Tragedy in Boston: One Photographer’s Eyewitness Account

John Tlumacki—The Boston Globe/Getty Images
John Tlumacki—The Boston Globe/Getty Images
April 15, 2013. Boston police officers react to a second explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon.

LightBox spoke with Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki, who photographed the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Tlumacki, who has photographed more than 20 marathons in his 30 years at the Globe, describes the sheer chaos of the scene:

I was covering the finish line at the ground level at the marathon. Everything was going on as usual. It was jovial — people were happy, clapping — and getting to a point where it gets a little boring as a photographer. And then we heard this explosion.

It was sort of like, ok, what’s that all about? It wasn’t super loud but all you saw was the smoke. There was this big cloud of smoke and people screaming. The percussion from that explosion threw my cameras up in the air. Right in front of me, one of the runners fell on the ground — he was blown over from the blast. My instinct was…no matter what it is, you’re a photographer first, that’s what you’re doing. I ran towards the explosion, towards the police; they had their guns drawn. It was pandemonium. Nobody knew what was going on.

(Related: A Photographer’s View of the Carnage: “When I Look at the Photos, I Cry” )

The first thing I saw were people’s limbs blown off. Massive amounts of blood. It looked like BB holes in the back of some people. And a lot of anger. People were just angry. What’s going on? Why is this happening at the Boston Marathon?

Maybe 15 seconds after the first explosion, while I was still shooting pictures, another explosion went off. And then there was panic. The cops told everybody to get off the street, that there could be another one.

I can’t compare it to anything else I’ve ever been to. The horror. And the anger.

Tell us about the photo of the runner on the ground with the police.

That’s probably one second after the explosion. He was blown over by the blast and fell on the ground. The cops are just reacting as cops. They didn’t know what was going on. They’re pulling their guns out, looking left and right. They were pretty close to where the explosion went off and could have been killed or injured also.

You try not to get your emotions involved, but there was this man who was kneeling over this woman. Obviously she was injured pretty badly, and he’s just comforting her. He’s whispering in her ear. From a photographer’s point of view, you’ve seen these pictures before. I made it, and then I moved on.

But then a cop came to me, grabbed me, and said: “Do me a favor. Do not exploit the situation.” And that resonated with me. I can’t think about it — I gotta keep doing what I’m doing.

I think it’s haunting to see: this is Boston, this is Liberty. All of this happening with all the flags of the nations. Here are people — a pile of injured people — just laying in front of these flags. I’m not sure she survived — she was gravely injured. They were doing CPR on her when she [was taken away].

What happened directly after this?

I stayed with it. When I shoot the race, I transmit from the finish line. I had my computer set up to transmit with a wireless card. The police weren’t necessarily trying to get me out of the area — they were saying there could be another explosion. And that’s what really got to me. They started yellow-taping the area. They didn’t know what was going to happen. The sad thing was that these were spectators who were cheering on their loved ones coming over the finish line. I hate to say…you know…now we left our guard down…how are we going to find security for an event like this, which is so amazing to cover? And now it’s like, we’ve got to worry about all this again.

I was so shook up about it — I was speechless when I was there [on scene]. My eyes were swelling up behind my camera. We use a camera as a defense but I was shaken when I got back, just scanning the pictures. The other sad part was that I took my shoes off because they were covered in blood from walking on the sidewalk taking pictures.

I always wondered what it would be like when I see photographers covering this stuff all over the world. You go to Israel and then there’s an explosion and photographers are there. It’s haunting to be a journalist and have to cover it. I don’t ever want to have to do that again.

(Photos: Carnage Descends on Boston Marathon Day )


John Tlumacki has been a staff photographer at The Boston Globe for over 30 years and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


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