History as Therapy: Reconstructing the Boston Bombings

The last two weeks have been difficult ones here in Boston, from the immediate trauma and shock of the bombings, to false reports of arrests, to a manhunt and lockdown, and now to the re-opening of Boylston St. and the resolve of moving forward.

As I look back, I realize that not only are my memories of the actual event hazy and distorted, but my memories from the entire week of April 15 are a jumbled and foggy mess. Last Tuesday at Fitchburg State’s convocation, our Assistant VP of Academic Affairs and former chair of my department (with whom I share an appreciation for Survivor) asked me about the previous week’s episode. If you didn’t see it, it was an exciting one (immunity idols played! A major player blindsided!) At first, when Paul asked me about the episode, I had no memory of having watched it. Intellectually, I knew that I had, but the memories just weren’t coming. A few vague flashes darted through my brain, but that was it. Other similar experiences registered similar memory problems, which various sources explained to me was a symptom of post-trauma and should diminish with time.

Furthermore, as the week went on, the historian began to kick in. I needed details. I needed to find out what actually happened. I needed evidence — and clearly, I needed more evidence than what my memory was providing me.

The process of putting these details together, although they may not make for the most interesting reading, reveal the process by which historians reconstruct the past through evidence. It isn’t pretty, and sources don’t always neatly line up in succession to allow for an easy chronology of details. Here is the process I used, however imperfect. I am not yet at the place where I can put these details into a narrative. This post might be a bit of a mess, but so is the process of doing history. Perhaps outlining is the next step?

So to the sources I went, looking for answers. A few items needed to be clarified regarding my initial account. Things were not adding up in the story I was telling.

First, my location.

In the days afterwards, I told a number of people that we were “two blocks” from the explosion. This didn’t sound correct, but there was a part of me that didn’t want to face how close we were. But with my memories being unreliable, I had to look to evidence to reconstruct my location.

In my initial blog post, I captured some details about our location, but they are imprecise.

Detail 1:

We found a great spot right near the corner of Boylston and Gloucester St. where we could see the 26 mile marker and hang out the sign we had made.

So, near the corner.

Detail 2:

We felt the wave of the blast and smelled the smoke…as the crowd began to scream and run, I ran, too, pushing Leo in the stroller.

But close enough to feel and smell the bomb, and far enough from the corner to run straight (for what seemed like forever in the aftermath).

Detail 3:

I saw a nondescript door leading to businesses upstairs over Boylston, (I believe it was 883 Boylston St.), and headed for it. Other spectators dove into restaurants, but I didn’t want to be near any glass.

So we were past at least two restaurants, and far enough from 883 Boylston to have to run. Aha, and that photograph I took to document our location. Perhaps other photographs could provide some visual clues as to our exact location.

Photograph 1, taken at 2:29 PM.

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At first, I didn’t think there would be much to glean from this photograph about our location. The geotagging placed us across the street in the Prudential Center, so that was unreliable. Then I noticed the brick detail on the building behind my head and the bowed windows.

Using Google maps, I determined that we were in front of the building housing Eastern Mountain Sports and a Bank of America branch. Saturday, on Boylston St., I took this photo to corroborate my location.

IMG_3092As this photo demonstrates, there are only two possible locations in which we could have been standing — either on the far right on the right side of the Bank of America, or on the left, just to the side of the Eastern Mountain Sports sign.

From the following photo it is possible to discern that we were across from the Prudential Center Mall, but Hynes was still visible, suggesting that we were at the left location.

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Mapping this location along with the approximate location of the second bomb reveals we were about 1 block, or 400 feet, away. Revisiting Boylston St. also allowed me to confirm that it was not 883 Boylston, but rather 867 Boylston through which we escaped the street.

Second, the time frame.

My blog post is very fuzzy on timing and chronology. Note the lack of detail here:

I saw a nondescript door leading to businesses upstairs over Boylston, (I believe it was 883 Boylston St.), and headed for it. Other spectators dove into restaurants, but I didn’t want to be near any glass. I told Leo that we were going to find a hiding spot. I managed to text my husband and my brother that we were okay.

In the hallway, it was quiet, and I couldn’t get a signal on my phone to figure out what was happening.

I know I told a few people that we were in the hallway hiding for a few minutes, but it seemed like an incredibly long time that we were in there. Other details from my initial post also don’t help in reconstructing the timeline:

Outside people were running and crying. I managed to get a call through to my husband. I told him we were going to cross the Mass Ave bridge, and after a minute the phone service cut out. …As we approached the BU bridge I got cell service back (along with a deluge of text messages). I told my husband that we were headed toward the River Street bridge and that we would meet him on River towards Central Square.

So to my phone records to help reconstruct the timeline.

My phone records didn’t have the call to my husband when I thought of recording these, but his phone still maintained a record of our calls.

photo

I already know from the photograph I took in the alleyway that I emerged into the alley behind Boylston at 2:54 PM. At 2:56, two minutes later, I had a 1 minute conversation with my husband before cell service cut out.

In between this phone call, in which I told him we were going to the Mass Ave Bridge, and the next series of phone calls, I decided not to go over Mass Ave and instead headed for BU.

At 3:11 I began a series of calls to my husband, attempting to tell him that we were no longer going to the Mass Ave. bridge.

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My text messages revealed that I managed to get my text (as well as a post onto Facebook) out the few seconds after I came out into the alley way, as well as indicated that it was possible to text even when calls were not possible.

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Reconstructing the time line from these texts and calls, I can now see the timing of our walk and the process out of Boston.

2:54PM to 3:11PM: we walked from behind Boylston St., down Gloucester to Beacon St.

3:11 PM: we reached Mass Ave, and after seeing the number of people fleeing across the bridge I decided that using that route was not a wise decision. I then tried to call my husband and let him know that we were going to BU instead, but was unsuccessful.

3:34 PM: Phone service returned and I was able to tell my husband we were going to BU Bridge.

3:40 PM: because Leo wanted to walk on the path by the river we were not able to ascend to the BU Bridge without retracing our steps, and so I texted that we were going to continue to the River St. bridge (which I mistakenly said went towards Harvard in a later text message).

3:58 PM: A text from a friend indicated that text message service was unreliable, and that it was difficult for all messages to get out. Finally a message went through successfully, which also cataloged my location at the time of sending the text, close to the Central Square (River St.) bridge.

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4:41 PM: A text message with my brother recorded that I arrived home (along with my text message to him at 2:54PM that we were okay).

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Third, with the details emerging of the bombers and their pathway into the event, how close did we come to them, and at what time?

Given that the bombs detonated on the same side of the street we were standing, I knew it was possible that we had come into close proximity of the bombers. Photographs that emerged after the bombers’ capture revealed the truth.

The surveillance footage released showed that both bombers had come up Gloucester St. and walked up Boylston, meaning they had passed right behind us.

Watching CBS Sunday Morning on April 21, I captured this image (working on the proper citations. A close up of this image appears here.).

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This image corroborated several of my initial responses, though I was still cloudy on a few details.

The two bombers appear in this photo in front of 867 Boylston, in between two restaurants. A policeman stands in the road, patrolling the barricades. This image is taken west of my position, and time stamps on the surveillance footage reveal the timing to be 2:37 PM, after I took the photo of Leo and myself with our sign that documented our location. The policeman in the photo is the same that stood in front of us when the bombs went off, which also corroborates that the bombers walked right past us as they moved up Boylston St.

What’s missing?

I now have a sense of how far I was from the second bomb (my mom walked it with me and counted 250 steps). I now have a clear chronology and time frame for how long it took me to get off of Boylston, and when I made decisions about my route home and how and when I was able to communicate with others. Although it is still difficult to process, I also now have a sense of how close I came to the perpetrators of this terrible event.

What I’m missing are the memories of being on Boylston, of the faces and images of those who ran by me, of the sounds that are only muffled in my ears. I’m missing a sense of how many people were on Mass Ave., if they were upset, or even injured. Why does this matter? Why do I want to remember? Because I had a little boy with me who clearly remembers details about this. “The loud noise broke everything,” he says. “What am I made of that I don’t break” he asked my mom the other day. “What are people made of?” On top of that, there is the sheer disbelief and the enormity. For two weeks, images of something I experienced have been splashed across the news. Thirty seconds out of the hours upon hours that I have spent on Boylston seem to have shifted my world — how is that possible? Being able to talk to others who were there, to hear their experiences, would help make sense — if not sense of the motives or the loss, at least of the experience, that it happened and that others had similar and divergent reactions, all of which are valid.

This leads me to the next step in my process: big data. I have created a Google map on which people who were along the marathon route can record their location and tell their story, as well as post links to pictures. It’s a work in progress, but I hope to generate a crowdsourced database of the experiences of the Boston bombings, to create a historical record, one that can generate a sense of community out of that terrible day. Maybe, together we can find healing.

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