You never know what will happen when you walk out your front door. Every day we leave our homes and our families with a “see ya later,” fully expecting to return as planned. April 15, 2013 was the last time I walked out of my front door on my own two legs.
It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for runners and spectators. I’d never been into Boston for the Marathon - it just seemed like too much of a pain with all the traffic and the people, but this year was different. My on-again off-again girlfriend Erin was running to support the hospital she worked for and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to show her I cared. I made a big goofy sign and headed into the city with her friends Remy and Michele, not really knowing what to expect.
Patriot’s Day is a Massachusetts holiday that commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the Revolutionary War. More affectionately known as Marathon Monday, is perhaps Bostonian’s most-loved day. It is like everyone comes out of winter hibernation for one of the first nice days of spring - hundreds of thousands of people line the streets cheering on total strangers. I saw one guy dressed up like a cheeseburger, screaming and dancing and cheering and he just seemed to fit in. There’s an inexplicable energy and positivity in the air.
Remy, Michele and I made it down to the finish line and I got a great spot. I had my sign ready and my eyes peeled for Erin. As I was looking around I felt a bump and noticed a guy dressed in all black. He seemed so serious and out of place… he wasn’t cheering and didn’t seem to know anyone else around him. He was carefully scanning the crowd and when he placed the backpack he’d been holding on the ground, we locked eyes. He walked away and I immediately felt uneasy. “If you see something, say something” ran through my head, but it was too late.
As I turned to look back at him, I heard a loud pop. I felt a scorching heat and then the cold of the concrete below me. I was disoriented, and as the eerie silence lifted I could hear screams and chaos around me. It smelled like the Fourth of July. I tried to stand and couldn’t get up. Michele was just a few feet in front of me and I could see she was badly injured. There was blood everywhere and she was staring down toward my legs. She looked up and when I saw her face, I knew. My legs were nearly gone. I laid back down and felt for my phone - I wanted to call my mom and say goodbye. I didn’t think I was going to make it.
From the smoke appeared a doctor and a man in a cowboy hat. They applied tunicates and threw me into a wheelchair. As I was being rushed to an ambulance I could see the carnage around me. Boylston Street had become a warzone. An AP photographer caught this moment on camera and it was shared around the world before I even made it to the operating room. Some of my friends and family saw the photo and were unsure if I was dead or alive.
As they loaded me into the ambulance I told the EMTs that I knew who did it. “I saw the guy” I said over and over. They comforted me and seemed to think I was in shock.
I woke up in the ICU at Boston Medical Center. I was intubated and couldn’t talk, so I motioned for pen and a piece of paper. After asking if Erin was OK and cracking a LT. Dan joke (just to make my family laugh, I couldn’t stand the pain in their faces), I wrote:
“Saw the guy. Looked right at me.”
Before I knew it, my room was filled with cops and FBI agents and within a few hours one of the nation’s biggest manhunts was underway. With this and the AP photo, I was immediately hailed as a hero and became the face of “Boston Strong.” I’m not a hero. I’m just a guy who wanted to cheer his girl on at the marathon.
In the years that followed, I struggled mentally and psychically. I was partying to escape reality and the invisible wounds, which in turn made it very hard for me to heal the visible ones. Other survivors were running marathons of their own and I was just trying to get comfortable on my new legs and in my new reality. I was Boston’s “hero”, but what they didn’t know was that there were many days I didn’t even want to get out of bed, let alone leave the house.
Then came Nora. My beautiful, vibrant, strong little baby who has given me a second chance at life. Seeing the world through the eyes of a three-year-old and the excitement that comes from some of life’s simplest moments makes me feel like a kid again. I’ve stopped partying and am in the best shape ever - you have be to keep up with a toddler! She keeps me on my “toes” and motivates me daily. I’m back in school and have clarity and direction - something I didn’t quite have even before the bombing changed my life.
People often ask me if I am angry with the AP photographer who took that photo of me in such a vulnerable moment, and my answer is no. When I look at that photo I don’t focus on the injury - I focus on the helpers. Carlos Arredondo, the man in the Cowboy hat, is an immigrant from Costa Rica who was standing at the finish line to honor the two son’s he’d lost to war and suicide. When others ran away, he ran to the rescue. Devin Wang was a volunteer at the medical tent and is the woman pushing me in the wheelchair. They are the real heroes.
The sad part is that in the crazy world, my story is not unique. Acts of violence take and forever change lives daily and we are becoming desensitized to the reports and images that we see. Next time there is an attack don’t just look at the violence. Look for the good. Look for the helpers and remember that they are all around.
That’s what keeps me going.
Stronger the film is out now, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Jeff’s book, of the same name, is also available to buy.
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email firstname.lastname@example.org with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.