As marathon day approaches one year on, the city strives to remain Boston Strong

36,000 people hope to take part in this year’s Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day

Sabrina Dello Russo says the past year has been tough. She struggles to dial a number on her phone, to concentrate, to multi-task or even to concentrate to fulfil a single task at times.

On April 15th, 2013, the Boston woman was standing with four girlfriends outside the Forum Restaurant on Boylston Street when the second of two bombs exploded. It went off 10 seconds after the first, at 2.49pm, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The blasts killed three people and injured more than 260.

One of Dello Russo's friends, Roseann Sdoia, lost her right leg, one of the many victims whose bodies were shattered by flying shrapnel from two home-bombs detonated in backpacks. The blast left her friends with hearing loss. Two have had surgery to repair the damage; the other two await surgery.

Sdoia was practically on top of the second bomb, says Dello Russo, who was no more than three feet away from her friend. “I was one person away from Roseann. I was able to walk away; she was carried away,” she says. “It is a very difficult thing for me to look back on and understand and accept why her and not me. I have extreme survivor’s guilt because she is one of my best friends. I would take it away from her in a second.”


Dello Russo (38), who grew up in the North End of Boston, suffered a brain injury in the blast and still lives with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I became very vigilant of my surroundings and extremely sensitive to loud, sudden noises. That is common with PTSD,” she says. “If there is a loud noise in the city, my friends don’t react. I dive for cover. It probably looks like I am over-reacting. It is a physical reaction.”

Tomorrow Boston will mark the first anniversary of the bombings that scarred Boston in the worst terrorist attack on US soil since the September 11th, 2001, attacks. The vice-president Joe Biden will attend a memorial service led by Boston mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.

Next Monday, about 36,000 runners, including 204 Irish participants, will take part in this year’s marathon, the first time the world-renowned race has been held since the bombings. The numbers participating in the Patriots’ Day race, or “Marathon Monday”, have swelled this year as a quarter of the 23,000 runners in the last year’s race were stranded on the course after the first bomb went off.

City officials planning this year’s marathon have promised to balance tight security with the spirit of fun that traditionally accompanies the world’s oldest annual marathon. “It will be the Boston Marathon as it has always been,” said Walsh at a press conference on Saturday in front of city hall. “Our goal is for everyone to enjoy the race.”

More than 100 cameras will be installed along the route and about 50 observation points set up near the finish line to track people in the crowd. Officials have warned spectators carrying backpacks or other large items that they may be subjected to searches.

The large numbers of participants who have signed up to the race show that runners are unwilling to be cowed by last year's attack. "Not a bit," says Gerry Carr, a Dubliner who runs with Clonliffe Harriers Athletics Club and who completed last year's marathon – he was about 150 metres away from the first bomb. "The runners will stand up and be counted against this terrorism."

Carr’s wife Jean is travelling to Boston this year to run her first marathon. She says that it took her husband a long time to get over last year’s attack but she is not deterred from running.

“You cannot let people like that destroy your life and what you do. I would not let someone destroy what I want to do,” she says. “I had a fear at the start: the ‘what if, what if’. Security is going to be very tight but there is going to be a brilliant atmosphere out there. No matter where you go, you take a chance. You cannot put something on hold because you are afraid of what might happen.”

Bob Hilliard from Clonakilty, Co Cork, finished last year's marathon 20 minutes before the first blast went off, an explosion he initially thought were fireworks to celebrate Patriots' Day. Hilliard has signed up again this year and has no reservations about a race he describes as "the essence of running".

“I have no doubt or fear whatsoever with the Boston Marathon,” he says. “We were always going to go on it. I don’t think anybody is concerned. I admired the organisers’ style and grace last year – they even apologised last year for not letting people finish the race when they gave them their medals.” He points out that the New York Police Department searched 50,000 people in November and the race proceeded without a hitch.

Continuing criminal proceedings arising from last year’s attacks leave the events of that April 15th still fresh in the memory. One of the two suspected bombers, the Chechen-American Tamerlan Tsarnaev (26), was killed four days after the attacks in a shoot-out with police, while the other, his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (20), was captured later on the day of Tamerlan’s death following an extensive manhunt.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Tsarnaev over his alleged role in the killing of three people in the blasts. He is being held at Fort Devens federal prison, about 40 miles northwest of Boston. Tsarnaev, who emigrated with his family to the Boston area in 2002 and became a naturalised American citizen seven months before the bombings, is due to stand trial in November.

Dello Russo says she has been asked a lot about the two suspects but she, like other victims, doesn’t think much about them.

“We don’t really feel much anger towards them because it is really not going to do any good,” she says. “I used to ask myself a lot: ‘what was the point? Did they achieve what they wanted to achieve?’ “I don’t really dwell on that now. I was in therapy for a year. I used to ask myself those questions. Those thoughts get me nowhere. I don’t heal from thinking about those things.”

What has helped her recovery is training for this year’s marathon. She is part of a running group made up of survivors of last year’s attack called “4/15 Strong” – named after the date of the blasts. There is nothing that could come between her and running in this year’s marathon, she says.

She and her friends are running to raise funds for Roseann Sdoia. Members of the group have helped to push each other through months of training during the coldest winter in northeastern US in 20 years. “They have been extremely helpful,” she says. “We all know what each other has been through. We don’t have to say anything to each other. If I am struggling, I will get a pat on the back.”

She knows the memories of last year will make the April 21st run difficult but she thinks the spectators will help her cross that finish line, a marker that means so much more for survivors than the end of a race. “It will be a little nerve-racking at the beginning for a lot of different reasons,” she adds. “I think the crowd and the adrenalin will take over and make it a positive day.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent