BOSTON – I quickly flick between radio stations. Where is the news? Where?
Two bombs had just gone off about twenty minutes before, but regularly scheduled radio programming was not yet being interrupted in Boston. Then, finally, at the half hour, 3:30 P.M., an actual news update with way too much bad news: blood on the pavement, sirens, injuries and the names of hospitals where the wounded were being rushed.
If this were Israel, I thought, the radio would practically turn itself on to announce a terror attack. Within minutes of an attack there is nothing else on the radio but the blare of updates, eyewitness interviews and speculation.
About an hour later I was outside Massachusetts General Hospital trying to get a sense of what might be going on inside. The hospital beat. An unfortunately familiar one from my reporting days in Israel, and not one I ever imagined doing in my new setting in staid Boston.
But in Israel, reporters are allowed inside hospitals for a briefing fairly quickly by the chief doctor, and are given a chance to speak to some of the more moderately wounded. Here a different culture reigns. One where patient privacy is hallowed over the right of reporters to traipse around hospital wards. It was soon made clear to me by hospital officialdom: I would not be talking to any of the wounded at their bedside, nor to their anxious relatives or friends. At least not this night.
Following a tip that a suspect was being treated and questioned there, I hopped over to Brigham’s Women’s Hospital. But it was the same story: no access and not even an update from the hospital staff, until my fellow journalists and I had practically turned to ice sculptures after waiting several hours outside in the cold and wind.
The drive to Brigham and Women’s Hospital had been eerie - streets usually crammed with rush-hour traffic now emptied out as people heeded the state’s call to go home and out of the way of other possible bombs. I thought back to covering attacks in Israel where the streets often fill after an attack, a blend of curiosity seekers and those who find it a good opportunity to gather for another hearty round of “Death to the Arabs” chants.
Meanwhile I felt disoriented, reconciling the images of blood stains and severed limbs with the sweet roar of cheers I was happily part of earlier in the day. Whistles, clapping and cries of “Good job, keep going" intermingled with the images that emerged later on from Boylston Street , only a block down the same road the leading pack of runners had raced by in their final mile.
Now I took in images of the stunned faces of the survivors, clad in Boston Red Sox jackets or running shorts, the overhead photo showing shots of streets clogged with ambulances, police cars and the wounded. I know too well the Israeli version of this scene. And this was not the first time I saw political violence of the kind one sees more often in Israel, now transplanted to a seemingly incongruous foreign stage.
In 2002 when I was based in Africa, I covered the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa which killed Israelis and Kenyans. At funerals deep in the bush I saw those same stunned faces among the families of the dead as they buried their loved ones in paprika-red earth and discussed where Israel might be found on the map.
And now at Brigham and Women’s hospital I interviewed Kristen Scott as she stood outside the hospital entrance looking for a way to help. A runner who had just finished the marathon and was on her way back to the finish line to cheer on others when the explosions shook Boylston Street, she still stands in running shorts pinned with her race number and a pair of watermelon colored running shoes.
"I saw the smoke, the whole ground was shaking from the first explosion and by the second explosion people were crying and running," says Scott, 29, who is studying for a PhD in health policy at Harvard.
"There was a lot of uncertainty and yet there was still this sense of comraderie. Perfect strangers saying 'we are here for you', people sharing cell phones so they could tell people they were okay. I spoke to a doctor from the medical tent who said they told their student volunteers to turn away because the scene was just so awful."
"I saw little kids crying and you wanted to not look like a panicked person, for their sake. It was such a shock. Everyone was like 'What's next'? What's happening?'" she said.
As she spoke, the adrenalin of reporting began to wear off. In its place a familiar dread and weariness began to settle in, one that I felt with every attack I covered while I lived in Israel.
The night before, I had returned home from a local Memorial Day ceremony and quietly stepped into my kids’ bedroom to watch them sleep. I thought to myself how fortunate we were to be taking a break from the security tensions of Israeli life.
But yesterday it was our five-year-old daughter who had gone on a field trip to the Boston Public Garden, an oasis of calm with its weeping willow trees skimming a large pond, where her beloved “Swan Boats” sail now that spring has returned.
But for her, the highlight of her day, she told my husband, was seeing the marathon runners. Wrapped in the post-run silver blankets I imagine they appeared to her like magical royalty. That was before the bombs went off, bombs she does not know about.
I wish we could go back to that moment too.
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