“It’s Unimaginable Pain”: The Everyday Affects of the Marathon Bombings, 10 Years Later
They lost someone dear. He raced toward a shootout. She held an injured seven-year-old at the second blast site. Five stories of life in a tragedy's aftermath—and the wounds that never heal.
Everyone has a different way of coping with collective trauma. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, the only thing we could think about was telling the stories of survivors. Our ensuing book, Boston Strong, followed their lives from the day of the attack through the first anniversary. Two years later, it became the basis for the movie Patriots Day, starring Mark Wahlberg.
For the 10-year anniversary of the bombings, we reached out to many of the people whose stories were featured in our book. They are the loved ones of victims, survivors, and even a bystander who came to the aid of an injured child in an incredible act of kindness. We wanted to know how the event has changed them all these years later, what they’re up to now, and how they honor their experiences and unimaginable losses. Here are five of their stories.
Stepfather of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier
Soon after MIT police officer Sean Collier’s death at the hands of the Tsarnaev brothers, his stepfather heard a story that brought tears to his eyes. Earlier that year, Collier had been the first police officer to respond to a call from an MIT grad student and his wife, whose newborn daughter, Sophia, had stopped breathing in their home. Collier quickly arrived on the scene, clearing space in the hallway and the girl’s room so paramedics could perform lifesaving measures. But what really struck the couple was the email they received after their baby was later released from the hospital. “My name is Sean Collier,” the email said. “I wanted to follow up and find out how Sophia is doing?” Overwhelmed by Collier’s caring nature and personal touch, the couple relayed the story to his family after his passing. “Sean never spoke about any of this to us,” Rogers says now. “He was always so humble about his work.”
It turns out it was just one of many smaller acts of kindness and compassion that had an enormous impact on the people with whom Collier interacted, as evidenced by the outpouring of love and support from friends and total strangers that the family received in the days and months after his death.
Collier’s humility still gives his stepfather a sense of great pride today. The past decade has been challenging and, at times, overwhelming for Rogers, who watched the video that showed Tamerlan Tsarnaev shooting Collier six times—twice in the side of the head, once in the forehead, and three times in his right hand next to his holster—in an attempt to steal his gun. The image is never far from Rogers’s mind. Yet despite his anguish, he continues to show quiet strength, attending each day of Dzhokhar’s trial and even launching, with other members of Collier’s family, a memorial foundation to support fellow police officers and local youth. To that end, in February 2023, the family gave $3,500 to the Boys & Girls Club in Salem, New Hampshire, and have also donated a boxing ring and equipment for a youth program in Lowell. “We try to do some things that Sean would have supported,” Rogers says. “Sean loved to help kids. That’s who he was. I think he would have liked what we’ve done.”
Aunt of bombing victim Lingzi Lu
When Helen Zhao saw the news about the attacks at the marathon, she immediately called her niece, Lingzi Lu, who was studying at Boston University. She had known Lu in China, but the two had become much closer since Lu moved to town.
There was no answer. Zhao sent a text. Again, no answer.
“I didn’t think she would be [at the marathon],” Zhao recalls. “When I texted her, and she didn’t answer, I still didn’t think anything. At the time, Boston was in chaos.”
The hours passed, and still there was no word from Lu. Around midnight, Lu’s roommate texted Zhao and said that Lu hadn’t come home. The young Chinese student’s friends started checking with the hospitals. Zhao held out hope but began to fear the worst.
That hope turned to despair when she received a call from a Massachusetts State Police officer the next morning. Lu had listed Zhao as her emergency contact at BU. The trooper would only say that they were on their way. Zhao agonized as she sat in her living room, awaiting the troopers driving from Boston to her home in Rhode Island. She opened her front door to hear three troopers deliver the news: Lu was dead. “It was like a dream. You have this out-of-body experience,” she remembers. “It was just shock.”
The troopers drove her to the medical examiner’s office in Boston, where she identified Lu’s body. Then she had to make the toughest phone call of her life, telling Lu’s parents in China the tragic news. “They just broke down,” she recalls. “It’s unimaginable pain.”
In the years since that horrific phone call, Zhao has often accompanied Lu’s parents, Jun and Ling Meng, on their yearly trips to their daughter’s grave in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain. “I can tell it’s tough for them—very tough,” Zhao says. “Especially when there are other families with members of similar age as Lu, moving on with their lives.”
Lu’s parents are planning to come to Boston sometime in 2023 to mark the 10-year anniversary of the loss of their daughter and to support the foundation they established in Lu’s name that funds arts, educational, and community organizations. “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already,” Zhao says. “We try to help others through charitable work in her memory and kind of keep her spirit alive. A lot of people’s lives moved on. We just hope people never forget what happened on that day. The pain is not as sharp, but it’s there. When you think about it, it’s just as bad as day one.”
Bystander turned first responder
On Patriots’ Day 2013, Tracy Munro found herself among hundreds of spectators running away from the second blast in front of the Forum restaurant. Then something stopped her in her tracks. Munro calls it a “mother’s intuition.” She had a young daughter of her own who did not attend the marathon, but Munro knew there were other children back on Boylston who might need help. She turned against the human tide and rushed back to the scene, where she found a child lying on the sidewalk. It was bombing victim Martin Richard’s younger sister, Jane. “I held her in my arms and comforted her,” Munro remembers, her voice cracking with emotion.
The child reminded Munro of her own daughter, Stella. “Look at me, baby,” Munro told the girl, whose hair was burned and whose leg was severely injured in the blast. “What’s your name?”
“Jane,” the girl replied.
“How old are you?”
Munro helped firefighters place the little girl in the ambulance.
Ten years later, the image of the injured girl remains seared in Munro’s memory. Even though she now lives more than 2,000 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah, mentally, she feels as though she is still right there at the finish line in Boston. To this day, she says she is worried all the time. She even keeps a “go bag” packed with clothes and other belongings in case terror strikes again. “I’ve been entirely messed up from this,” Munro says. “It’s a lifelong process.”
In her home, there is evidence of another marathon-induced habit: a stack of handwritten letters to Jane Richard that she has composed since the bombings in 2013. She never mailed them, and only writes them as a form of therapy and healing.
A decade later, the little girl Munro comforted has become a source of comfort for Munro. She admires her from afar, watching news clips of her singing at events to honor her late brother. “She’s so beautiful,” Munro says, “and I’m so proud of her willingness to stay present.” And so, each day, Munro tries to follow Jane’s lead and live in the present, too.
Former Watertown Police Chief
Ed Deveau was at home in bed when his cell phone rang just after midnight, three days after the bombings. It was his shift commander. “Chief, they’re shooting at us and throwing bombs at us,” he said, referring to the Tsarnaev brothers, who just a few hours earlier had murdered Sean Collier and carjacked an innocent bystander, Dun Meng, in Allston.
That was all Deveau needed to hear: Jumping out of bed, the police chief raced to the scene. By the time he arrived, Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been critically wounded, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, had managed to flee the scene. Deveau was amazed that all three of his officers were still alive after he took one look at the evidence of the firepower the Tsarnaevs had trained on them. “What we thought was a carjacking offense spilled over into an all-out war,” Deveau recalls. “This went way beyond the training of my officers.”
Ten years later, Deveau, a lifelong Watertown resident, is now semi-retired and living in Florida. As he looks back on his career, that harrowing night has become one of his greatest sources of pride. “My officers had no warning at all and were thrown right into battle,” Deveau says. “This remains the only event in the country where police officers were shot at and had bombs hurled in their direction. If we played this out, nine out of ten times, we would be sure to lose an officer or two.”
Today, Deveau gives speeches to fellow law enforcement members and community groups about lessons learned from the bombings and the pulse-pounding aftermath in Watertown. Still, what he remembers most from that moment was not the unbeatable odds that his officers overcame. When Deveau closes his eyes and reflects on the 10-year milestone, the images and sounds that come to mind are the throngs of relieved citizens waving American flags and chanting “USA, USA” along Mount Auburn Street after the surrender. “That to me symbolizes ‘Boston Strong,’” he says. “It’s about an entire community that came together to help each other, to protect each other. That’s what I’ll always remember most.”
To say Karen Brassard and her family and friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time on Marathon Monday 2013 is an understatement. Karen, her husband, Ron, and their daughter, Krystara, then a Northeastern University student, had driven down to Boston from their home in New Hampshire to watch her best friend Celeste Corcoran’s sister run the race. Around 1:30 p.m., Krystara called her best friend and roommate, Victoria McGrath, from the finish line and asked her to join the Brassards and Corcorans. She made it to the finish line five minutes before the blast.
The injuries suffered by the group were astounding: Celeste Corcoran’s legs were so severely damaged that they later had to be amputated. Shrapnel struck Karen, Ron, and Krystara in their legs. The blast blew out Karen and Ron’s eardrums, forever damaging their hearing. “I didn’t see anyone around me except Victoria and Ron and Krystara,” Karen remembers. “Celeste and [her husband] were right next to me, but I never saw them. My brain didn’t allow me to see any of it.”
The Brassards were whisked away to the medical tent while Victoria was carried to safety, covered in blood, by a firefighter. A photo of the rescue became one of the most iconic images of that day.
Two years later, Karen was still dealing with the fallout from the attack as she watched Celeste testify in the 2015 trial of bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and speak pointedly to the press about the death penalty sentence. It was a moment of triumph, but another tragedy was not far away for the group of friends who were at the finish line that day.
A year after the trial, Krystara and Victoria, who normally took annual vacations together, decided to go on separate trips. Krystara and another friend went on a cruise, while Victoria headed to the Middle East. While they were on the cruise, Krystara got a devastating phone call: Victoria had been killed in a high-speed wreck in Dubai.
It was a terrible blow to the Brassards, who considered Victoria family. They were still rebuilding their lives after the bombings. Ron was struggling—physically and mentally. Krystara, meanwhile, was now faced with graduating college without her best friend, with whom she had only grown closer as they recovered from the tragedy together. “She was just such a light,” Karen says now of Victoria. “Krystara holds a lot in. One night she just fell apart. She said, ‘She’s my person. I’ll never have my person again.’ It was beyond unfair.”
Still, like so many of the survivors, they fought hard emotionally and channeled their grief into positivity. Victoria’s family set up a foundation in her name in 2018, and the Brassards became active in supporting the causes that were important to her, which include helping children with special needs, veterans, and refugees displaced by conflict. The foundation also fields an annual team of runners for the Boston Marathon, and they will be there this year running in her memory.
First published in the print edition of the April 2023 issue with the headline “The Wounds That Never Heal.”