On April 15, 2013 two bombs exploded on Boylston Street, feet from the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The explosion took the lives of three people and injuring an estimated 264 others. Charleston Southern University athletic training professor Dr. Joseph Murphy was serving as a medical volunteer that day. What he saw changed his life — permanently.
Dr. Joseph Murphy has seen many injuries during his athletic training career, but nothing like this. The woman standing in front of him had just come off the course at the Boston Marathon and entered the tent. She was missing a portion of her leg. Murphy looked her up and down. How did this happen? What is going on? Why doesn’t this woman have part of her leg anymore?
“It took me a second to realize what I was looking at,” he remembers.
And so the nightmare began.
The Boston Marathon is part of the annual daylong Patriots Day festival held in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. In preparation for the race, Murphy and his colleagues arrived at 7 a.m. The race began at 10 a.m. By 12 p.m. the elite runners began crossing the finish line. Murphy said by 2 p.m. the charity runners start coming in and “we are seeing three or four patients; it’s hydration issues, blisters, it’s ‘I just need a few minutes’ – things like that.”
At 2:49 p.m. Joe Murphy helped his patient to his feet, that’s when he heard what he described as a “really loud firework.”
According to the official investigation report, 12 seconds later, a second explosion goes off.
“What was that?” his patient asked.
“It’s not even in your comprehension that it’s a bomb,” remembers Murphy. “So I went up to the front of the tent to see what was going on — I could start smelling gun powder — and at that point I realize this is really bad.”
Within minutes the medical tent transformed into a triage unit. Murphy, who has worked as a medical volunteer at the Boston Marathon since 2011, is one of the dozens of medical doctors, nurses, emergency dispatch, podiatrists and physical and massage therapists, who are staffing the facility. The massive tent is located just past the finish line on Boylston Street in downtown Boston. It’s a city block long, as wide as a city street and can hold an estimated 500-600 people at a single time, according to Murphy.
“It’s not a first-aid tent, it’s a hospital,” said Murphy.
The day that started with such hope had spiraled into disaster. The two bombs that exploded turned the medical tent into an emergency room. Instead of twisted ankles and blisters, Murphy witnessed death, missing limbs and wounds that would change people’s lives permanently.
“Then they just keep coming, and keep coming, and keep coming,” remembers Murphy.
The scene was surreal. Downtown Boston had transformed into a scene straight out of Afghanistan or Iraq. In the back of the tent emergency dispatch to all eight hospitals in Boston are on alert. It didn’t take long for the tent to overflow.
“These people were all, from the knee down or from the waist down, suffering from catastrophic injuries,” said Murphy. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. There was blood everywhere.”
A police officer entered the tent of a stretcher, followed by a young boy getting CPR. Murphy could hear medics working on another patient within earshot.
“You could hear the frustration — expletives — from physicians who couldn’t save her,” he said.
2 Corinthians 4:8 says: We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. WE always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
So, where was the love of Jesus in the horror?
“We’re working and working and at some point it just gets quiet,” he said. Everyone is working together and it is just quiet. You are doing your thing, helping these people, and in the chaos there’s this little bit of peace for a few minutes. In that quiet moment, in the chaos, you see and experience His love.”
There is no good place to put a bomb, but in a twisted way, if it had to happen, the terrorists picked the worst place possible; being close to the finish line and the medical tent allowed volunteers to respond quickly and save lives.
“There’s no way that many people should have got out of their alive,” he said. “They put it (bomb) where they knew they were going to hit a lot of people, but they had no idea what was inside that tent. That was a hospital.”
After the critical patients were taken to local hospitals the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took over. “They came in and just start kicking stuff over,” said Murphy. “They said, ‘if there’s not an MD after your name, get out.’”
Murphy showed his volunteer ID to authorities and left.
Then, it clicked.
Earlier in the day Murphy’s wife mentioned she might pack up the family and bring them down to the Patriots Day celebration. The day-long event is a family tradition for many Boston natives.
“I’m freaking out,” said Murphy. “I pick up my phone and it’s dead.”
As he walked through the quiet streets that, minutes earlier had been filled with cheering supporters and vendors, Murphy came upon an abandoned mobile phone vendors tent. “There were phones sitting there,” he said. “So I pick up one of the phones … and it works.”
Murphy reached his wife. She was safe at home. His concern now shifted to his four college interns who were working the race. The students were responsible for assisting runners from the finish line into the medical tent. In the chaos immediately after the bombing Murphy was dedicated to helping injured people. He simply lost track of them. Later that evening Murphy was able to reach all of his student interns who were safe and at home.
As he continued his long walk back to his car, Murphy stopped at the only place open: a cigar shop. His shirt and jacket were smeared with blood, Murphy entered the store and told the employee behind the counter, “I need to use your phone.”
The man stood and stared, looking at bloody jacket not knowing who or what the man in front of him had just been involved in. He reached out his arm and quietly handed the phone over. Murphy described the moment as a scene you’d probably see in a Hollywood movie.
Two years have passed since the Boston bombings, and Murphy has done interviews before, but he stills gets emotional. Talking about the loss, the pain, the horror of the day is still raw. The experience has changed Murphy.
Prior to April 15, 2013, Murphy was driven by success. He said he worked 90 hours a week, pouring his whole life into research and classes.
“That day made me stop and think: You. Get. A. Day.” He said. “You owe those people in your classes everything you have that day. You need to be present – present at work, present at home. That was difficult for me before.”
The events of that day also come with a silver lining. Murphy said in the aftermath he had an opportunity share his faith. “In the days after people were thinking about it and open to a conversation. I had that opportunity with my students and people I worked with.”
Murphy went back and served as a volunteer in 2014.
“I walked into the tent to set up and it hits you for a minute,” he said.
Murphy and four student interns from Charleston Southern University will be back in Boston this month for the annual Boston Marathon.
“I tell students you will learn more in that day – about triage and emergent care – than I can ever teach you,” he said. “Nothing’s going to bother you after that day. There are people who … are going to stop breathing. It’s hard.”
In preparation for working the Boston race, CSU athletic training students have worked marathons at Kiawah Island and the annual Charleston Bridge Run. The opportunity is valuable first-hand experience in emergent care.
For more information on the Boston Marathon and its history, visit baa.org.