A Hero Among Heroes: A Boston Cop’s Story at the Marathon

For Thomas Barrett, a patrolman in the Boston Police, what happened last Monday, April 15, hasn’t sunk in yet

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Cover Photograph by Bill Hoenk
Cover Photograph by Bill Hoenk

Boston Police Officer Thomas Barrett appears on the cover of last week's digital-only edition of TIME, a special report on the Tragedy in Boston.

For Thomas Barrett, a patrolman in the Boston Police, what happened last Monday, April 15, hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s too raw. He thinks it’ll be a while.

It was Patriots Day. It was Marathon Monday. For Boston, there’s no other day like it. The race began like every other one he’s worked in his decade and a half of service. Thousands of marathoners and tens of thousands of supporters and volunteers had swarmed into the city for the grueling 26.2-mile course that begins on Main Street in rural Hopkinton and climbs up Heartbreak Hill near Boston College before ending close to Copley Square in Boston. Virtually everybody in town knows someone who’s running it.

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And just like the past few years, Barrett, 41, a veteran of police departments in Newton and Cambridge, was stationed near the finish line. He was cold from standing in the shade on Boylston Street, so he was wearing gloves, but the sun meant runners were ending with decent times. By 2:50 p.m., more than 17,000 of them had completed the race.

Then, an explosion.

Barrett thought it was a cannon, like the howitzer usually sounded on the Fourth of July. It took him a second to realize there wasn’t enough room for one at the finish line, and another second to figure out it wasn’t celebratory. “The white smoke started first, and then you could see there was black smoke,” he recalls.

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For the next 10 seconds, he and others sprung into action as they took in the scene around them: glass from blown-out storefront windows had rained across the now bloodied sidewalks; waist-level metal barricades were collapsed and strewn about. And people, injured and bleeding, lay everywhere. “You could see people’s clothes on the street. You could see fragments of—I’m not sure what it was.”

And then, another explosion.

Barrett’s instincts and training kicked in. The first person he approached, a man, was missing a leg. “His pants had been blown off. His shirt was on fire. Part of his body was still on fire,” he remembers. Barrett used his gloves to pat out the flames as a woman kneeling next to him tried desperately to stop the bleeding.

At one point, Barrett went to undo his belt and fasten a makeshift tourniquet, but his radio and firearm got in the way. He asked the woman for her belt and purse strap, then tied them around the man’s upper right thigh. Before moving to another victim, he instructed her to keep applying pressure.

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After pinpointing another injured bystander, someone handed him a young boy and said “take care of him. You need to get this child out of here.” Barrett’s badge and fluorescent yellow vest gave him away as the one who could make it happen. The boy, dressed in a blue-green fleece and navy pants with twin white stripes, had strawberry-blond hair. It was streaked with blood.

Barrett and the child didn’t speak to one another and never locked eyes. He grabbed the sides of the boy’s chest and held him like a football as he darted for the medical tent; the cradling wasn’t a safety maneuver, but rather a way to move quicker through the scrum of the wounded and the brave. A freelance photographer, Bill Hoenk, captured the moment.

As the duo moved toward the white tent, which had been outfitted to assist runners with dehydration and muscular strains, Barrett stopped near Exeter Street and flagged down an ambulance. “He has a head injury,” he told a paramedic about the boy, unsure to what extent. His vest and jacket were bloodied.

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The paramedic strapped the boy into the back of the ambulance, then navigated the vehicle through the crowd to the site of the second blast to pick up more of the injured. Barrett ran back into the fray. It had been mere minutes since the explosions, and while victims recoiled in shock and agony, throngs of runners, spectators and volunteers rushed to help. People tapped Barrett on the shoulder and introduced themselves with “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a nurse,” he said, prompting a simple response: “Just jump in.”

Within around 22 minutes, the most critically injured were moved out and routed to emergency rooms around the city. Barrett says he had “no concept” of time and experienced the chaos around him in slow motion. Two other victims were loaded into the ambulance with the boy before it raced to Massachusetts General Hospital. (Barrett is unaware of the child’s medical condition and his whereabouts.)

After that, authorities roped off the blast area as a crime scene. As the names of the three fatalities—Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lu Lingzi—were released over the next few days, and as more than 170 people received care for their injuries, technicians worked around the clock to inspect Boylston Street for remnants of the bombs and clues of the perpetrators. Four days later, after the death of MIT police officer Sean Collier and a manhunt that paralyzed Boston and gripped the nation, authorities captured the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. His older brother, Tamerlan, died after a shootout the night before. In a tweet at 8:45 p.m., Boston Police let the world know that the threat was over: “Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.” Thirteen minutes later, it exulted: “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.”

After 102 hours, the city exhaled.

The attack will be remembered at future marathons, but so will the bravery of those who prevented it from being worse. “I saw a lot of people that probably should have run the opposite way and they didn’t,” Barrett says, recalling the uncertainty of other devices in the area. “They stayed.”

(PHOTOS: Boston Celebrates Capture of Bombing Suspect)

It’s a moment of valor he won’t soon forget. Barrett borrows a quote about a character from Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers to describe the experience: “His grandson asked him if he was a hero in the war, and he said, ‘No, I wasn’t. But I served in the company of heroes.’” Last Monday, Barrett thought similarly. “That day, everybody from my station was a hero. Everybody from the police department was a hero. And at that point, everybody in the city was a hero.”

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