Words and photos by Jeremy Pavia
The following story is my personal, first-hand experience during the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I keep playing the exact moments over and over again in my head. The sound of the bombs wreaking havoc on innocent people is on repeat and the images of people being loaded into ambulances one after the other is something I can’t remove from my system. This story was written just as soon as I could get my laptop into my hands. As I sit here trying to write an intro that makes sense I keep typing and then deleting, and then typing again. I can’t seem to figure out how to make it work, so just go ahead and start reading.
To describe the way I am feeling would be impossible at this very moment. I have never felt my heart race so quickly inside of my chest. If anyone knows me, for me to be speechless says something. And to be honest, I haven’t said much since witnessing the horror that took place in Boston on April 15th, 2013. At this moment an FBI agent just walked over to one of the runners in the airport that is flying back to Los Angeles on the same flight as me. He asked him if he ran today, and commented about if he noticed anything suspicious during his run. If you haven’t figured out what is going on yet I was in Boston shooting a project for a client that will remained un-named for the sake of this story. I was at the marathon when the bombs went off. The explosions were incredibly loud and only moments apart from one another. Instantly the thousands of people that I was surrounded by within earshot looked over to see what the noise was. We all shared a moment of silence as everyone watched in awe as the almost demonic mushroom cloud slowly climbed above the tall buildings. It was at that very moment when I had an overwhelming feeling that something incredibly wrong just took place. It was also at that very moment when everyone seemed to know exactly what just happened. An overwhelming sense of confusion started to set in and you could see it on everyone’s faces as the ambulances and rescue crews raced towards the smoke.
Let me rewind a bit. For whatever reason the company I was shooting for couldn’t get me full credentials at the shoot this weekend so I only had a “volunteer” pass around my neck as opposed to a “media” pass. This severely limited my access to the finish line area meaning that I technically didn’t have any. Being the person that I am, and growing up with a BMX background, I immediately looked at that as a challenge to make my way to the finish and snap a few good flicks that I know would make the clients happy. [As I type this I am having what I can only assume is a mild panic-attack. I have never really felt this way before and I am trying to handle the situation as best I can. I can’t stop writing. As soon as I stop writing my mind races and I keep rewinding the madness in my head.] For me, making clients happy is the number one goal. I will literally do everything in my power to shoot the best photos that I can and provide the best service that I can as a photographer. That is exactly what brought me to the finish line. I was in the thick of it, just kind of making my way through hundreds of runners headed in the opposite direction as I walked closer and closer to the finish I just started shooting. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be where I was but at that point, I didn’t care. I wanted to capture that very moment when people crossed the line, the moment where nothing else in the world matters more to them than to finish. The end of a grueling 26 mile race surrounded by 27,000 other competitors throughout the City of Boston. I shot as much as I could before getting kicked out. I was told that I didn’t have access to that specific area and had to leave. I pushed the limits as far as I could without going overboard.
At that time, I headed to an intersection on the other side of the block to meet back up with my assistant. His phone had died while I was waiting but already having sent him a pin of my location I was sure he would find me. While I was waiting I shot photos of runners being re-united with their families and watched, as thousands of people tried to locate their loved ones. The next thing I know I hear an incredible explosion. I don’t even know what to compare it to but the loudest crack of lightening and thunder seem to be what comes to mind. Then about four seconds later there was a second explosion of the same magnitude. In that instant we watched as the smoke disappeared into the sky and everyone had the same look of fear on their faces. No one really wanted to talk about it at first, everyone just kind of took it in, but didn’t really understand what just took place. A few minutes later, I could see the panic slowly setting in. I saw it in people’s eyes as I asked them “wasn’t that right where the finish line is?” At that time, no one outside in the streets knew what had just happened. Everyone had the same general feeling of fear, confusion, panic, uncertainty and disappointment. At this moment, my assistant still hadn’t found me yet and vice versa so I was anxiously awaiting a phone call from him. I immediately texted my fiancé as well as my client to let them know exactly what just happened. Instantly I checked the news on my phone, just waiting for a story to pop up. There were so many people in the same area that it was impossible to move quickly. We all got tiny glimpses of news stories on varying news websites but it was mostly just headlines that read, “Two explosions went off at the Boston Marathon.” It was thought to be a suspected terror attack soon after and at that point my assistant finally called me and happened to be in a restaurant across the street. Ironically, he was waiting there for a while, not knowing that I was directly on the other side of the road. I made my way through the sea of people to go meet him and as we walked inside, we took to the television. It was then that I looked up and saw bodies being carted out on stretchers. At that very moment, as far as I was concerned, it was confirmed that this was a terrorist attack.
I walked outside and told some people what I just saw on the television and tried to make sense of it all. Keep in mind that the masses of people in the streets had less information than everyone that was inside watching the live feed. For a moment, I had an incredibly overwhelming feeling that made me head directly towards the finish line. Now keep in mind that I had a camera on each shoulder and almost instinctively just started shooting. It was as if everything went quiet and all I could hear was the shutter of my camera clicking as I shot photos of the grim remains of what was a first-hand experience of a terrorist attack. It felt so personal and it felt so surreal. I automatically placed myself back at the finish line where I wasn’t supposed to be in the first place and imagined “what if?” How did I get so lucky? I had realized that by kicking me out, that random marathon volunteer potentially saved my life. I was right there, just feet from where the first bomb went off exactly nineteen minutes before. I had so many thoughts going through my head but at the same time, I had never thought so clearly. I was feeding off of the experience. I went from an on-looker to a photojournalist that was forced to document what I was seeing. I had to help tell this story. I had to do what I could. After a few minutes of shooting at the finish I headed over to the medical tent where the ambulances were lining up. At this point no one really knew the severity of the situations unless they were watching the news or saw it happen. On the way, I overheard a guy calmly speak the words “people were blown up, limbs were ripped off.” It was then I knew I had to shoot these photos.
As I sat outside of the medical tent watching as they carted person after person out of the tent and into ambulances I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a breaking news story on the television. It was a sort of out-of-body experience and the photographs I was taking almost didn’t even seem real. As I viewed some of the images on the back of my lcd screens I was overwhelmed with a feeling of guilt. I had to question whether or not this was something I should be photographing. Not just from a photojournalist’s standpoint, but from the standpoint of a fellow human being. I wondered what the next stretcher would be holding, thinking to myself how crazy it would be to see a lifeless body make its way into the daylight. The colors surrounding the medical area were bright, and it was an absolute perfect time of day to be shooting. The light was getting warmer, and everything seemed to be jumping out at me. I couldn’t even talk; all that I could do was shoot, and keep shooting. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a wheelchair completely covered in blood and imagined that to be one of the poor, innocent victims that lost multiple limbs, or worse. At this point, I am on a plane back to Los Angeles to be with my fiancé and I can honestly say that I have never in my life been so excited, and grateful to be coming home from a trip. At the current time as far as I know there are two people confirmed dead, and 54 or so with varying injuries. By the time I land from this flight, who knows what those numbers will be. The craziest part was that when I was waiting for my assistant and the explosions went off, there were thousands of runners still running the race. The family members that were anxiously waiting to see their runners now had to wonder if those same people were alive. I felt horrible, that thought alone is enough to crush a person.
Although I was seemingly possessed to shoot, I hit a moment in time where I knew I had to stop. A moment where I realized how fucking absolutely crazy it was that I was still there, within eyesight of the explosions. It was said to be a garbage can, or a mailbox from what I had heard. And, who knows how many they had planted? What was to say that there wasn’t going to be another one, directly near the medical tent? It’s incredibly strange and feels wrong to say but nothing at this point would surprise me. I still kept quiet, and had to have been glaring with the look of confusion. It was written all over me. As my assistant and I were walking back to the car I started thinking about my family, and how much everyone means to me and it brought me to tears. It was a moment that words can’t describe. The entire experience was like nothing I had ever seen. It was incredible. I was witnessing history happen in real time. I was just part of a historical event on a worldwide scale. As we were heading back to the car I would get angry with the people walking down the street carrying on as if nothing had just happened. I thought to myself “there is no possible way that these people don’t know yet.” And if they did know, they obviously didn’t understand the severity of it. In fact, there are two guys sitting directly in front of me on my flight and I sat in awe as we were taking off and their topic of discussion was how one of the guys finishing time at the marathon wasn’t that great this year because he had a busy week and didn’t get much training in. Are you kidding me? I had to hold back the urge to bring up the images full-size on my laptop and ask them what the fuck their problem is. The one guy has a perfectly manicured mustache to go along with his middle-aged business guy haircut. He also has a nice watch and a set of noise-cancelling Bose headphones on his head at the moment. Can he really be relaxing and listening to music at a time like this?
Do you even realize how many people on my flight just got done running the marathon and are now heading back to Los Angeles in one piece…and alive? It’s as if I am the only one that has any fucking clue what just happened. There were two huge bombs that exploded hours ago and multiple people just lost their lives. How can these people be sitting here having conversations about anything other than what just happened in the streets of Boston? My mind still won’t stop racing. I have felt the urge to puke for hours now and it doesn’t seem to have any intent on subsiding. My stomach is in a literal knot, and I can’t seem to fix it. People next to me are reading books, some are sleeping, and some are enjoying what seems to be casual conversation. Maybe I’m the crazy one. Maybe I’m the one that needs to not be thinking so much. Oh wow, now the flight attendant is asking these marathon runners how they did today. Are these people not getting it? Are they out of their fucking minds? I have to keep reminding myself to breathe, and to try and relax. The last place I want to freak out is 30,000 feet above the earth.
When my friend and I were driving back to the house I kept thinking about how I could get this images seen by more people than just myself and the other people in the room. I wondered whether or not I should try to send these out, or just lock them away in an archive folder only to be brought up every now and then. I didn’t know what was right; I just knew that I needed to make an attempt at getting these images out to the masses. People needed to witness what I had just seen through my viewfinder. I immediately started looking up contacts for the Associated Press. It was my first instinct, you know, the one that they say to always go with. I found a phone number and without knowing where it would lead or who would be on the receiving end I dialed as quickly as possible. A few rings later an actual person called and all I said was “I just got done shooting at the Boston Marathon, and I want to show you some of the images.” Now, if you think about why that is crazy it is because I didn’t even mention anything about the subject matter of the photos. I could have been trying to send in images of runners celebrating at the finish line, but without hesitation the woman on the phone said she would transfer me to the New York office. From there I spoke with a gentleman that gave me an email address to send some samples to. I remember telling him “you will want these photos” and I didn’t consider him saying no at any time. I just knew after looking at them myself, and showing them to a few people that they were as powerful as I had thought. Being there in person, witnessing stretcher after stretcher cross my path and then going through making final “selections” of photos for the Associated Press was quite the experience to say the least.
At this very moment in time when I was dealing with trying to get these images quickly imported, edited, re-sized and submitted I was also dealing with the battle of whether or not I should wait around or get to the airport because time was running out. My flight was in less than two hours and we weren’t exactly close to the airport. I was on the couch, with my heart beating faster than it ever has while I was deciding what was more important. To drop what I was doing and just make sure I got the hell out of there and to the airport on time, or to wait it out and have a dream of mine come true. As I anxiously awaited a phone call from the Associated Press, I sat silent and still. At that point, I had made the decision to risk missing my flight to be reunited with my fiancé to make sure that these images were seen. After five or so long, seemingly never-ending minutes went by I had to call them and let them know that if they want any of these images that they need to act quickly because I was heading to the airport to catch a plane. I finally got to the right contact again and he gave me the file numbers that the photo editors chose to use. I then worked as hard and as fast as I possibly could to get the photos ready to send. At this moment I realized that I was going to have my name credited to the photos as a photographer for the Associated Press. To say the least, it was one of the most confusing moments of my life. On one hand, I couldn’t stop thinking about how big of an accomplishment that would be as a photographer but at the same time, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of pure sadness.
I sent the images over as soon as I could, and once I confirmed that they were sent, we hopped in the car and took off toward the airport with minimal time to spare. On the way, I received the form from the Associated Press that made it official, and sent it back within seconds of filling out the information that they needed. It was done, and I was headed to the airport. Risking it all somehow seemed worth it as I ran up to the check-in counter and watched as the American Airlines employee typed my flight info in the computer. I knew that if she didn’t mention right away that I was too late, it could only mean that I had some time. I checked my bag, ran to my gate, and started furiously typing. As you can tell, I still haven’t stopped. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what happened today. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever will be able to. I started out the morning meeting incredible people like the guy who was running his 326th Marathon, and the woman that was running for her husband who currently is fighting brain cancer. I ended the day shooting photographs that no one ever wants to shoot. I have never felt the urgency to write like I have today, and I can say that in confidence. I promise you, that I have never had such overwhelming urges to shoot photographs, and to tell a story.
I will never be able to have the chance to tell the individual victims how sorry I am. I will never be able to tell the family members of the people that lost their loved ones how sorry I am. I will never be able to explain the feelings that I felt today to anyone. I will never be able to tell you how lucky I feel to be alive. I was in direct range of a terrorist attack zone nineteen minutes prior…a mere 1,140 seconds. I will never stop wondering why people are losing their minds and acting out these incredibly devastating situations. People’s lives were forever changed today, and at the very moment that some runners reached the finish line to that incredible 26-mile race, there were innocent people that also reached the finish line to their lives.
This piece is dedicated to all of the people that were within close range of the horror. To all of the people that were injured, to the people that lost their lives, and to all of the families that will forever have holes in their hearts where their family members used to be. My mind is melted, and I feel like I have nothing left to give with this story…
For anyone interested in seeing a few more photos that I shot from the other day just search online for “Jeremy Pavia Associated Press”
Well, I never thought that I would have written a column like this, and I hope to never have to do it again. It’s been a wild ride and I still can’t really wrap my brain around what happened the other day in Boston. I am still trying my best to take everything in and doing what I can to try not to have it consume my thoughts even though that has been a losing battle. On that note, be sure to check back next Wednesday for the sixty-second edition of Through the Lens and as always feel free to leave any questions in the comments section or email me directly at [email protected] and I will hit you back as soon as I can. Feel free to follow me on Twitter and Instagram as well @JeremyPavia.