BOSTON – They gathered late Wednesday night in a room beneath the TD Garden, each of the EMTs, firemen and state police officers holding their own horrible memory of the marathon gone wrong and the blood that stained the sidewalks. This was supposed to be a celebration and in a way it was: the Boston Marathon's first responders waiting to meet hockey players barely 55 hours after the first bomb went off. But what do you say when the common bond in the room were images of severed legs and gushing arteries?
"The number of children was incredible," said Jason Yutkins, an emergency medical technician with Boston EMS.
He was on Boylston Street when the bombs went off, racing to the site of the first explosion to see a sight none of them will likely ever witness again. So much blood. So many injuries. Even on Wednesday, after the first major sporting event in town – a 3-2 Bruins loss to the Buffalo Sabres – they were still numb, the visions of two days before raw. One by one the Bruins players walked in wearing suits. Patrice Bergeron. Andrew Ference, Tyler Seguin and others. They shook hands. They signed autographs. They smiled. And they shook away any words of appreciation. "No," they kept saying to the responders. "Thank, you."
And the responders laughed, almost euphoric in their first release since the explosions. The Bruins had invited 80 of them to Wednesday's game, gave them tickets and put a spotlight on them toward the end of the second period. The 17,565 in the stands stood and roared. The responders waved. No one in the stands could understand what they had seen.
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The fans on Wednesday could have known about Boston EMS Lt. John Cotter, who was knocked to the ground 10 feet from the first bomb and watched the side of the building down the street explode outward in the second bombing. A voice in his walkie-talkie said there was almost certainly a third bomb. Instinctively he yelled to his paramedics to stay in place. Don't move. Instead they grabbed stretchers and ran past.
"They didn't listen to me," Cotter said proudly. "They ran in to help people knowing there was probably a third bomb."
The fans could not have understood what it was like inside Marathon Sports, where the first bomb went off and a half dozen people lay on the floor injured. When the supply of stretchers was exhausted and too many injured remained, Yutkins and another EMT ripped off parts of a display wall, using the boards as makeshift stretchers that they then carried to the medical tent. When he ran out of tourniquets he pulled clothes off the rack. One woman handed him an expensive scarf. He wrapped it around the stump of a leg. No time for vanity. The injured were fading. Every minute mattered.
There is a reason only three people have died in the bombings that injured more than 175. It's a miraculous number given the power of the bombs and the severity of injures. In another city, dozens might have perished. Slowly, Boston is starting to realize it has one of the best emergency and medical teams in the country. Within 15 minutes of the bombings the sidewalk was clear of the severely injured. This has everything to do with the emergency workers' speed.
Boston's EMTs train more than almost any EMS group in the nation. They are taught not to be shocked by what they saw on Monday afternoon. They hear stories from medics who have been to war. They have watched videos from Iraq. They are supposed to understand what a sidewalk of detached legs looks like. But what tape prepares you to walk into Marathon Sports and see a woman with a coat hanger impaled in her thigh? Or how to watch helplessly as a volunteer holds a victim's blown off leg against the victim's body in the preposterous hope that it could somehow be re-attached?
Yutkins has a memory he can't release. It is of a 41-year-old man injured in the first blast. The femurs on both sides of his body were broken, the bones protruding from his skin. His fibulas were also both broken and sticking from his skin. One of his feet was gone. Ripped muscle dangled from his legs. He was bleeding to death. His body was in shock and all he kept saying whenever Yutkins asked him if he needed something was: "Thank you. Just keep me alive."
"I hope he made it," Yutkins said. "He was alive when we took him to the hospital."
He shook his head.
"The number of injuries and the number of people and the limited resources and you want to help as many people as you can but you know you are limited haunts you," he said.
The next day Yutkins had to work. When a call came across the radio for a shooting in Roxbury, he looked at his partner and said: "Finally, back to normal."
But from disaster has come good. The men who covered themselves in blood that day have watched a city come together. They've seen the memorials. They've looked at the homemade signs attached to the metal barricades that still block Boylston Street to traffic. They've heard the talk of hope and love and unity. Wednesday they watched the Bruins donate $100,000 to the One Fund Boston that will help the city's recovery. They got chills when the Rene Rancourt, the team's national anthem singer for the past 35 years, stopped singing the anthem after a few words, dropped his microphone and let the fans sing the rest – something the Bruins said had not been done in the Boston in 30 years. Not even after Sept. 11.
They talked, too, about the manager of a 103-year-old squash club beneath Boylston Street, who opened the doors to them on Monday night. This was a place so palatial, so exclusive that most of the police who gathered there that night didn't even know it existed.
"It was what you'd expect a 103-year-old squash club to look like," said EMT Jake Doyle. "Someone needs to give that manager a medal. He was just a regular guy like us."
In many ways the room beneath the TD Garden was filled with regular guys on Wednesday night. These were fathers and sons and daughters who ride in trucks or in cars and are otherwise anonymous. The hockey players who visited them were equally as unpretentious.
"I don't want to devalue that," Bergeron said as Doyle handed him a Bruins jersey to sign.
If only Bergeron knew Doyle wears a small identification card on the flak jacket beneath his uniform that lists his name and blood type: "Black and gold." The Bruins' colors.
For a while they talked, the first responders and the hockey players who had volunteered to come meet them. They talked about hockey. One posed in a fighter's pose with several of the men. They laughed. They told stories.
"I can't get my mind off the incident," Doyle said. "But as soon as I found out I was going to the game [Wednesday afternoon] I was like: 'Yeah!'"
Finally someone asked for the room to be silent. An invitation was made. Some of the players wanted to buy the first responders a beer. The EMTs and police and firemen cheered. Plans were made. A bar a couple blocks from the TD Garden was selected. Slowly the gathering broke up. The room emptied. And the hockey players and the first responders headed out for the night.
Just a bunch of regular guys who had done incredible things on the most surreal week.