After the Boston bombs: Out of hate came love

Six years after the Boston Marathon bomb attack, three Irish athletes recall the events of that shocking day, and how out of that darkness, the city, its people, and its marathon came back stronger

After the Boston bombs: Out of hate came love

All he could do was pray. Eamonn Loughran had already run 26 miles, then walked another two back to his hotel, but despite all that, he couldn’t sit still.

The Ballymena man walked back and forth across his room, a growing sense of dread starting to swell within. It had been three hours since he finished the Boston Marathon, but he had yet to hear from his wife, Angela.

Turning on the TV only heightened his panic — one confirmed dead, hundreds injured — so he returned to pacing the room in silence, pleading with a higher power.

“I was saying the rosary,” he says. “Please, God, make everything be alright.’”

A day earlier, he had walked past the finish on Boylston Street with his wife and pointed out the best place for her to watch the race.

That point, he now realised, was where the first bomb went off.

The calls and messages began to flood in from back home, but Loughran couldn’t bring himself to tell them the truth. “Yeah,” he’d say. “All okay.”

Downstairs in the lobby, Eugene Coppinger was keeping a cool, calm head amid the enveloping storm.

As the man in charge of 70 runners, it was his responsibility to check their status.

When he saw what was happening, he raced upstairs to alert his wife, Gina, who was in bed with illness.

Together, they tracked the splits of all the athletes, narrowing the group down to three at-risk runners who were near the finish at the time of the explosions: Eamonn Loughran, Gerry Carr, and Bob Hilliard.

When they all reported back Coppinger felt huge relief, but soon he had a new concern: Loughran’s wife, Angela, was nowhere to be seen.

Bob Hilliard running in the Boston Marathon.
Bob Hilliard running in the Boston Marathon.

“Eamonn wanted to go look for her but we said the best place was in the hotel in case she tried to make contact,” says Coppinger.

“When she didn’t come back, we were really worried.”

Upstairs, Bob Hilliard was spending those hours on the phone.

The Clonakilty man had reached the line just minutes before the first blast, and when reporters in Ireland got wind of that story his phone just didn’t stop ringing.

He had completed the course in three hours, 47 minutes and, after saying a little prayer of thanks at the finish, he bumped into another Irishman.

The two were shooting the breeze without a care in the world when the first bomb went off at 2:49pm.

Must be a gas explosion, thought Hilliard, but his fellow Irishman had other ideas.

“That’s a f***ing bomb,” he said. “I’d know that sound anywhere.”

Hilliard saw smoke billowing from the crowd less than 100m away, but he wasn’t sure what was happening until a second, thunderous blast rattled down the street.

“Then there was chaos — the second one started the rush and panic.” he says.

“But you’ve got to love human beings, their first response was to charge right in to help.”

A little further down the street, Sean Smith was collecting his gear after finishing in three hours, 20 minutes, the Newry man feeling little fear despite the sounds he heard from afar.

“I thought it was fireworks or some sort of celebration,” he says. “It was the last thing that came to my mind, that it was a bomb.”

Hilliard, Smith, and Loughran had come to Boston with Sports Travel International, an Irish tour group founded by Martin Joyce in 1988.

Joyce took his first group to Boston in 1989 and travelled most years since, but in 2013 he stayed home.

Back in Dublin, it was about 8.30pm when a text came through from Coppinger, the group’s guide in Boston: ‘There’s been a bomb; turn on the TV.’

There were 35 Irish runners in his group that year, and within an hour of the explosion every news outlet in the country was calling Joyce for updates.

But like Coppinger, Hilliard, Loughran, and Smith, all he could do was hope.

“It was very, very scary,” he says.

When it comes to unifying events, weaving together vast and varied strands of humanity, nothing is quite like the marathon.

A universal festival of struggle, of solitary and communal courage.

You see it in the tears, cascading from weathered faces when runners reach the finish, emotions every bit as raw and visceral for those who finished in two hours as those who did it in eight.

And among this magnificent microcosm of humanity, there is nothing — and nowhere — quite like Boston.

It’s the oldest annual marathon in the world. A 26.2-mile slog that starts in Hopkinton and winds its way to Boylston Street, the city-centre avenue that welcomes the truly courageous, runners arriving with their fuel gauges low and their spirits so high.

Exhaustion, elation, co-existing as one.

More than any other US city, the place also has a distinctly Irish feel — a down-to-earth brusqueness forged through hard winters, with no shortage of harsh humour and hard drinking among its constituents.

The race, too, holds a special place in Irish hearts, with Neil Cusack’s victory in 1974 cementing the Limerick man a place in its sporting annals.

That relationship still blossoms today, with Fionnuala McCormack set to fly the flag for Ireland in this year’s edition, Monday’s race being her first marathon since the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The Wicklow woman should finish in about two and a half hours, but in the 30,000-strong human river that flows behind, there will — as always — be a few hundred Irish (not to mention several thousand with Irish roots).

“I’ve run all the marathon majors and Boston is my favourite,” says Coppinger.

“The event, the course, the people — it’s just a notch above.” It’s this last point — the people — that veterans of the race come back to.

“They’ve got soul,” says Hilliard. “They’re like the Irish. They always give you time and love and that day was no different.”

Except, of course, it was different.

Just as 9/11 had a cataclysmic effect on the future of air travel, branding it with a then-and-now differential, the Boston Marathon will forever be divided by the before-and-after of April 15, 2013.

The day brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, motivated by revenge for US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, left two homemade pressure-cooker bombs among the crowds at the finish.

They exploded 13 seconds apart, killing three people and injuring almost 300, with 16 people losing limbs.

Up until 2:49pm that afternoon, it had been a splendid day — the sun shining, and close to half a million spectators lining the course, offering a soundtrack that has few parallels in world sport.

Just ask Loughran, a former professional boxer who once held the WBO welterweight title.

In the mid-1990s, he fought in front of 25,000 roaring fans in Cuba and 35,000 boisterous Brits in Manchester.

But nothing compared to Boston.

The droves of women outside Wellesley College and their so-called scream tunnel; the quaint towns where every last local was by the side of the road, barbecuing meats, sipping suds, and roaring on the runners; the arrival into the city, where men, women and children shouted their support from every available vantage point.

“I thought: ‘Is this for real?’” says Loughran. “I never felt an atmosphere like it. Up until four hours I had an unbelievable time, then all of a sudden, bang, the dark lights came on.”

Up ahead, Hilliard was entering his final miles as the clock ticked past 2pm, the veteran marathoner slowing to a walk to soak in the atmosphere. But something soon changed his mind and he again started to run.

“If I kept walking, I could have been caught in either [explosion],” he reflects.

“There’s definitely a God there — in my belief anyway.”

When the blasts went off, everyone froze.

“You were stopped and suspended in time,” says Hilliard. “You could see the smoke 70 yards away, but it was like slow motion.”

Loughran was about 150 yards from the first blast, grabbing a drink and a banana when the noise rattled him to the core.

“I thought it was a speaker blowing up but within seconds there was another and I thought: ‘That’s not a speaker, that’s a bomb.’”

His mind scrambled with fatigue, Loughran’s first thought was to get off the main street to safety, back towards the hotel.

But while on the way there a thought hit him: he had arranged to meet his wife at the finish. What if she was still there?

“By then the police had moved in, they knew what it was, and they all said ‘keep moving forward, keep going,’ so that’s what we did. I walked the two miles to my hotel.

"I wasn’t overly panicking then because we didn’t hear of any deaths, but I remember thinking: Jesus, what about my wife?”

Hilliard also made the half-hour trek to the hotel and, while he still wasn’t aware of the attack’s severity, some signs were emerging.

“The sirens were going, the ambulances were passing, but we didn’t realise it was a terrorist attack until we got back to the hotel,” he says.

“Then all hell broke loose.”

In a bid to prevent further explosions, police de-activated the phone networks and shut down public transport.

The race was stopped, the course closed, with runners told to get indoors and stay there until further notice.

At the hotel, there was none of the usual post-race euphoria.

Bob Hilliard crossing the finish line
Bob Hilliard crossing the finish line

“When the runners got back, none of them were shaken from what I could see,” says Coppinger.

“More than half didn’t make it to the finish, so they knew what had happened but when you’re not directly involved you’re not as shaken.

"But when they saw the news reports there’s a degree of: ‘God, this is really bad, why did it happen to a running event?’”

A question no one could answer.

With the perpetrators on the run, there was round-the-clock security on the doors of all hotels, and only those with key cards were allowed to enter. The streets were deserted, a post-apocalyptic ghost town.

The Irish group’s hotel was across from the Massachusetts General Hospital, so when they looked out the windows they saw flurry of ambulances, rushing back and forth to the finish.

Upstairs, Loughran continued to pace his room — three to four hours, by his recollection — too stressed to be around others, still silently pleading for his wife’s return.

“In that moment, bang, she came walking into the room,” he says.

When he reflects on that day, the emotion soon simmers to the surface, the torrid idea still lingering of how different it could have been.

“If I’d lost my wife, nothing replaces that,” says Loughran.

I was so happy and so relieved. There were tears in my eyes.

Earlier that day, Angela had tried to get to the agreed point by the finish but, due to the crowd congestion, the conductor on her train told her she had to continue for two additional stops.

“That was a blessing in disguise,” says Loughran.

She was a good half-mile past the finish when the blasts occurred, but ended up completely lost and disoriented in the panic that ensued.

Unable to find her way back to the hotel, she took refuge in a local church that was ushering people in off the streets.

A few hours later, she came across an American couple who witnessed her distress and offered their help, helping her find a way back to her hotel — and her husband.

When Loughran thinks back, he tries to banish the memory of those hours in the hotel, preferring to think of the hours he spent out on the roads.

“I would rather remember the beautiful race, the atmosphere and all it had up to that,” he says, “rather than what happened after.”

From the wounds, there are still scars. But from the hurt, there is healing.

In the years since, Loughran has traversed the world to complete all six marathon majors, but he has since travelled alone.

He ticked off his final one in Tokyo back in February.

“I wanted [Angela] to go and said Tokyo is the safest city around but she said: ‘Not a chance, I’ll be too nervous.’ That’s the consequence of it.”

Amid the relief that washed over him that evening in Boston, there was also great sadness.

After a while it sets in that it’s someone else’s sister or son or daughter that was killed.

Krystle Marie Campbell, a 29-year-old restaurant manager; Lu Lingzi, a 23-year-old student at Boston University; and Martin William Richard, an eight-year-old from Boston; all killed in the second bomb.

Three days later, Sean A Collier, a 27-year-old police officer at MIT, was also shot dead by the attackers.

The elder Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, was killed after his brother ran over him in a car while trying to escape a shootout with police.

Dzhokhar got away that night but was found hiding in a boat outside a house in Watertown. He was sentenced to death in 2015, which he continues to appeal.

When Hilliard looks back on that week, the bombers are the last people he thinks of, his mind instead reverting to the emergency services and volunteers — how they couldn’t have been more helpful at a time of such distress.

He remembers taking a walk with runners who hadn’t got to finish the race to collect their medal — and all the smiles and handshakes and outpouring of goodwill.

“You have never seen such respect shown to human beings,” he says. “They were thanking us for our patience, saying we’ll welcome you back.

"They really showed what’s missing in the world. The Trump administration and many politicians could study the Boston race on how to behave in a crisis. They were just incredible.”

The following year, Hilliard went back and, while security was obviously a little tighter, the welcome was just the same.

“It was hugs, high-fives, and they thanked every single one of us for coming back,” he says.

“No other city could do what Boston did.”

It was at that renewal where he met Dick and Rick Hoyt, a father and son from Massachusetts who gained international fame for their athletic endeavours, Dick pushing Rick (who has cerebral palsy) in a wheelchair through various adventure challenges.

Hilliard hit it off with them immediately and invited them to his own race, the Clonakilty Waterfront Marathon, where the American duo forged a special relationship with the locals.

And during the 2015 Boston Marathon, Hilliard got chatting to Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a survivor of the bombings in 2013 who lost her left leg just below the knee.

In what was her first marathon with a prosthetic limb, the American was struggling with great pain and swelling shortly before half way when Hilliard walked over and introduced himself.

“I gave her a hug and a kiss and told her: ‘We’ve a small race in west Cork, would you come over next year?’ She said she’d be honoured. I said: ‘Okay, the deal is: you finish this and we’ll bring you over.’”

That he did, Haslet-Davis racing in Clonakilty the following year along with former Boston Marathon champions Amby Burfoot and Bobbi Gibb. A lifelong bond, forged on the streets of Boston.

As Hilliard puts it: “Nothing but love came out of that day.”

In the six years since, Loughran hasn’t made it back to Boston, but the Ballymena man intends to change that in the coming years.

“I’ve done all the majors and it stands out as the best marathon,” he says.

They have embraced the race again and made the event even better. Fair play to the people of that city.

Joyce will also not be back this year, but 70 runners will again be there under the guidance of his company.

Having been absent in 2013, he made sure to get back the year after the bombings.

“The motto was ‘Boston Strong’ and there was a huge sense of solidarity,” he recalls. “You could see it at the expo, the seminars, a sense of emotion. It showed them at their best.”

As for Hilliard, his boundless faith in humanity has only been strengthened since that day of horror.

In the aftermath one of those he got to know was Dave Fortier, who this year launched the One World Global Marathon, a four-day event that kicked off yesterday in Jordan and will conclude on Monday in Boston, where race director Dave McGillivray will toe the line in Hopkinton shortly after the final finisher has crossed the line on Boylston Street.

The aim is simple: it’s a series of races designed to connect people across borders and backgrounds, a polite way to say ‘up-yours’ to the ideology than underpins terrorism.

In Boston this afternoon, the event’s organisers will be joined by families that lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks in Manchester, Quebec, Pittsburgh — and of course Boston.

“It’s all tied to the hurt and ultimately the love that came out of that race,” says Hilliard.

“There is goodness in the world and Boston showed the world how to behave that day. Out of hate came love.”

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