People have been asking me what it was like to be in Boston during the bombings
The bombing occurred on April 15. It is now May 25 almost a full month and a half later, but due to requests I’ll describe my experiences.
Let me say, just for the record, I hope this does not sound like some vain attempt at self-grandization. It’s not. It’s just an attempt to put things on record and answer some questions. Boston’s a big city. The city went through this and I had no real role in the events. In fact, when I look back on the events, and people probe asking me for details of how I felt, I’m afraid one thing that I feel is that I should have a bigger role of some kind in what took place, but, alas, that’s not where fate put me.
In Boston there are about two dozen, small, for-profit “Come to Boston and learn English” schools aimed primarily at foreign students. On the afternoon of April 15, 2013, I was working as a substitute teacher at one of those schools monitoring two women while they took a practice IELT test. (The IELT test is the British equivalent of the American TOEFL test. It is used to assess a foreign students’ level of English prior to their admission into a college.)
The classroom had a beautiful view overlooking Boston commons, the large park in downtown Boston.
In front of the classroom was the main area of the school, and this included a large lounge with couches and a wide screen TV.
While giving the test, I noticed that a group of students were watching the TV intently. (There were windows between the classroom and the lounge and hall of the school.)
At one point, I stepped outside for some reason (I don’t remember what) and discovered that several students were intently watching the TV. The TV news said that an explosion had taken place at the finish area of the Boston Marathon and showed the same clips repeatedly. Emotional announcers said repeatedly that they had very few details and showed the same clips again and again while promising to release more details as they learned them.
I was not impressed with the reportage, I saw. It shared little information and seemed intent on exciting the viewer at a time when cool heads were needed.
If I recall correctly, I tried to point out to the students that the news was repeating the same clips of carnage, an explosion and an ambulance being loaded again and again. But they were quite concerned, which is only natural.
I went back into the classroom and one of the women taking the test, sensing tension outside, asked me what had happened. I told her that I’d tell her in fifteen minutes and that she should focus on finishing her test and I’d explain everything then.
When they finished their tests, I told them to look out the window and ask me what they saw and what was different and to notice how the people were acting.
They did and reported that they could see nothing different and that people in Boston Commons were acting the same.
“Very good,” I said. “Here’s what happened. A half hour ago, there was an explosion in Boston. Two people were killed and seventeen are injured. (These were the numbers of the time.) The green subway line is closed, but everything else is the same. No one knows what caused the explosion.”
One woman did not know the word “explosion” so I explained it to her with some simple hand gestures and sound effects. I was careful not to use the word “bomb.”
One of the women was Thai and the other was Khazakh. I quietly told the Khazakh that she should probably be a little extra careful for a little bit because since September 11 people blamed Muslims for these sorts of things, but, I told her, in a week or so we’d probably learn that it was an American who had done this and they’d probably done it for a reason that was just plain crazy. (i.e. the “Jody Foster” motive or the motive of the D.C. Sniper or the motive of the Unabomber or the time Squeaky Fromme tried to shoot Gerald Ford to “test” his security. Good old American nuttiness in Action.)
The Khazakh woman, a very attractive woman dressed in stylish clothes, asked how I knew she was a Muslim and I told her that she had an Islamic name and came from an Islamic country.
Some point around then, perhaps earlier, I received a cell phone text from a friend asking if I was okay. He’s an Iraq war vet so he apparently responds quickly to bombings.
Outside the students were milling around and agitated management staff were trying to inform and calm the students. (I hate to say it, but in many cases the students were calmer than the staff trying to calm them.)
I did what I could to help with that and continued suggesting that students go to the window to compare the hysteria on the TV with the calm outside in the Boston Commons.
At one point I took a break and sent this e-mail:
“FYI, as some of you may have heard, there was an explosion in Boston today near the Boston marathon course.
I am fine and had no interaction with the event, at least not as yet. (I'll skip the jokes about the likelihood of my actually running in the Boston marathon or not.)
When the event took place I was teaching in a small ESL school on the Bostom commons. Students took to watching the TV news (who I think did a terrible job, showing the same five minutes of clips repeatedly while saying "We do not know the details yet"). Meanwhile, outside my window everything appeared cool, calm and collected.
The most dramatic thing I did was encourage students (who range from age 16 to 36 or so) to take a break from watching the TV and look out the window where they could see that the city was functioning normally. I then advised Muslims to be careful but said that in a few days we will probably learn that this was the work of a nutty American.
( --why?-- I did not publically speculate. Some incomprehensible nut reason. Perhaps to protect rabbits from the cosmetic industry or to show they STILL after all these years love Jody Foster. We'll see. ) “
Later I received a text message from a friend with an interest in terrorism who said they were still finding bombs.
I then sent this one:
“Someone e-mailed me and said "they're still finding bombs."
My two cents. As an EMT and general paranoid nut-job I know more about these things than average (although far less than most experts.)
Often the most effective "secondary devices" or follow up bombs are saved for when the fire department and ambulances start to arrive to tend to the wounded. This leaves the wounded unattended and throws EMS and fire response into confusion.
This did not happen.
My guess is that when the explosion happened many people dropped their back packs and ran away from the danger area.
Then the bomb squad came and, instead of dangerously opening the back packs, decided to blow them up "just in case." I could be wrong but I am not worried about unexploded bombs (unless whoever did this built a bomb or two that did not work.)
OTOH, I have no plans to go anywhere near the danger area.”
Soon after the cell phones stopped working. I’m uncertain as to if they were overloaded or shut down by the authorities, I’ve heard both, but they did not work for a time after the Boston bombing.
Eventually it was time to leave the school and go home. All the subways were running save for one line (the Green line) so it was a simple enough thing to get home. The subway had extra staff out monitoring the platforms and such.
People, as they always are at a time like this, were tense and nervous but friendly and caring, trying to reach out.