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By Jeff Bauman
By Bret Witter
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When Jeff Bauman woke up on Tuesday, April 16th, 2013 in the Boston Medical Center, groggy from a series of lifesaving surgeries and missing his legs, the first thing he did was try to speak. When he realized he couldn’t, he asked for a pad and paper and wrote down seven words: “Saw the guy. Looked right at me,” setting off one of the biggest manhunts in the country’s history.
Just thirty hours before, Jeff had been at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon cheering on his girlfriend, Erin, when the first bomb went off at his feet. As he was rushed to the hospital, he realized he was severely injured and that he might die, but he didn’t know that a photograph of him in a wheelchair was circulating throughout the world, making him the human face of the Boston Marathon bombing victims, or that what he’d seen would give the Boston police their most important breakthrough.
In Stronger, Jeff describes the chaos and terror of the bombing itself and the ongoing FBI investigation in which he was a key witness. He takes us inside his grueling rehabilitation, and discusses his attempt to reconcile the world’s admiration with his own guilt and frustration. . Brave, compassionate, and emotionally compelling, Jeff Bauman’s story is not just his, but ours as well.
Table of Contents
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April 15, 2013
I know exactly when my life changed: when I looked into the face of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It was 2:48 p.m. on April 15, 2013—one minute before the most high-profile terrorist event on United States soil since September 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. The marathon was the signature event of Patriot's Day, Boston's special holiday, which celebrates Paul Revere's ride and the local militiamen who fought the first battle of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775. Patriot's Day was also the unofficial start of spring, in a city known for brutal winters, so half the city had taken the day off, and everyone wanted to be outside. By tradition, a Red Sox home game had started at 11:00 a.m., coinciding with the last starting group of the marathon. By 2:30, baseball fans were pouring out of Yawkey Way onto Boylston Street, swelling the marathon crowd.
I had arrived half an hour earlier, with my friends Remy and Michele, to cheer for my girlfriend, Erin Hurley. Even then, the sidewalks were clogged ten deep, and the restaurants and bars were filled with people in Red Sox gear and Boston shirts. The best runners, who qualified for the first start time, had finished hours before, but the runners kept coming, and the crowd kept growing. Most of these people, including Erin, were running for charity. They were the average runners, the ones who needed and deserved our support. Everywhere I looked, people were cheering and clapping, yelling for them to keep going, the finish line was close, they were almost there.
And then I noticed Tsarnaev.
I don't know how he got beside me. I just remember looking over my right shoulder and seeing him. He was standing close, maybe a foot away, and there was something off about him. He was wearing sunglasses and a white baseball cap pulled low over his face, and he had on a hooded jacket that seemed too heavy, even on a cool day. The thing that really struck me, though, was his demeanor. Everyone was cheering and watching the race. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Except this guy. He was alone, and he wasn't having a good time.
He was all business.
He turned toward me. I couldn't see his eyes, because of his sunglasses, but I know he was staring at me. I know now he was planning to kill me—in less than a minute, he thought I'd be dead—but his face revealed no emotion. No doubt. No remorse. The guy was a rock.
We stared at each other for eight, maybe ten seconds, then my friend Michele said something, and I turned to talk to her. Our friend Remy had moved toward the finish line to try to get a better view. I was about to suggest to Michele that we join her. That was how much this guy bothered me.
But I didn't. And when I looked back, he was gone.
Thank God, I thought.…
Until I noticed his backpack. It was sitting on the ground, near my feet. I felt a jolt of fear, and that old airport warning started running through my head: Don't leave bags unattended. Report suspicious packages. I looked around, hoping to find the guy—
And then I heard it. The explosion. Not like a bomb in a movie, not a big bang, but three pops, one after the other.
It doesn't get hazy after that. It gets very clear. The hospital psychiatrist later told me that my brain "lit up," that at the moment the bomb went off my brain became hyperalert, so that even though my memories are fragmented into hundreds of pieces, all the pieces are clear.
I remember opening my eyes and seeing smoke, then realizing I was on the ground looking up at the sky.
I remember a woman stepping over me, covered in blood. Then others, scattering in all directions.
There was blood on the ground. Chunks of flesh. And heat. There was a terrible amount of heat. It smelled like a cookout in hell.
There was an accident, I thought. Something went wrong.
I sat up. Michele was lying on her back a few feet away, a race barrier collapsed on top of her. I could see her bone through a hole in her lower leg.
That's not good, I thought.
We made eye contact. She reached toward me, and I started to reach toward her. Then she looked at my legs, and she stopped, and her eyes got wide.
I looked down. There was nothing below my knees. I was sitting in a chunky pool of blood—my blood—and my lower legs were gone.
I looked around. Blood was everywhere. Body parts were everywhere, and not just mine.
This wasn't an accident, I thought. He did this to us. That fucker did this to us.
Then I heard the second explosion, somewhere in the distance. It had only been twelve seconds since the first bomb went off.
This is a war, I thought. They're going to chase him. There's going to be shooting. They won't be able to get to me.
I lay down. I'm going to die, I thought, and I realized I was okay with that. I had lived a short life, only twenty-seven years, but a good life. I was okay with letting go.
Then an emergency room surgeon named Allen Panter, who had been watching the race from across the street, appeared above me. He slammed tourniquets around the ragged ends where my legs had been blown off, yelling as he worked.
"Get shirts!" he was screaming over his shoulder. "Get jackets! Shoelaces! Anything! People are bleeding out here!"
"Get away from me," I said.
I had been calm. I had been completely calm. But this guy was freaking me out. "Go help someone else!" I yelled, pushing him away. "Go help my friend!"
He dipped his hand in my blood and drew a red "C" on my forehead. I remember that so clearly. I think it meant "critical."
Then he was gone, yelling orders as he went. My ears were ringing, but I could still hear the screaming.
I saw a woman lying motionless, her eyes open.
I saw a man in a yellow cowboy hat lift the barrier off Michele, then turn toward me, and the next thing I knew he was grabbing my shirt and twisting it around his fist. He lifted me off the ground with one hand, spun around, and threw me into a wheelchair that had been intended for runners too tired to walk after finishing the race.
When I hit the chair, it was an electric shock. It was like that scene in Pulp Fiction, when John Travolta plunged the adrenaline into Uma Thurman's heart. My body came alive, and I thought, No way, Jeff. No way that fucker is taking you down.
"I'm going to make it," I said.
"Yeah, buddy," the man in the cowboy hat said, running beside me. "That's right. You're going to make it."
We passed through a medical tent. People were yelling for us to stop.
"No!" the man yelled without slowing down. "We're going to the hospital."
The tourniquet on my right leg pulled loose. It got stuck in the wheel and tore off, and suddenly there was a second man there, and the two of them were holding my right leg and squeezing to stop the bleeding. I reached down and grabbed my left leg, trying to do the same. A photographer appeared out of the chaos, kneeling in the road as we rushed past, snapping pictures.
I thought, What is he doing here?
We crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I saw the banner as I was lifted out of the wheelchair and into an ambulance.
"Who are you?" a woman said. "What is your name?"
"I'm Bauman," I said as they strapped me down. "Jeff Bauman."
"Are you Bowman?" the woman yelled at the man in the cowboy hat.
"Are you Bowman?"
"No," he said, misunderstanding my name. "I'm not his brother."
And then we were gone, racing up Boylston Street toward Boston Medical Center while an EMT worked on my legs.
"I know what happened," I said.
The EMT hesitated, looking at my face for the first time. "He's awake," he yelled to someone in the front seat. "This guy's still awake."
"It was a bomb," I said.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. It was a bomb."
"How do you know?"
"I saw the guy. I know who did it."
I slipped out of consciousness for a second, maybe two, then jerked awake. Don't do that, Jeff, I told myself. Stay alert.
I remember everything. The equipment hanging above me in the ambulance. The orderlies waiting when we arrived. I remember being rushed down a hallway, a policeman in uniform running beside me.
I know who did it, I tried to tell him. I know. I know. And I wanted someone else to know, just in case. But I couldn't get him to stop. I couldn't get anyone to listen.
"Stay calm," people kept saying. "Lie down and stay calm."
And then I was on the operating table, with ten or twelve people standing above me. That was when I started to panic. I've seen a lot of hospitals on television and in movies. I don't like hospitals.
"Put me under," I yelled. "I'm awake. Put me under."
A face came toward me, in front of the others. He was a young guy. He looked like Major Winters from Band of Brothers. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll take care of you."
And they did. Everyone that day took care of me. They saved my life. They are the heroes, because they gave me this opportunity. 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.
Chelmsford, Massachusetts, is twenty-four miles from downtown Boston, near the manufacturing city of Lowell. It's known around Boston as a commuter suburb, but some people come here for the history, I guess. Chelmsford was a textile center in the 1820s, and a lot of the mills on the north side of town have been converted into shopping malls and condos. The downtown common, Chelmsford Center, is surrounded by old clapboard buildings: the Central Baptist Church, the Chelmsford Center for the Arts, and the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, built in 1660, current structure 1842. All Are Welcome, according to the small sign out front. Nearby are a one-room schoolhouse (1802) and the Middlesex Canal House (1832). The Forefathers Burial Ground (1655) is wedged between the common and a strip mall featuring a Bertucci's and my favorite local coffee joint, the Java Room.
Of course, I've only been in town since 1989, when I was two years old, so my personal history with the place doesn't involve old mills or clapboard churches, or the Merrimack River that brought the mills in the first place. My landmarks are more like Zesty's Pizza, the best place in town for a slice. Sully's, near the high school, which has the best ice cream. The Brickhouse, a bar with good subs across from the Unitarian Church, where all are also welcome, as long as they're Red Sox fans. And, of course, Hong Kong Chinese American Food, whose huge neon sign towers above the parking lot of the Radisson. The Hong Kong is my aunt Jenn's favorite place. She's been drinking there since she was sixteen, so the place must be ancient, probably from the 1970s. It has egg rolls, but it's known for its dance floor and mai tais. I think every suburb of Boston has a place like the Hong Kong.
I admit, I used to go to the Hong Kong with Aunt Jenn and Big D (my cousin Derek). It's a Chelmsford institution. Then one night, about a year before the bombing, Vinnie the bartender, who is Chinese despite the name and seems to have worked at the Hong Kong every night since 1982, pointed at one of my high school friends, who was drunk and doing the worst dance I'd ever seen. "He don't come back," Vinnie said.
I thought, Maybe it's time I moved on from this place, too.
It wasn't that I didn't enjoy my life. Far from it. I loved my life, even if it wasn't always easy. I was born in South Jersey, near Philly, but my parents divorced when I was two. It wasn't a pleasant divorce. Mom, angry and heartbroken, moved home to be near her family, but she struggled, especially financially, like a lot of single moms. She worked double shifts as a waitress. She took on odd jobs. She worried: about me, about all the time she had to spend away from me, about our future. We lived in four or five different apartments when I was growing up; every month, Mom worried about the rent.
She liked to drink. Some in the family want to make more of it than that, like maybe she needed drinking to take the edge off, but that was the way I always saw it: Mom liked to drink. Never during the day, but every night. Sometimes when she was out with her younger sister, Aunt Jenn, or sometimes when she was with friends. Other times it was at home alone. What can I say about it? I'm her kid. I never knew anything else.
My dad, Big Jeff, stayed in my life. He fought for visitation rights. When I was nine, he moved to Concord, New Hampshire, an hour and a half from Chelmsford, to be closer to me. He had married his high school sweetheart after the divorce, and he had a new family: two stepdaughters and two more sons. I spent weeks with him in the summer, and I tried to be there whenever my half brothers, Chris and Alan, had a hockey game. I will never forget my dad's wife, Big Csilla, taking me strawberry picking. She was always kind.
But it was Mom, and her brother and sisters, who raised me. It was Christmas at their father's house, with the Cavit wine flowing, that I remember most. After Grandpa died, Mom's brother, Uncle Bob, took Mom and me in for a year and a half, and her sisters, Aunt Karen and Aunt Jenn, let me live with each of them for a while when I was in high school. Aunt Jenn was sixteen years older than me, but she acted like my big sister. She was always taking me and Big D out shopping or to the movies and later, when we were older, to the dreaded Hong Kong.
We stuck together. I guess that's what I'm saying. There was always a family barbecue or birthday party to attend, and if we got rowdy, or ended up arguing, there was always a Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, or Bruins game on television, and the perfect chance to sit around and laugh together about whatever we had done.
Uncle Bob even had Red Sox season tickets for a while, back before everyone became a fan. He gave me and Big D his tickets to Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship series. That was the night the Red Sox, down three games to none to the New York Yankees—no team had ever come back from three games to none in a baseball playoff series—turned around eighty-six years of futility. We were in the upper deck, but with the Red Sox losing in the late innings, everyone in front of us started leaving, so we moved closer. We kept moving closer, then closer, until we were right next to the field. We were practically in the on-deck circle by the ninth inning, when Dave Roberts stole second base.
I was seventeen years old; Big D was sixteen. I didn't have much, materially speaking, but what more do you need when the Red Sox come back in the last inning off the best closer in the history of baseball, Mariano Rivera, and you're there? You are there. Only a few feet away.
I went to Middlesex Community College the next year, but I didn't make it through. So Uncle Bob took me in at his paving company. Uncle Bob was completely irreverent, and often inappropriate, but he was smart as hell. He'd built his paving business from scratch. Big D and I were known as the family cutups, always in the corner at family functions, cracking jokes. Having a good time. But we learned that from Uncle Bob, who couldn't go five minutes without a wisecrack, usually at Aunt Jenn's expense.
"Give Jeff a taco," Aunt Jenn would say, trying to be serious, "and he's happy. That kid doesn't need much."
"As long as he doesn't get the taco from you." Uncle Bob would laugh.
"Yeah, you make the Hong Kong's food look good, Aunt Jenn."
"And I wouldn't eat there if you paid me," Big D would add.
"I wouldn't even step foot in there before ten o'clock."
"And nothing good ever happens at the Hong Kong after ten o'clock."
"That's Aunt Jenn time."
I loved Uncle Bob—he was like a father to me—but I didn't want to work in the family business. I wanted my own career. So after a few years, I went back to college at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I took mostly math and science courses, with the goal of becoming an engineer. Engineers can make $70,000 a year.
That didn't work out, either. I had student loans to cover most of my costs, but somehow I ended up owing $900, and I couldn't register for the next semester.
I didn't have $900. At that point in my life, I don't think I'd ever had $900, and I doubt Mom had, either. I could have asked Uncle Bob for it, and he'd probably have given it to me. But Mom had taught me to be self-reliant. You can take something from people who love you, but you never ask for it. Besides, I'd started working part-time in the deli at Costco. I figured I'd take another semester off, work at Costco, and see if I could save $900.
Three years later, I was still working at the Costco deli counter. It wasn't my career, I knew that, but I enjoyed it. The work was easy, mostly prep and stocking food cases, and I loved my coworkers, from my supervisor, Maya, right up to "Heavy Kevy," who managed the store. Kevin Horst was actually six foot four and maybe 180 pounds. He was in great shape, and he was immaculate. I didn't know Kevin well, because he managed almost two hundred employees, but I knew you couldn't put a piece of lettuce out of place on a salad without Kevin noticing.
I never saved that $900 for college. Costco kept me below forty hours a week, a standard practice in retail, so I was making less than $16,000 a year. I was sharing an apartment with Sully, my best friend since third grade, and his girlfriend, Jill, and I was still barely breaking even. Then Sully and Jill broke up, and we couldn't afford the apartment, so I moved back in with Mom.
It was a typical move in my life. Easy. Because of my childhood, I'd never gotten too attached to a space, and I never accumulated much stuff. Even at twenty-six, I didn't own a computer. I didn't have a possession to my name except a cell phone, a guitar my grandmother had given me a $100 check to buy on my eighteenth birthday, and a twelve-year-old Volkswagen Passat. I drove the Passat an hour to Concord, New Hampshire, every other week to visit my dad. He fixed transmissions at AAMCO, and they let him use the shop after hours. That was the only way we kept my beat-up car on the road.
It was a great life. A great, great life. I was happy. I had my own car, my own room, and enough money for an occasional trip to Boston. I had a bunch of friends from high school, so I was out every evening before Mom got home from the dinner shift. And because I didn't have anything, nobody asked me for anything. They let me be who I was: a quiet kid. Happy-go-lucky. Always trying to make sure everyone had a good time. I was young. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I was in no hurry to get there.
Then I met Erin.
It was May 2012, eleven months before the bombing, and a few weeks after I'd sworn off the Hong Kong for the eleven hundredth time. Some friends and I had gone into Boston to see ALO, one of my favorite bands. Afterward, we went to a party at someone's house, and Erin was there. She was easy to be around. Interesting. Beautiful. We hit it off right away. She later told me what she liked most about me was that I was so nice.
Ouch, E. That kind of stings.
Unfortunately, Erin lived an hour away in Brighton, an in-town Boston neighborhood that's the kind of place you live after you graduate from college and before you have kids. It was a commute, but I knew after our first date—Flatbread Pizza in Somerville, followed by Prometheus, in hindsight not the most romantic movie choice—that she was worth it.
Erin wasn't like my friends in Chelmsford. She had been born in Alabama and raised in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in a house with solar panels and a wood stove. She graduated from Lesley University, a mostly girls' college in Cambridge, where she ran cross-country and met Michele, my future fellow bombing victim. Erin had a career. She was a program coordinator in the anesthesiology department at Brigham and Women's Hospital downtown, and she was planning to go back to school for a master's degree in health administration. Her boss wanted to promote her. Erin just needed the degree first.
Unfortunately, our schedules were a mess. She worked a typical eight-to-six. I usually worked the closing shift at Costco, so I didn't get off until after 8:30. That meant I couldn't get to Brighton until ten, about the time Erin was getting ready for bed, since she had to get up at 6:30 for work. And I worked weekends, too, so we often went weeks without a good chunk of time together.
But we made it work. I spent nights in Boston with Erin and her roommates: Remy, her best childhood friend, and Michele, her best college friend. We discovered favorite bars and coffee joints. We went to Washington, D.C. We went on an overnight rafting trip to Maine, something I had been wanting to do for years. When the junk shop at the end of Erin's block turned into a takeout chicken wing counter, it felt like destiny.
"She's so nice," Mom said, every time Erin stayed over in Chelmsford.
Ha-ha, E, that word got you, too!
But it's true. Erin is nice. She's not a party girl, but get a few beers in her and she'll break out the dance moves. I guess it would make you uncomfortable if I said sexy, right, E? But it's true. Erin puts the sexy in nice. But she preferred a nice quiet home-cooked meal, and a nice quiet life.
In August, with the relationship heating up, I invited Erin to my nephew Cole's seventh birthday party. This was a big deal, because Cole's birthday was the event of the summer for my extended family. Aunt Jenn was older when she had Cole—she was Uncle Dale's third wife—so she spoiled him. Even she admits it. For his birthday, she gets the jumpy house, and the catered barbecue, and invites everyone. There are usually eighty people at Cole's birthday party, most of them relatives.
Fortunately, I was working at Costco that Saturday, so Erin and I had an excuse to show up late, after most of the guests had left. This was, after all, the first girlfriend I'd introduced to the whole family. I hadn't had to before. Most of my past girlfriends had been around my family forever.
"Great girl," Uncle Bob said, in one of his rare serious moments. "Good head on her shoulders."
By which he meant: She had a plan. She was going places.
And she was. Erin had worked her way through college. She was successful, and she was going to be more successful in the future. She wanted that for me, too. She never judged me because I didn't make much money and lived with my mom. She didn't care about that.
But she believed in me. She wanted me to finish college. She thought I had a future as an engineer.
"Maybe next year," I told her. "When you go to grad school, I'll go back to college. We can study together."
I meant it, except maybe for the studying. I'd been telling Mom I'd go back to college for years, but Erin made me see it as something I shouldn't just say. If we were going to have a life together, it was something I should do.
But then, sometime that winter, we started to drift apart. Maybe I got cold feet, I don't know, but I started to skip trips down to Boston to visit her. After six months, I told myself I was tired of the drive. I was cooking chicken and ribs all day at Costco. I was helping customers. I wanted to go home after my shift and relax. Play some guitar in my room. Watch a Bruins hockey game with Sully and Big D.
Erin was frustrated that I kept breaking dates. "I changed my plans to be with you," she'd say.
"I'm sorry," I'd say. "I'm tired."
We talked about moving in together, so we wouldn't have to commute to see each other, but that would have meant quitting my job, so nothing came of it.
"You aren't really committed," Erin would say. It wasn't a complaint. It was a statement of fact.
"You need to do what you say you're going to do," she would tell me. "If you make a promise, you need to be there."
That was big for Erin. She was a planner. She loved a routine. She had always been a runner, but that winter she was training for the Boston Marathon. Brigham and Women's needed to upgrade their neonatal intensive care unit, so a group from the hospital was running to raise money.
"It feels good to be helping," she said. But it also meant less time together.
That Christmas, I bought Erin a nice camera at Costco. A few weeks later, I bought myself a guitar. It was a Yamaha Acoustic Electric, on sale at Guitar Center for $200, and I couldn't resist. That's a bargain.
I've always loved playing guitar. Nothing too serious. I just find it relaxing. I'd jam with my half brother Chris on my dad's back porch in Concord, New Hampshire, or sit in my room and work on songs. I knew some guys who played at clubs in downtown Lowell, the center of the local music scene, so I started heading down there to the open mic nights with my friend Blair. I wouldn't play. I was more of a listener. Blair would yell at the bands. We'd drink a few beers, and maybe a few too many. I've never been into any other type of drug or alcohol. I like beer.
"It's fine to go out and have a good time with your friends," Erin said. "I want you to do that. But not all the time."
She was right. When I first started skipping visits to Boston, it was because I was tired. Now I was skipping Erin to drink and listen to music with Blair.
"I can't do it," I told him next time he called. "I got plans."
But… I don't know. It wasn't enough. Erin and I were having a great time together, but it wasn't enough. I kept screwing up. I remember one day in February, the dead of winter, heading up to my dad's house in New Hampshire and walking in the door with the usual twelve-pack under my arm.
"What's happenin', Big Csilla?" (It's pronounced "Big Chilla." My stepsister, Little Csilla, has the same name.)
She could tell right away something was wrong. "Where's Erin?"
"Ah, we broke up."
"I broke one too many promises."
I don't like talking about personal stuff, so that's what I said, over and over again, since everyone in my family had to ask. We broke up. I had called Erin two days after. I told her I loved her. She said it wasn't enough.
- "STRONGER is not merely a triumph-over-adversity story, but a love story....the book exudes a sense of transparency and honesty."—Boston Globe
- "Bauman's moving story illustrates what he believes: 'We are better than cowards with bombs...We are stronger.'"—People Magazine
- "A moving demonstration of how strength of mind and character helped one man stand tall despite the loss of his legs."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- May 5, 2015
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing