Runners exalt the marathon as a public test of private will, when months or years of solitary training, early mornings, lost weekends, rain and pain mature into triumph or surrender. That’s one reason the race-day crowds matter, the friends who come to cheer and stomp and flap their signs and push the runners on. Rooting from the sidelines is the most democratic of sporting rites: no skyboxes, no tickets required, just an unabashed will to holler and wave. And it’s a reason the races keep police chiefs up at night—these vast, messy, soft targets in our biggest cities, a beacon to anyone seeking the largest possible audience for an act of mayhem.
The whole world comes to Boston for the world’s oldest annual marathon, 23,000 runners from more than 60 countries, half a million spectators lining a route that curls through eight Massachusetts towns, from the Wellesley College “screech tunnel,” up Heartbreak Hill in tony Newton, down Beacon Street in Brookline and ending in Boston’s Copley Square. “It’s the only time in our lives where we get to feel like rock stars,” said runner Terry Delaney. “People 20 deep are cheering you on like it’s their job and they get paid to do it.”
This was an especially festive day, the kids out of school, government offices closed for Marathon Monday, Patriots’ Day, Boston’s hallowed spring feast, set aside to celebrate the revolutionary impudence of the rebels who fought the British at Lexington and Concord. The weather was perfect, 50°F in the early New England spring, sure to inspire the crowds to linger long after the elite runners had clocked their times.
By 2:50 p.m. more than 17,000 had crossed the finish line; now it was the amateurs and fundraisers, people who had no thought of winning, just finishing respectably, running to raise money for breast cancer, for veterans, for autism awareness. Mile 26 was designated to commemorate “26 miles for 26 victims ” of the Newtown shootings; some Newtown families were special guests at the finish-line tent.
Cindy Hill, 52, a pediatrician from Philadelphia, had managed a personal-best time of just over 31⁄2 hours. She turned, exhausted, and threw her arms around her husband Mike Schlitt, when just behind them the first boom sounded. At first it seemed as if it might have been a celebratory cannon blast, but louder, smokier—and then bloodier. The second blast came 12 seconds later and about 100 yards farther away from the finish line, and that’s when the screaming started. Orange balls of fire puffed into the air; the vets in the crowd recognized the smell of explosives. Windows shattered, raining glass; spectators perched on balconies above the blast zone were thrown back inside by the explosions’ force. Debris landed on rooftops, embedded in nearby buildings. One man pushed his children to the ground and lay on top of them; another man lay on top of him. “Don’t get up,” he said, “don’t get up.”
The drained runners reeled, confused by the smoke, then an unnatural silence. “It was a joyous occasion,” says Schlitt, “that was absolutely wiped out.”
It is too soon to say how much more was wiped out, even beyond the lives lost, the dozens maimed, the mystique of the most famous marathon now wreathed in sorrow as well as pride and fury. Nearly a dozen years had passed since the 9/11 attackers hit their iconic targets in America’s other swaggering cities without another successful bombing: and in that time, even as we’ve fought two wars abroad and practiced drills at home, removed our shoes at the airport, retired the orange alerts, tucked the trauma away, the legions tasked with our protection knew it was only a matter of time before we turned the next corner.
When the turn came it was hard and fast; the bombs, officials told TIME, were crude and all too familiar—a lethal stew of nails and shrapnel stuffed into 6-liter pressure cookers and hidden in black nylon duffel bags. Such devices have been killing soldiers and civilians for years in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Nepal and Pakistan and India. Now they have arrived, with full and lethal force, in the U.S.
This story is part of TIME’s Boston bombing special tablet edition, available on iPad, Nook, Android and Kindle