epa photographer CJ Gunther tells the story of the Boston marathon bombings in 2013 and the events following in the aftermath:
My assignment was another routine Patriot’s Day, covering the Boston Marathon. For the past 21 years, I’ve photographed all aspects of the prestigious race including the Start, the Men’s and Women’s elite runner packs, and the Finish Line from overhead. Since 2007, I’ve been part of the Finish Line tight pool, right there at ground level where the runners complete mile 26.2 just in front of me.
Since “Marathon Monday” is also the first day of my kids’ spring vacation, they asked if I’d make it home in time for the planned afternoon park activities. I assured them I would, since the Marathon was run like a fine-tuned machine with standard protocols and procedures that made it an annual event I enjoyed covering.
The meeting for the tight pool photographers began at 9:45 a.m. Tommy, the photo wrangler with the Boston Athletic Association, reviewed how the day would unfold, and took time to explain a few slight tweaks from the previous year. After the meeting, we took our positions and awaited the wheelchair athletes who cross the finish first, followed by the elite men’s and women’s runners. Once the winners regrouped, we then moved into position to capture the jubilation of the trophy and wreath presentation.
The last photo I shot showed both the men’s and women’s winners, arms outstretched in a pose together, smiling with joy. I then rushed to the filing center at the hotel in nearby Copley Square. I pushed my photos to the desk, checked to confirm receipt with the desk, packed my gear, and drove out of the city.
It was 1:45 p.m.
At 2:49 p.m., my routine day tumbled into chaos.
I had just met my wife and daughter at the park when a good friend from the Boston Fire Department called me. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Yea, I’m finally over my late winter cold and feeling better,” I replied. “NO! Two bombs went off at the finish line! You need to get there now!” he shouted in his unmistakable Boston accent. For a moment I paused, only to think about the gear I needed, and the best driving route back into the city. I ran to the car, and without breaking stride told my wife I’d call her shortly, trying not to show panic in my face or voice.
The next 102 hours were unforgettable. As I rushed to the scene, driving way too fast, all that was routine about Marathon Day had changed. I had no idea what to expect when I returned to the spot where I had just photographed some of the most joyous moments of the day.
I parked as close as I could, ran three blocks with my gear, and made my way to within a block of the Finish Line. I ran through scores of people who were confused, fearful, and terrified – the complete opposite of the scene I had left 90 minute earlier. I photographed shocked family members, crying children and adults, exhausted and confused runners, and abandoned belongings. I made my way to the medical tent, normally reserved to treat routine post-marathon ailments. It had been quickly converted to a triage center, where bloodied victims were wheeled in, treated, and then brought out to waiting ambulances.
Our chief photographer, Matt Campbell, was traveling back from The Masters golf tournament. When I phoned him, he answered from his seat on the plane. “BOMBS?” he repeated loudly; I reminded him that he was on a plane so he wouldn’t cause any panic. We agreed to connect as soon as he landed in Boston.
The scene for blocks was chaotic. Emergency personnel were everywhere: police, firemen, bomb technicians, Special OPS, and National Guardsmen. I wondered where they all came from so quickly. A colleague took a photo of me being shoved from the street by a Boston Police officer as we tried to make our way to the scene. There were no rules; bombs just don’t go off in the United States. Again, it was complete chaos.
I had pictures to file, which was my main concern. I went to a nearby parking garage where I could still see some of the scene, but away from the police officers who were establishing a tightly-secured area. My phone wouldn’t connect because I was receiving calls from friends and family who had seen an earlier Facebook post of me with two colleagues at the Finish Line. They know the Marathon is one of my annual assignments, and they wanted to make sure I was all right. Finally I moved my first pictures from the tragic scene, then took a moment to post on Facebook: “I’m OK. Safe.” That simple message alleviated concern from friends and family, and freed my phone for the work ahead.
Somehow in the chaos, I was able pull together a pretty good team to expand our coverage. Freelancer Dominic Chavez was nearby, at the Boston Common. Matt Campbell arrived at the airport and came directly downtown to edit, even though he had been away from home for over a week. Staffer Justin Lane drove in from New York and former staff photographer Matthew Cavanaugh drove in from Western Massachusetts. I thought of how fortunate I am to work with such a talented crew of photographers. The whole area was locked down, so we covered the basics, which included news conference updates from local, state and federal authorities, and scene setters of the chaos that still had its hold on the city.
We documented a normally peaceful city that was thrown swiftly and brutally into shock, but not inaction. Boston Strong was born.
I spent the next two days covering reaction to the tragedy, especially once the names of the three people who lost their lives were released. The little boy who was killed, Martin Richard, hit close to home for me since he was just a few years older than my daughter, and a few years younger than my son.
In the days following, I was touched by the outpouring of support, caring and compassion shown throughout the city. I photographed many of the impromptu memorials that cropped up all over the city, including outside the homes of the grieving families.
On Thursday, a memorial service was held and attended by President Barack Obama. Although we were working on only two or three hours of sleep each night, we covered every angle. Concerned about our well-being, Matt scheduled us on shifts us so we could rest. We had no idea how long we would be covering this story, and each day had blended into the next.
Another freelancer, Dominic Reuter, stepped in and I headed home to my family, just hours before the next series of fateful events gripped the city.
I received a phone call from Dominic later in the evening on Thursday. He lives on the edge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus, and heard reports of a gunned-down MIT police officer. Dominic ran to the scene on campus, even though at the time, we didn’t know if the shooting of Officer Sean Collier was related to the Boston Marathon bombings. I edited his first photos, and then fell into bed, exhausted.
At 3:00 a.m., my wife woke to my phone buzzing. She immediately shook me awake. I was up, dressed, and answering the call in nearly one motion. Matt had been calling for almost two hours, needing me in Watertown, a neighboring city of Boston. There was a connection between the Boston Marathon bombings suspects and the shooting of Officer Collier, which had led to a shootout in Watertown between the suspect and local police. Just like four days earlier, I raced in my car to a scene well outside the norm of our usual Boston coverage.
I parked within a block of the shootout and joined a growing group of journalists covering the house-to-house search for the remaining suspect. This search continued the entire day while Watertown, Boston and several other local communities were on lockdown after Governor Deval Patrick issued a “stay in shelter” order.
Time moved slowly throughout the tense day, with occasional activity as law enforcement personnel moved from place to place. At 6:45 p.m. just before sunset, gunfire erupted and I made my way to a yard two blocks from the shots.
I stayed hidden in this yard along with four other photographers. We put our cameras on quiet mode so we wouldn’t be rousted by the police, who were only a meter or two away, separated from us only by a white picket fence. Through the fence in the growing darkness of early evening, we made images of the police at the ready; the robot used to pull the tarp off the boat that revealed suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; and the celebratory gestures by the special operations squads leaving the scene after Tsarnaev surrendered.
Finally, it was over. Boston Mayor Menino’s voice came over the police scanner, thanking everyone involved.
When I turned, my colleagues (who were also my competition), had left to file their photos. I stayed, however, because I knew there was one more shot I needed to make: the ambulance that had arrived only moments earlier which surely was called to carry away Tsarnaev.
There were so many strobes from the police vehicles flashing that it was hard to see. In the dark, it was tough to determine if the image was in focus. I kicked open the gate in the fence, and slowly squeezed off a number of frames as the ambulance turned away. I saw Tsarnaev through the window, his head bloodied. Now it was really over and I filed my final photos.
The events of that week resulted in the loss of life for four people, and forever changed the lives of many more who sustained life-altering injuries. Thankfully, horrific events such as these are not common in the United States, but we’re reminded too often of the unfortunate reality that innocent lives are lost and affected around the world every day. In fact, just yesterday [14 April 2014] in Nigeria more than 70 people were killed in a bomb blast at a bus station, while more than 125 others were injured.
I am thankful that this type of coverage is not the norm for me. This year, I hope we have another routine Marathon Day – or as routine as it can be the year following the tragic events that forever altered our city. Matt and Justin will return and freelancer Herb Swanson will join the coverage team. Security will be tight, and police presence will be at a high level, but the determination of the runners and the spectators to enjoy the day will Boston Strong.
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