Jeff Bauman was cheering for his girlfriend at the Boston Marathon last April when the first of the two bombs went off at his feet. In this excerpt from his new book, Stronger, the 28-year-old describes the terrifying moment and his difficult but courageous journey learning to walk again.
April 15, 2013
I know exactly when my life changed: when I looked into the face of bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It was 2:48 p.m.—one minute before the most high-profile terrorist event on American soil since Sept. 11—and he was standing right beside me.
We were half a block from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, two in a crowd of half a million. I was there with my friends, Remy and Michele, to support my girlfriend, Erin Hurley, who was running for charity. We were just like everyone else that day: cheering and clapping, laughing.
Then, suddenly, I noticed Tsarnaev. He had on a hooded jacket that was too much, even on a cool day. The thing that struck me, though, was his demeanor. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Except this guy. He was all business.
We stared at each other for eight, maybe 10 seconds, then Michele said something, and I looked away.
When I looked back, he was gone. But I noticed his backpack sitting on the ground near my feet. And then I heard the explosion.
It doesn’t get hazy after that. It gets clear, and very fragmented.
I remember seeing smoke. I remember blood. The smell of burning. I remember looking down and realizing I had no legs. I’m going to die here, I thought. Then: No way. No way that guy will take me out.
And that’s when an ER surgeon named Allan Panter appeared at my side. He wrapped my legs in tourniquets, yelling as he worked. Then Carlos Arredondo, who would soon become known as the “man in the cowboy hat,” lifted me up and threw me into a wheelchair that had been intended for runners too tired to walk. A woman pushed the chair. Carlos ran beside me. Someone grabbed my right leg, holding it up to stop the bleeding. I grabbed my left leg.
Out of the chaos, a photographer appeared, snapping photos.
I thought, What’s he doing here?
I had no idea that as they rushed me to the hospital, a picture of me in the wheelchair was rushing around the world. Within seconds, it would appear on hundreds of websites. Within minutes, it was being shown on news reports. It was the first image my mom saw, the first news to reach my dad. The next day, it was on the front page of papers across the globe.
I don’t look at the photograph. I did once, but never again. I have all the images I need. The equipment in the ambulance. The EMT. The orderlies waiting for me. I remember being pushed down a hallway, a policeman running beside me. “I know who did it,” I tried to tell him. I wanted someone else to know, too, just in case. But I couldn’t get anyone to listen.
I was lucky. That's how I tried to look at it. I was standing next to a bomb and I survived.
And then a face came toward me. It was the surgeon. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll take care of you.” And they did. Everyone that day took care of me. They are the heroes, because they gave me the chance to prove that I—that we—are better than cowards with bombs. That we’re not broken. And we’re not afraid. We’re stronger.
Bauman underwent multiple surgeries at Boston Medical Center. After nearly two weeks in the ICU, he was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where he was finally able to reflect on his new reality.
I was lucky. That’s how I tried to look at it. I was standing next to a bomb, and I survived. The doctors had to amputate my legs; my eardrums exploded; I had severe burns. But I was alive, and I wasn’t alone. My family was with me. My friends. My girlfriend, Erin, came to the hospital—so tired and in shock she had to be carried up the stairs—and never left.
At Spaulding, other people were allowed to visit, too: first responders, fellow survivors, police officers. I was the only person to identify one of the bombers, when I woke up the day after the attack, and the cops kept calling me a hero.
It may seem strange, but I didn’t like being singled out like that.
I remember the day a police officer delivered my driver’s license and credit card, my only possessions recovered at the scene.
“You okay, Jeff?” he asked.
“Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m all right.”
“Anything you need, Jeff.”
“It’s just …”
“Name it, buddy.”
I took a deep breath. “Can you find my sneakers? I loved those sneakers.”
He looked like he was about to faint. My sneakers had been destroyed, along with my feet. He didn’t know what to say. Until I laughed.
“I’m just kidding,” I said.
“Oh, man,” he said. “You got me, Jeff. You really got me.”
He was a nice guy. I had met one bad person in this experience, but he was dead by then. Everyone else was amazing: kind, caring, giving.
I’m coming out of this experience with damage. I guess you’d call it suspicion. I know how evil humans can be, and I’m watchful.
But I know something else, too: bad people are rare. Good people are everywhere.
Bauman was the only survivor to lose both legs above the knee, which has made his rehabilitation particularly grueling. While he’s grateful for the love and support he received from around the world, he feels pressure to be an example of resilience, even when the inevitable setbacks occur. He draws strength from his family, his friends, and his city.
Six Months after the Bombing
When I was 12, my aunt Karen was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. She survived, but she lost her vocal cords. For 15 years, Aunt Karen has barely made a sound. At first, that scared me, because she was different from the rest of us, but also from who she had been. These days, she is an inspiration. She has been where I am, so she understands.
When I see Aunt Karen, I realize that one year—if that’s how long it takes me to walk again—isn’t that long. It took three months of intense physical therapy just to heal enough to receive my prosthetics. Even now, after another three months of workouts and practice, every step is a challenge, as I learn to balance on, lift, and trust my legs. I wake up in pain every day. I get mentally and physically tired after walking twice across a room. I feel self-conscious in public. I have no idea what I will do in the future, except spend it with Erin. But that’s okay. My focus is on putting one foot in front of the other.
I have no idea what I will do in the future, except spend it with Erin. But that’s okay. My focus is on putting one foot in front of the other.
I want to give back to those who helped me. Their prayers made me stronger, and their donations—and great health insurance from Costco, where I worked—provided my artificial legs.
I go to charity events. I make appearances. I don’t mind being a symbol. Especially for my city. I do as much as I can, as often as I can. But when people tell me I have to do something, and I’m in pain and unable, then I’m ungrateful. That’s when it really hurts.
But then someone will come up to me on the street and say, “I don’t mean to intrude, but can I hug you?”
Or Aunt Karen will text me: “I’m proud of you.”
Or I’ll go to something like the ceremony on Sept. 11 at the Massachusetts State House. I’ve become friends with Carlos Arredondo, the man who saved my life, and he was being honored with the Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery, named for a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.
“I accept this on behalf of everyone who has had a child die,” Carlos said when they gave him the award. He was thinking of the two sons he lost: one to suicide, another to a sniper in Iraq. But he was talking about me, too. To Carlos, I’ve always been someone’s son.
That’s why I’ll do anything for him. Not just because we’re friends, but because he treats me like a person. I don’t feel like a prop with Carlos, and I don’t feel like a guy who lost his legs.
I feel like myself: good old Jeff Bauman, the happy kid from Chelmsford, Mass. And right now, that’s all I want.
Adapted from Stronger by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter, to be published April 8. The book is available for pre-order wherever books are sold. Copyright © 2014 by JB Liege, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
“We Believe in Each Other”
Throughout his ordeal, Bauman’s girlfriend, Erin Hurley, has never left his side. Here, she shares her perspective on their new lives together.
Before April 15, 2013, I led the typical life of a 20-something in Boston. I was working my way up in a career in health administration. I spent time with my friends, found myself falling in love. I was excited about training for the marathon. Jeff was my biggest supporter. He always joked that I could have run one more mile. Even though he was kidding, he was usually right. He knows the best of me.
Some nights, when Jeff was crying out in pain, I was crying, too.
After the bombing, I wasn’t sure how he would handle the loss. But instead of being devastated (which deep down he was), he made jokes, he focused on the present. The moment he laughed, things didn’t seem so bad. When he teased, in typical Jeff fashion, “Don’t worry, E, our kids will have legs,” I knew I was there to stay. I have tried to stay grounded. I have found strength where I didn’t know I had it.
I didn’t think there would be such joy, so much love from friends, family, even strangers. And, of course, from Jeff. It feels like we have lived 10 years in 11 months. We believe in each other, because we’ve seen how hard we’re willing to work: for our relationship and our future.
It was tough to leave my job to spend more time helping Jeff. It was hard to move in with him and his mom. Some nights, when Jeff was crying out in pain, I was crying, too. But that’s love, right? Being there for each other, even when it’s hard.
Jeff and I have our own house now. We’re engaged, and I’m pregnant, due this July. Nothing about this year was planned. Not much about the future is, either, but that’s life, full of twists and turns. We’re on a new path, one we never anticipated, but it’s a path that is our own.
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