and sweaters—he literally had the drawer! He was giving things away to anyone who needed something. The whole thing was an impressive show of spontaneous generosity that was a real comfort to the distressed runners,” said Buonaccorsi.
Laura Wellington of Leicester, Mass. was one of the thousands of runners unable to finish the race when it was called off. Her first concern was for her family members, who were waiting for her on Boylston Street.
As she wandered around, trying to formulate a plan for reuniting with her family, she was struck by the number of people who stopped to offer assistance and make sure she was okay.
One was particularly kind. She came across him about an hour after the race was stopped, just after she had learned that her family was safe. “I just sunk down on a curb and started bawling. He was walking by with his wife and daughter. They stopped, gave me his blanket to keep me warm, and then gave me his medal, when they found out I didn't finish,” said Wellington.
She was too emotional at the time to properly thank him, but the following day, she posted the story on Facebook, and asked people to share it so she could track him down. “This couple reassured me that even though such a terrible thing had happened, everything was going to be okay,” Wellington wrote on her Facebook wall.
The post quickly went viral, with a total of nearly 500,000 likes and shares. By the following morning, Wellington had identified the kind stranger as Brent Cunningham of Sitka, Alaska.
ABC’s 20/20 learned of the story and flew Sitka back to Boston, and properly introduced the two. They filmed a segment that aired on the national news program later that week.
Since then, Wellington and Cunningham have stayed in touch. “We text and call each other pretty frequently. He keeps me posted on what's going on in his life and vice versa. He will always be part of my life,” said Wellington.
Alison Hatfield crossed the finish line at the 2013 Boston Marathon approximately 30 minutes before the bombs went off. She had enough time to reunite with family members and friends and snap a few photos before her celebration came to a screeching halt. She was able to get back into her hotel room for about 15 minutes before it was evacuated.
The group of eight she was with—her parents, her fiancé, two friends who had also raced, and their husbands—temporarily camped out outside the Westin, before that area was evacuated. They moved to a residential area. “There were tons of people in the same situation we were in, and we were all sitting on the street together,” said Hatfield.
Local residents began to emerge from their homes, offering food, drink, blankets, and shelter. Hatfield’s fiancé, Ramsey Mohsen, took a now-famous photo of local resident Peter de Andrade pouring orange juice for Hatfield and Diana Stauffer. “It was the best drink I’ve ever had in my life. It was amazing,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield estimates that her group sat there, declining offers of shelter, for about two hours before finally accepting an offer of shelter from local resident Marguerite Smit.
“She had no problem letting eight people she did not know into her home, and we had no problem going into a complete stranger’s home. But by that time of the day, even though something so traumatizing had happened, we just felt like we could trust her,” said Hatfield.
“She immediately started apologizing for her home being messy and started giving us trays of cheese and crackers with such nice presentation. She poured chips in a fancy bowl for us and was just entertaining us,” said Hatfield.
The group spent about two hours there, learning more about Smit and fielding messages from concerned friends and family members before they were able to head back to their hotel.
When Hatfield returned home to Kansas City, Missouri, she sent Smit a note, thanking her for her hospitality when it was most needed.
Hatfield will return to Boston for the 2014 marathon. She was given an invitational entry into the race as one of the people most affected by last year’s bombings, after writing an essay about her experience. She’s looking forward to having the opportunity to properly celebrate crossing the finish line this year.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for something. I was excited for my wedding, but not even like this,” said Hatfield.
In the hours after the bombings, Boston.com created two Google spreadsheets designed to pair runners and spectators in need of housing with locals who had room to spare. Nearly 6,000 people submitted their housing offers before Boston.com disabled the submission form. Others took to social media, using the hashtag #bostonhelp to offer their assistance.
Barbara Nazarewicz, who was a finish line volunteer at the 2013 Boston Marathon, but left the finish area about a half hour before the bombs detonated, posted offers of housing, food, and free rides on her Twitter account. When she received no responses, she and her fiancé, residents of the Fenway neighborhood, opted to take a more aggressive approach. The couple printed out signs for their car windows indicating that they were offering free rides, and then drove around the area looking for runners in need. Nazarewicz said that they gave three or four people rides to the airport that evening, because there weren’t enough cabs and the T had been shut down.
“I guess we felt that because we are part of this neighborhood, we just wanted to help. That was the way we felt like we could contribute,” said Nazarewicz, a runner herself.
Nazarewicz will volunteer at the 2014 race as well. “It’s just fun to be involved in it and be there,” she said.
Nourishment and Companionship
A couple of hours after the bombings, Jim Hoben, owner of El Pelon Taqueria, took to social media to offer aid. “Open WiFi, place to charge cell, or just don't want to be alone, food and drinks, pay only if you can,” read the restaurant’s post on Twitter, which was retweeted 1,231 times, as of this writing.
Hoben says that the people who came by were mostly spectators, people who couldn’t get home, and locals who didn’t want to be alone. The restaurant remained open an extra three hours that night.
“I let any staff member go home if they wanted. Not only did no one leave, people who weren't working that day came in. Even people who hadn't worked here for years came in,” said Hoben.
El Pelon sponsors runners in the Boston Marathon each year and both branches of the restaurant are close to the race course. The restaurant received thank you notes and gifts from around the world in response to El Pelon’s kindness.
A Kindness Catalyst
The Starbucks franchise at the corner of Stuart and Dartmouth Streets in Boston was closed the day after the bombing, due to its proximity to the crime scene. Employees and customers had left the coffee shop in a hurry the previous day, so then-manager Sol Elta and four assistant managers headed to work that Tuesday to do some cleaning.
While cleaning, Elta received a call from a woman in Philadelphia who wanted to donate $100 worth of food or drink to people affected by the bombings. Her gesture inspired the coffee shop’s workers to do what they could to help that day. “Her offer was a catalyst,” said Elta.
Because their front door was the quarantined zone, they couldn’t do business out of the store, but they set up two tables on Stuart Street, and offered coffee, as well as all of the food that would otherwise have gone to waste due to the shop being closed for a day and a half.
Elta estimates that they gave out free food and coffee for about three hours that day. Their customers ranged from news reporters operating on little to no sleep, to local residents in need of a morale boost. The franchise remained closed for the remainder of the day but was able to reopen for business the following day.
After watching his wife, Patty Island, run the 2012 Boston Marathon to raise money for Dana Farber while she underwent treatment for breast cancer, Tim Island was inspired to run the 2013 edition of the race for Dana Farber.
He had already passed under the Mass. Avenue bridge and was close to making the race’s penultimate turn onto Hereford Street when the race was stopped. Thanks to the cell phone he was carrying, he was able to make contact with his wife quickly, and it turned out she was standing only about 50 yards away from him.
As they began trying to make their way to the Dana Farber headquarters at the Marriott, they used Tim’s phone to send text messages to friends and family of five or six strangers.
Around the time the Islands were realizing that they weren’t going to be able to make it to the Marriott, they were approached by another runner, Stephen Pater, who introduced them to Carol Downing of Baltimore, Maryland.
Like Tim Island, Downing had just been stopped shy of completing her first Boston Marathon. Her two daughters and son-in-law had been waiting for her at the finish line. At the time of the introduction, Downing only knew that one daughter, Nicole Gross, had suffered two broken legs and was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The Islands told Downing that they only lived about four blocks away and could drive her to the hospital, which would be the quickest way to get there. After a quick stop at their house for a shower, change of clothes, and some food, the three headed for the hospital.
When they arrived at the hospital, the Islands sensed that Downing, while calm, was in shock and could use some extra assistance. Downing told hospital workers that the Islands were family, which allowed them to remain with her, which they did for several hours, as Gross underwent surgery. When a family member arrived at the hospital, the Islands returned home, but first made sure that Downing knew how to contact them and that they were available to help.
By the next morning, the Islands had received a text from Downing. Her other daughter, Erika Brannock, had been located, was around the corner at Beth Israel Hospital. Unfortunately, she had suffered serious injuries, including the loss of her left leg. “It was excruciating, waking up to that news,” said Tim Island.
Realizing that Downing was going to need to stay in the Boston area for an extended period of time taking care of her daughters, the Islands set out to simplify at least one aspect of her life. Patty reached out to the CEO of her company and arranged for Downing to stay in a Back Bay apartment. Throughout Downing’s time in Boston, the Islands spent additional time with her, and the three developed a close friendship.
Gross was discharged from the hospital after 33 days, while Brannock was discharged on June 3, 50 days after the bombings. Downing returned to Baltimore, but the Islands have become lifelong friends. In November, the Islands made a surprise visit to North Carolina for Downing’s birthday, where Downing ran a half marathon, and Gross and Brannock were honorary race starters.
The Islands will attend the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial Service on Tuesday, April 15, the one-year anniversary of the bombings, as guests of Downing. All three will be running this year’s Boston Marathon, and they’ll see one another almost every day while Downing is in town.
Gross, a personal trainer, has been Tim Island’s coach leading up to the race. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the three friends will finally get to celebrate Downing and Tim Island crossing the Boston Marathon finish line for the first time on April 21.
The Islands are quick to downplay their role in helping Downing and her family, and have declined most media requests, because they feel it’s not their story to tell.
“We just did, I think, what anyone else would have done that day. We met a really nice person and wanted to help her out. By no means was anything we did extraordinary at all, we just now have a nice friendship from it,” said Tim Island.