On Marathon Monday, April 15, 2013, a bomb went off in my face. I was leaning out of the window below, taking pictures, when the attack began. I took this photo immediately after the second blast, and I don’t know why.
I’ve seen too many movies and TV shows and watched too many real-life disasters unfold to think that I’m capable of experiencing anything anew.
Since yesterday's tragedy, I’ve been trying to separate what happened to me from what happened to a character in Hurt Locker or someone who made it out of the Twin Towers on 9/11. I want to know what actually happened to me and to the people that I love. I’m struggling with that. Today I was told that they found ball bearings throughout the office I was standing in, and that there are holes in the windows. I can't process that experience. I'm trying.
I was perched on a windowsill in the front office on the second floor at 667 Boylston Street, along with my other colleagues at marlo marketing/ communications. I've marked the window in the photo below:
In the moment before the first bomb went off, I was leaning out of the window and up against the frame. I had one foot on the outside ledge and one foot on the inside ledge. Earlier in the day, I'd dangled both feet outside when a police officer told me, politely, to have at least one foot back inside. He was standing near the blast, and I hope he’s OK. He may have saved my life.
This was my view of the immediate area of where the bomb went off.* I took this photo at 10:53 a.m.:
This photo at 2:38 p.m.:
And this photo at 2:49 p.m.:
Not long after, I pointed my camera up and to the right, to take a photo of the sky and the surrounding buildings. I looked up at the Lenox and the Prudential Center and took this picture:
It was 2:50 p.m. As I brought my camera down to inspect the picture, there was a loud crack and a bright flash. I remember only a few clear thoughts I had, but one of them was that it sounded like a much louder version of the Lady Fingers I used to light off when I was a teenager. I thought someone had set off a firecracker. Then I saw the fire and the smoke erupt to my right.
I brought my head back inside, but I had to look back. I continued taking pictures. I don’t know why. I had set my camera to continually take pictures throughout the day to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and after the first explosion, my finger was still on the shutter. All I did was click down and hold my arm out the window. I remember feeling immediate remorse: “Why am I doing this? Is this wrong? No, this is important–keep taking pictures. I can’t trust my memory and my perception. I need help remembering.” I kept holding down the shutter. I am still struggling with that decision.
When I looked back outside, I saw blood everywhere. I saw somebody’s arm on the sidewalk with no body attached. Twelve seconds passed, or so I'm told, and then another (quieter, but still substantial) blast hit. I brought my head back inside and looked back at my coworkers in the room. Everyone seemed to be looking up at me. I had the best view, I guess, and people wanted me to say what to do.
People may have already been running out of our front office, but I’m not sure. A day later, all of my memories are coming through these pictures, and they're still cloudy. They don't show much. But I do think I remember everyone looking at me. I think they were backing up away from the window, too.
"RUN!" I shouted. "We have to get out of here!" I think that's what I said. Maybe it was less urgent than that. Maybe it was more like: “I think we should get out of here. I think we should run.” I don’t know. But people started going to the back of the office building. I looked back out the window and saw that there was now a river of blood running from the bodies. There was so much blood. People were moving–squirming, writhing–in the blood. I held down the shutter and took more pictures. I don’t know why. And then I ran.
As I exited the front office, I saw a man trying to get down the stairs, and I shouted at him to stop. That way led to the street, I knew. I knew we had to get out through the back. I was worried another bomb could go off or that something could have blocked the door or that there could have been a fire down there or that there could be a gunman waiting or that there could be any number of horrible things waiting for us at the bottom of that staircase. And, I knew, there was the blood. I wasn’t going to let him go down there. Did I shout at him too harshly? I was worried about that as I pushed him towards the back offices, and as I turned around to see the curtains billowing from the front office windows, smoke still pouring in.
When I made it to the back, everyone was trying to get out the back left office, except for our account director, who was trying to get out the window in the right one. I shouted that we had to get this window open and knock out the screen. I’m pretty sure he was already doing that, but I was starting to feel like I had control of the situation and that if everyone listened to me everything would be OK. I don’t know why I thought that, and thinking back on that moment of ego makes me feel silly, like a child who thinks he’s capable of doing something when he’s really just a kid. But the belief stuck with me throughout the entire day. I guess I should be thankful that I felt that way, because when we made it out on the fire escape and I looked around at my coworkers, I realized that everyone else felt like they had no control over the situation.
At that moment I realized I was going to have to try to be a leader. If everyone else was doing fine and it was my imagination that they all needed help, then oh well. I’d be embarrassed tomorrow. I decided I was going to do my best.
We couldn’t get the fire escape down at first. I remember thinking, we’re going to die right here. It’s going to collapse or a bomb will go off, hitting us here while we’re helpless.
Eventually–I don’t know how–we were able to start making our way down to safety. At this point, I was thinking clearly, very clearly. I knew we had to get everyone down, one by one. I started guiding people down the fire escape. “It’s going to be OK.” “Watch that step.” Then, I looked up and no more people were coming. One of the last guys out told me to go before him.
When we made it down to the alley, everyone was in tears. People kept repeating the same things: Why? How? We made a left out of the alley and kept getting further and further away from the smoke. We kept walking and we got away. We made it.
I’m writing this the day after the attacks. Maybe I'm still in shock, but I feel fine. As I left the front office, which was filled with smoke and flying papers, my mind went completely clear. I know I keep saying that, and it’s only because I’m still so shocked by the feeling. I think that being on that ledge helped me get through this. I saw directly into the blast. I felt the hot air lick my face. I saw those poor, mangled people on the pavement. I knew that I was OK and I knew that if I was OK, then my friends behind me were OK. We were all OK.
I wanted to help the people on the ground so badly the farther I got away from the window. As I ran backward, the urge got stronger. I became angry with myself for taking pictures. I should have been an active participant, not an observer. And now that I sit at home, safe, that feeling of guilt has only gotten stronger. And strangely, I've found some solace in that sense of wrongdoing. It only affirms that the people or person who did this to Boston are in the minority, and as long as that’s true, we will be OK.
*I have contacted the FBI with these pictures with the hopes that any of the pictures I took that day will be helpful.
Ben Levine works as a PR professional in Boston. He studied history and English at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.