The Horror. The Heroism.

Special Report: When the bombs went off at the finish line, they reawakened a nation’s sense of vulnerability to terror. They also reawakened its resilience

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The cover of TIME's digital edition, a Special Report on the Tragedy in Boston Read more:
Cover photograph by Bill Hoenk

This story first appeared as the cover of a special free tablet-only edition of TIME, published three days after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

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.

(PHOTOS: The Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Explosions)

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.

MORE: After The Marathon Tragedy, Why Boston Will Prove Resilient

This story is part of TIME’s Boston bombing special tablet edition, available on iPad, Nook, Android and Kindle

And that was not all. The day after the marathon bombings came word of a letter laced with toxic ricin sent to Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker in Washington; it was detected at a remote mail facility in Maryland. The Senate post office was shut down; then reports came of suspicious packages at Senators’ regional offices. On April 17 the FBI revealed that a similar letter, also laced with ricin and postmarked Memphis, had been sent to President Obama; both letters, the FBI said, contained the message “To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance.” The Hart Senate office building was shut down when a suspicious package was found in the atrium.

So what happens now? All the hard targets are harder than ever: the White House is a fortress, the Capitol ringed with tiger teeth, the skyscrapers of Manhattan outfitted with metal detectors and bomb dogs. But you can’t harden the Rose Parade or Shakespeare in the Park, advise people to stay home New Year’s Eve, roll up our civic life and take it inside. We gather and cheer: that’s how we live, at least in our cities, scratchy and cozy and close. But security is about to tighten several more notches, and not just in New York and Washington and Chicago. More metal detectors, more cameras, more dogs, as safety takes one more step forward and privacy takes one back. Boston just gave the next big crowd one more reason to think twice and weigh the odds and wonder who might be looking for the perfect occasion for a hideous crime.

(MORE: Tragedy in Boston: One Photographer’s Eyewitness Account)

Battlefield Tactics
Lester Wasserman, 38, a New York shoe-store owner, was approaching mile 26 when he heard the blast. The runners slowed. “We think a transformer exploded,” a policeman told them. “We’re going to reroute you.”

But this was no accident. The blast site was a pile of metal barricades, bags, clothes, body parts. “The first thing I saw were people’s limbs blown off. Massive amounts of blood,” Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki told TIME. “It looked like BB holes in the back of some people. And a lot of anger. People were just angry.” He saw a man kneeling over a woman. “Obviously she was injured pretty badly, and he’s just ­comforting her.”

Fear and mercy scrambled the crowd; some ran toward safety as others raced into the smoke and chaos. The bomb was perfectly designed to shred bodies below the waist—unless the shrapnel hit a child, in which case the damage was even more horrible. “We started grabbing tourniquets and tying legs,” said Roupen Bastajian, a Rhode Island state trooper who had just finished the race. A cook took off his apron to wrap it around one woman’s bleeding stump. Former New England Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi carried an injured woman to safety. “The police were trying to keep us back, but I told them I was a physician and they let me through,” Dr. Natalie Stavas, a pediatric resident at Boston Children’s Hospital who had just finished the race, told the New York Times. She performed CPR on one woman: “She was on the ground, she wasn’t breathing, her legs were pretty much gone,’’ she said.

When a crowded city street becomes a battlefield, the hard lessons of two wars come sharply home. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been hardwired to expect secondary explosions. Every member of an infantry unit carried a tourniquet and knew how to use it; that knowledge saved limbs, and lives, in Boston. Dr. Lyle Micheli found himself working with an Army Special Forces soldier from Harvard Business School; they fashioned a tourniquet out of a running jacket, and used a hanger as a windlass to tighten it. The well-equipped medical tent that typically treats dehydration and blisters quickly turned into a MASH unit. Doctors accustomed to handling sports medicine were triaging patients who arrived with lacerations and burns, damaged organs, broken bones, ruptured eardrums; some had lost both legs.

MORE: Treating the Marathon Casualties: Inside One Boston Emergency Room

This story is part of TIME’s Boston bombing special tablet edition, available on iPad, Nook, Android and Kindle

Dozens of victims were transferred to area hospitals under a code red, for critical injuries. “We don’t improvise when these kinds of things happen,” said Dr. Ron Walls, chairman of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We’ve drilled this a lot. We know how to do this.” At its peak, Brigham and Women’s was running seven operating rooms simultaneously dealing with the trauma patients. Doctors found ball bearings, metal and carpenter’s nails embedded in victims’ soft tissue. “There’s a lot more missing muscle, missing skin,” Walls said. “The tissue just gets blown off, basically. And the bone in the center shatters, so you have these really horrific injuries. You can train all your life and not get used to seeing that.”

Emergency doctors at Beth Israel, the New York Times reported, borrowed another battlefield tactic, writing patients’ vital signs on their chests in felt marker in the event a chart got misplaced during transfer. At Boston Children’s Hospital, trauma-program director Dr. David Mooney said, he found “this little girl with literally nails sticking out of her flesh. Each of the two critically injured kids had their lives saved by the first responders. Somebody at the scene put a tourniquet on their legs and stopped the bleeding, and I have no doubt they would have bled to death if the first responder hadn’t done that.” The wounds were far worse than the normal injuries they see. “The fact that someone would actually do this to a kid was the kind of thing you don’t want to think about,” Mooney observed. “It’s just hard to imagine.”

(PHOTOS: A Photographer’s View of the Carnage)

The minute the news broke, off-duty nurses and doctors flooded into all the area hospitals. A group of Massachusetts General residents who saw the explosions from a rooftop race-watching party immediately set off for the hospital and set up a makeshift triage ­center in the lobby, sewing up victims’ wounds and sending those with more-serious injuries through to be admitted. The hospital had brought in a group of Israelis a few years back to consult on upgrading its emergency procedures. So it was now standard procedure that incoming patients were tested with elaborate detectors for hazardous residue, to rule out a chemical or radiological attack. “We have to make sure they don’t bring in to the hospital any materials that injure us or other patients,” said Eric Feins, a 32-year-old surgical resident.

Liz Norden was unloading groceries into her Wakefield home when her phone rang. “Ma, I’m hurt real bad,” she heard her 31-year-old son say; he was in an ambulance, his legs badly burned. He didn’t know what had happened to his brother, who had been standing next to him. It took two frantic hours for her to learn that both her sons lost a leg that day.

Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital told William and Patty Campbell that their daughter Krystle, 29, a restaurant manager, was injured and in surgery. She had gone to watch the race with her friend Karen; but when the Campbells were finally allowed to see her, 11 hours after the blasts, they learned the truth. “That’s not my daughter, that’s Karen! Where’s my daughter?” William recalled telling the stunned doctors. They had found Krystle’s ID; but now they had to show the Campbells a picture of a young woman who had died. That was when they found Krystle.

Also fatally wounded was Lu Lingzi, a graduate student at Boston University who had come from rust-belt China to work toward her master’s in mathematics and statistics. And finally, there was Martin Richard, 8, whose family had come from Dorchester to watch their friends race. About three hours into the marathon, the family went for ice cream; they had just returned to cheer the runners coming down the final stretch, straining their eyes to spot a friend in the crowd, when they heard the first bomb go off. Panicked, they were looking for a way to climb over the barrier and get into the street—away from the buildings—when the second bomb went off right behind them. Martin died instantly; his sister Jane, 6, lost a leg, and his mother ­suffered a brain injury.

In the age of Instagram every epic event finds its iconic images in real time; in a matter of hours all around the world, people saw pictures of Martin, including one of him holding a sign from a peace event at his school last year. It read, NO MORE HURTING ­PEOPLE. PEACE.

By Monday night officials had long since declared the race over; but the marathon clocks along the race route kept on ticking off the time, for runners who would never finish the race.

VIDEO: The Morning After the Boston Attack

This story is part of TIME’s Boston bombing special tablet edition, available on iPad, Nook, Android and Kindle

The Search Begins
The manhunt began even before the smoke cleared. The FAA shut down the airspace around the scene, and police using bullhorns told drivers to evacuate the city. Officials blocked cell-phone service in the area to prevent any other devices’ being detonated remotely, which made it hard for athletes and spectators to let their families know they were safe. (Google, which has its own crisis-response team, launched a Person Finder to help friends and families reconnect.) SWAT teams converged to patrol hospital perimeters in the event there were more devices hidden. Many people dropped their backpacks and bags as they fled, and police had to treat each one as a suspicious package.

On Boston Common, squadrons of men in fatigues and berets lined up in formation with assault rifles on their shoulders as helicopters swarmed overhead and armored Humvees idled nearby. Forensic teams working for the Joint Terrorism Task Force sealed off a 15-block radius and began scouring the wreckage for pieces of the devices. All of the shrapnel and components—­including those recovered by doctors from victims—was collected and sent to the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Va., where experts began reconstructing the bombs.

(PHOTOS: U.S. Newspapers Lead with Explosions at Boston Marathon Finish Line)

In his initial remarks Monday evening, President Obama was so subdued as to sound perfunctory as he promised to “get to the bottom of this.” He avoided the word terror, since no one knew yet if this was political violence, whether foreign or domestic, or something equally lethal but differently sourced. By the next day he was back at the podium, deploring the “heinous and cowardly act” and using variations of the word terror four times in less than a minute. He honored the heroism of all the first responders and the residents of Boston. “If you want to know who we are, who America is, how we respond to evil, that’s it,” he said. “Selflessly, compassionately, unafraid.”

The U.S. intelligence apparatus has more and mightier tools with which to track terrorists than before the great rewiring that followed 9/11. Since pressure-­cooker bombs can be detonated by cell phones, officials could track every call made through the closest cell towers around the time of the blast. Unlike after past attacks, this time investigators were quick to crowdsource the manhunt. Police set up a tip line and within 24 hours had received more than 2,000 tips. This was a crime with a million witnesses: police asked for spectators’ photos and videos and collected surveillance tapes from area businesses to scour each frame for clues. “There has to be hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs, videos and other observations that were made down at that finish line yesterday,” said Timothy Alben, superintendent of the Massachusetts state police. “You might not think it’s significant, but it might have some value to this investigation.” Experts planned to study “every frame of every video that we have to determine exactly who was in the area,” said Boston police commissioner Edward Davis, and use facial-­recognition software to compare the faces of any suspects against passport and visa photos and other databases.

The FBI and CIA scoured their intelligence databases for missed signs that the attacks had been imminent. And national signals intelligence assets had “ears up” for any congratulatory chatter by terrorist organizations thought to be planning attacks against the U.S. But the discovery that it was a pressure-­cooker bomb was the first big break. Back in 2004, Homeland Security was worried enough to issue an alert: “A technique commonly taught in Afghan terrorist training camps is the use/conversion of pressure cookers into IEDs,” the bulletin warned. The materials were easy to find and assemble, and the device could be ­detonated by “digital watches, garage door openers, cell phones or pagers.” Al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine Inspire ran a story in 2010 called “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” which recommended pressure cookers as explosive devices. A 2010 suicide bomber in Stockholm had rigged a pressure-cooker bomb that failed to detonate fully; it killed only the bomber. And the failed 2010 SUV bomb in New York City’s Times Square was a pressure-­cooker device featuring 120 firecrackers.

MORE: Richard DesLauriers: The Special Agent In Charge

This story is part of TIME’s Boston bombing special tablet edition, available on iPad, Nook, Android and Kindle

But the nature of the bomb did not necessarily point investigators to al-Qaeda or its freelance affiliates. The instructions to build one appear on white-­supremacist websites as well, one of which called the Inspire story “highly recommended reading.” Pressure-­cooker bombs are also discussed in detail on anarchist sites, one of which describes how to build what is “affectionately known as a HELLHOUND.” The possible link to violent antigovernment groups was already much on investigators’ minds. Security experts had instantly registered the significance of the day: April 15, Tax Day, Patriots’ Day, which in the twisted visions of alienated radicals is a day to protest against symbols of authority. It was the third week of April in 1985 when the compound of the white-supremacist group the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Law was raided in Marion County, Arkansas; that group was plotting to attack the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Ten years later, Timothy McVeigh fulfilled that mission, on April 19, 1995; by then Patriots’ Day had acquired even more symbolic resonance as the anniversary of the siege at Waco, Texas, that left more than 70 cult members dead. McVeigh in turn inspired the Columbine killers, who struck on April 20, 1999.

Heart of the City
The fastest route back to ordinary life is paved by extraordinary kindness. To those who were witness to the horrific violence, the city of Boston opened its arms. Many runners who escaped unharmed were left wandering in the growing cold that night, no ID, no credit cards, no money or luggage, unable to return to their hotels because they were locked down in the blast zone. Boston residents emerged from their homes with sweaters and plates of food; girls on Newbury Street passed out white flowers to runners, asking them to return for next year’s race. A rabbi who’d been at the finish line offered the National Guard troops guarding the site some pastries and thanked them for their service. On the other side of Boylston Street, marathon organizers were giving out medals to anyone with a runner’s bib, and a nearby Starbucks was serving free coffee and doughnuts to everyone on the street. By nightfall more than 6,000 people had offered places to sleep for the displaced, while the Red Cross opened shelters.

(PHOTOS: Marathon Carnage: Explosions in Boston)

Runners Hill and Schlitt spent long minutes after the bombing frantically trying to call their daughter, who’d run the race with them. They were elated when they finally found her. “But there are people for whom this hasn’t ended so well,” said Hill, playing with her ­marathon medal. “I wasn’t sure if I should wear this. At first I hid it. It seems silly to be proud of finishing this race when there are families out there who’ve lost someone.”

But already normal was shoving its way back into the foreground. The bars of Boston’s hotels did a brisk business long into the night.

Yankee fans may have sung the Red Sox anthem “Sweet Caroline” at their home game, but that won’t become a regular thing. By April 17, runners were posting their marathon medals on eBay; they were going for hundreds of dollars. Officials in London were finalizing their plans for Sunday’s marathon; they weren’t worried that no one would turn up.

And when they were finally able to get back into their hotels, collect their belongings and head for home, the Boston runners knew they would be back. KEEP ON RUNNING, BOSTON, read a sign with the heart, taped to a barricade.

— With reporting by Andrew Katz, Nate Rawlings and Jay Newton-Small / Boston; Massimo Calabresi, Michael Crowley and Mark Thompson / Washington; and Andrea Sachs / New York City

MORE: Marathon Bombings: Our Favorite Tributes to Boston

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