Alissa Quart's first book of poetry is both personal and universal - inspired by work and research she has done as a journalist.
Last April 15th, Jeff Bauman was just a regular guy from Chelmsford, Massachusetts. He had never been to the Boston Marathon before but his girlfriend Erin was running so he went to cheer her on. He was near the finish line that afternoon.
Bauman locked eyes with the man we now know as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the bombing suspect who was later killed in a shootout with police. He also saw Tsarnaev’s backpack on the ground. A few minutes later, the bomb in that backpack blew up. Bauman lost his legs.
A year later, his book about that day and what has happened since offers a very candid look at the struggles and triumphs of one Boston Marathon bombing survivor. An excerpt of “Stronger” appears below.
“I’m just glad I’m still here,” Bauman tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “There was a window of two minutes of where I’m not sitting here with you here right now. I’m, you know, in a grave somewhere. And now I’m living a totally different life. I’m going to get married next year. I see my family every day and I’m starting my own family now. I’m very thankful and grateful and there’s nothing but positivity and love in my life.”
On seeing graphic photos from that day
“I don’t like seeing the pictures and I’ve seen a lot of horrible pictures, not just the one of Carlos and I in the chair… I’ve seen other pictures and you know, those ones scare me and they make me, you know, they just instantly make me want to cry and I shake after I see ‘em. Just the ones of — I don’t know if you’ve seen ‘em, but there’s gore ones of the actual bomb and people just laying there and I can see me laying there, when I’m laying on the ground. And that was really a tough time for me. That was — I thought I was dead. I thought I was going to die there.”
On locking eyes with Tamerlan Tsarnaev shortly before the bomb blast
“He looked right at me. You know, we kind of met eyes and he just had a straight face. He had a backpack on, I saw it on his shoulder; he was holding it. And then I turned away from him. … I kind of wanted to move anyways. I thought Erin [Hurley] had probably already finished so we missed her because it was just so many people and … not even two minutes later, I saw — I didn’t even hear it — I saw a white flash and a loud pop, pop, pop, sounded like three pops and, you know, I was on the ground.”
On having his story be so public
“It was tough for me to do that stuff. The Bruins game was tough. The first one you know I did and I was in my chair and I waved the flag and I didn’t realize that it was going to be that intense. It was like as soon as you go out on the ice, it’s just so many people cheering, and I was a little scared and so I was like, oh that’s good, I’m kind of glad its over, that was too intense for me. … The second time, I had just gotten my prosthetics and I was standing and a lot of people wanted to see me stand and I understand but I was so nervous, I was like I don’t want to do it, I’m going to fall. I’m going to go out there and fall. And I was just really scared to do it. But my mom forced me to do it. She was like you gotta go out there you gotta show everyone you’re up and you’re standing and I was like okay, alright, I will, I will.”
On his feelings toward surviving bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
“He was 19 and it seemed like he had a good life. Not only did he ruin other peoples lives and change other peoples lives, he ruined his own life. … I’m not angry at them. I don’t know, I’m just a weird person like that, I’m kind of sensitive and I feel bad for people that hurt other people ’cause it’s just awful. I feel bad for them. They don’t have that feeling of kind of love. You know I wanted to ask him, like you know, what was the reason? What was the reason? Were you forced to do this? I just want to know why and then how he feels about it.”
Note: This excerpt contains strong language and graphic content.
By Jeff Bauman
April 15, 2013
I know exactly when my life changed: when I looked into the face of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It was 2:48 PM on April 15, 2013–one minute before the most high profile terrorist event on United States soil since September 11th–and he was standing right beside me.
We were half a block from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, two in a crowd of half a million. The marathon was the signature event of Patriot’s Day, Boston’s special holiday, which celebrates Paul Revere’s ride and the local militiamen who fought the first battle of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775. Patriot’s Day was also the unofficial start of spring, in a city known for brutal winters, so half the city had taken the day off, and everyone wanted to be outside. By tradition, a Red Sox home game had started at 11:00 am, coinciding with the last starting group of the marathon. By 2:30, baseball fans were pouring out of Kenmore Street and onto Boylston Street, swelling the marathon crowd.
I had arrived half an hour earlier, with my friends Remy and Michele, to cheer for my girlfriend, Erin Hurley. Even then, the sidewalks were clogged ten deep, and the restaurants and bars were filled with people in Red Sox gear and Boston shirts. The best runners, who qualified for the first start time, had finished hours before, but the runners kept coming, and the crowd kept growing. Most of these people, including Erin, were running for charity. They were the average runners, the ones who needed and deserved our support. Everywhere I looked, people were cheering and clapping, yelling for them to keep going, the finish line was close, they were almost there.
And then I noticed Tsarnaev.
I don’t know how he got beside me. I just remember looking over my right shoulder and seeing him. He was standing close, maybe a foot away, and there was something off about him. He was wearing sunglasses and a white baseball cap pulled low over his face, and he had on a hooded jacket that seemed too heavy, even on a cool day. The thing that really struck me, though, was his demeanor. Everyone was cheering and watching the race. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Except this guy. He was alone, and he wasn’t having a good time.
He was all business.
He turned toward me. I couldn’t see his eyes, because of his sunglasses, but I know he was staring at me. I know now he was planning to kill me–in less than a minute, he thought I’d be dead–but his face revealed no emotion. No doubt. No remorse. The guy was a rock.
We stared at each other for eight, maybe ten seconds, then my friend Michele said something, and I turned to talk to her. Our friend Remy had moved toward the finish line to try to get a better view. I was about to suggest to Michele that we join her. That’s how much this guy bothered me.
But I didn’t. And when I looked back, he was gone.
Thank god, I thought…
Until I noticed his backpack. It was sitting on the ground, near my feet. I felt a jolt of fear, and that old airport warning started running through my head: Don’t leave bags unattended. Report suspicious packages. I looked around, hoping to find the guy…
And then I heard it. The explosion. Not like a bomb in a movie, not a big bang, but three pops, one after the other.
It doesn’t get hazy after that. It gets very clear. The hospital psychiatrist later told me that my brain “lit up,” that at the moment the bomb went off my brain became hyper-alert, so that even though my memories are fragmented into hundreds of pieces, all the pieces are clear.
I remember opening my eyes and seeing smoke, then realizing I was on the ground looking up at the sky.
I remember a woman stepping over me, covered in blood. Then others, scattering in all directions.
There was blood on the ground. Chunks of flesh. And heat. There was a terrible amount of heat. It smelled like a cookout in hell.
There was an accident, I thought. Something went wrong.
I sat up. Michele was laying on her back a few feet away, a race barrier collapsed on top of her. I could see her bone through a hole in her lower leg.
That’s not good, I thought.
We made eye contact. She reached toward me, and I started to reach toward her. Then she looked at my legs, and she stopped, and her eyes got wide.
I looked down. There was nothing below my knees. I was sitting in a chunky pool of blood–my blood–and my lower legs were gone.
I looked around. Blood was everywhere. Body parts were everywhere, and not just mine.
This wasn’t an accident, I thought. He did this to us. That fucker did this to us.
Then I heard the second explosion, somewhere in the distance. It had only been twelve seconds since the first bomb went off.
This is a war, I thought. They’re going to chase him. There’s going to be shooting. They won’t be able to get to me.
I laid down. I’m going to die, I thought, and I realized I was okay with that. I had lived a short life, only 27 years, but a good life. I was okay with letting go.
Then an emergency room surgeon named Allen Panter, who had been watching the race from across the street, appeared above me. He slammed tourniquets around the ragged ends where my legs had been blown off, yelling as he worked.
“Get shirts,” he was screaming over his shoulder. “Get jackets. Shoelaces. Anything. People are bleeding out here.”
“Get away from me,” I said.
I had been calm. I had been completely calm. But this guy was freaking me out. “Go help someone else,” I yelled, pushing him away. “Go help my friend.”
He dipped his hand in my blood and drew a red “C” on my forehead. I remember that so clearly. I think it meant “critical.”
Then he was gone, yelling orders as he went. My ears were ringing, but I could still hear the screaming.
I saw a woman lying motionless, her eyes open.
I saw a man in a yellow cowboy hat lift the barrier off Michele, then turn toward me, and the next thing I knew he was grabbing my shirt and twisting it around his fist. He lifted me off the ground with one hand, spun around and threw me into a wheelchair that had been intended for runners too tired to walk after finishing the race.
When I hit the chair, it was an electric shock. It was like Pulp Fiction, when John Travolta plunged the adrenaline into Uma Thurman’s heart. My body came alive, and I thought, No way, Jeff. No way that fucker is taking you down.
“I’m going to make it,” I said.
“Yeah buddy,” the man in the cowboy hat said, running beside me. “That’s right. You’re going to make it.”
We passed through a medical tent. People were yelling for us to stop.
“No,” the man yelled without slowing down. “We’re going to the hospital.”
The tourniquet on my right leg pulled loose. It got stuck in the wheel and tore off, and suddenly there was a second man there, and the two of them were holding my right leg and squeezing to stop the bleeding. I reached down and grabbed my left leg, trying to do the same. A photographer appeared out of the chaos, kneeling in the road as we rushed past, snapping pictures.
I thought, What is he doing here?
We crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I saw the banner as I was lifted out of the wheelchair and into an ambulance.
“Who are you?” a woman said. “What is your name?”
“I’m Bauman,” I yelled as they strapped me down. “Jeff Bauman.”
“Are you Bowman?” the woman yelled at the man in the cowboy hat.
“Are you Bowman?”
“No,” he said, misunderstanding my name. “I’m not his brother.”
And then we were gone, racing up Boylston Street toward Boston Medical Center while an EMT worked on my legs.
“I know what happened,” I said.
EMT hesitated, looking at my face for the first time. “He’s awake,” he yelled to someone in the front seat. “This guy’s still awake.”
“It was a bomb,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. It was a bomb.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw the guy. I know who did it.”
I slipped out of consciousness for a second, maybe two, then jerked awake. Don’t do that Jeff, I told myself. Stay alert.
I remember everything. The equipment hanging above me in the ambulance. The orderlies waiting when we arrived. I remember being rushed down a hallway, a policeman in uniform running beside me. I know who did it, I tried to tell him. I know. I know. And I wanted someone else to know, just in case. But I couldn’t get him to stop. I couldn’t get anyone to listen.
“Stay calm,” people kept saying. “Lie down and stay calm.”
And then I was on the operating table, with ten or twelve people standing above me. That’s when I started to panic. I’ve seen a lot of hospitals on television and in movies. I don’t like hospitals.
“Put me under,” I yelled. “I’m awake. Put me under.”
A face came toward me, in front of the others. He was a young guy. He looked like Major Winters from Band of Brothers. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll take care of you.”
And they did. Everyone that day took care of me. They saved my life. They are the heroes, because they gave me this opportunity. They gave me the chance to prove that I–that we–are better than cowards with bombs. That we’re not broken. And we’re not afraid.
Excerpted from the book STRONGER by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter. Copyright © 2014 by JB Liege, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.