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A Story of Love, Strength, and Recovery After the 2013 Boston Marathon
With Jennifer Jordan
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As Roseann Sdoia waited to watch her friend cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, she had no idea her life was about to change-that in a matter of minutes she would look up from the sidewalk, burned and deaf, staring at her detached foot, screaming for help amid the smoke and blood.
In the chaos of the minutes that followed, three people would enter Roseann’s life and change it forever. The first was Shores Salter, a college student who, when the bomb went off, instinctively ran into the smoke while his friends ran away. He found Roseann lying on the sidewalk and, using a belt as a tourniquet, literally saved her life that day. Then, Boston police officer Shana Cottone arrived on the scene and began screaming desperately at passing ambulances, all full, before finally commandeering an empty paddy wagon. Just then a giant appeared, in the form of Boston firefighter Mike Materia, who carefully lifted her into the fetid paddy wagon. He climbed in and held her burned hand all the way to the hospital. Since that day, he hasn’t left her side, and today they are planning their life together.
Perfect Strangers is about recovery, about choosing joy and human connection over anger and resentment, and most of all, it’s about an unlikely but enduring friendship that grew out of the tragedy of Boston’s worst day.
TWO YEARS LATER
ON APRIL 15, 2013, a dark line was drawn through the middle of my life. Before that day, I was a single professional woman living in the North End of Boston. I vacationed in Europe, skied at Sunday River and Killington, ran 5- and 10K fun runs with my friends, and spent most summer weekends on Nantucket or in Newport, Rhode Island. That was the life in which I had two legs.
On that day, I found myself on the other side of that line, half sitting, half lying on the sidewalk. After a few dazed moments, my eyes began to focus and found the pool of blood gathering underneath me and dripping off the curb onto Boylston Street. That was the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed 3 people and injured 264 others. It was also the day that I lost my right leg.
Two years later, almost to the day, I found myself sitting in a modest living room in a working-class neighborhood in Boston, eating a piece of gluten-free pizza, sipping red wine, and looking across the table at three people whose lives had also been irrevocably changed that day and who are now as familiar and as dear to me as those I've known my whole life.
I'm not sure exactly when it was that we became a family—Boston police officer Shana Cottone, firefighter Mike Materia, Northeastern University student Shores Salter, and I. All I know is that we shared an experience that has left each of us forever changed. And while most people who were there that day remember it with only horror, outrage, and sorrow, we four can now also see it through the lens of the love and support that formed in the wake of that atrocity.
That night, over pizza and wine, we did something we rarely do. We compared notes about that day—what we remembered of the bombing and its immediate aftermath.
"I remember thinking you had the whitest teeth I'd ever seen," Shana told me, and we all laughed. Shana has since quit, but at the time she chewed tobacco, and the color of her teeth showed it.
"I remember you asking if we were taking Storrow Drive to Mass General, and I was like, 'Wow, lady, let the driver drive,'" Mike said. "I couldn't believe you were backseat driving even with your leg blown off!"
We all laughed because Mike knows what a terrible backseat driver I am. He reached over and lightly touched my left leg where it rested against his on the couch. That simple gesture has brought me more comfort and reassurance than I would ever have thought possible.
"I remember you saying, 'I don't think I have my leg,'" Shores said, "and my heart absolutely sank to the bottom of my stomach." Quick tears came to his eyes. I reached across the coffee table and held on to his arm.
"I'll never forget that," he added quietly, his head down and slowly shaking back and forth.
"And I remember feeling, for one quick instant, as I lay on the pavement looking up at the faces hovering over me, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: here are the three people who will get me back alive—my Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man." That's what I remember.
Would I like my leg back? Of course.
Does Shana wish her patrol of the barricades along Boylston Street had involved the typical routine of boisterous college kids and woozy runners? Obviously.
Mike wishes he hadn't had to transport a bloodied and shell-shocked victim to the hospital in the back of a police paddy wagon, holding her hand and telling her she wasn't going to die.
And Shores wishes the most memorable moments of his sophomore year in college were acing his exams and spring break in San Diego, not the traumatic events of that day.
But none of us would trade what we've gained for what we've lost. Shana, Shores, Mike, and I are all grateful for what we've found in each other. Our lives are filled with more joy, fun, and love than we could have believed.
I am not just telling my story. I am telling our story—each of the people who was on the front line, literally, in saving my life—my three wonderful new friends as well as the doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, coworkers, and a few of my oldest and dearest friends who were there with me watching the marathon that day and whose love and bravery inspire me constantly. I quite literally wouldn't be here without them.
And this is a story about my favorite day in my favorite city in the world and how, in an instant, that day went from being pure celebration to desperate survival. For those of us who made it off the sidewalk that horrific day, and those who made sure we did, this book is about taking back our favorite day while never forgetting those who were lost.
WE BOSTONIANS LOOK forward to Marathon Monday like no other day. Not only is it the unofficial beginning of spring, but it's also always held on the third Monday of April—Patriots' Day—a state holiday that commemorates Paul Revere's legendary midnight ride from Boston to Lexington and the first bloodshed of the Revolutionary War. For those who don't want to spend the entire day at a twenty-six-mile-long street party, there's the Boston Red Sox game at Fenway. The first pitch is early, 11:00 a.m., so that by the end of the ninth inning fans can walk to nearby Kenmore Square and catch the runners coming through their last mile on their way to the finish.
For many native Bostonians, Marathon Monday is a tradition. It certainly was in my family. It was a tradition for my father, my sister, Gia, and me to drive into Boston together that morning. And it was a tradition for Mom to stay home: for her, the idea of running for any reason other than escaping a fire is simply ridiculous. So Gia, Dad, and I would drive the forty-five minutes from Dracut, Massachusetts, into Boston. Because Dad was never much of a map reader, we'd always end up on the Cambridge side of the Charles River and have to pull a U-ie back over the river and into the city before finding a parking lot near Fenway Park. Once there, we'd eat our fill of ballpark franks and popcorn before leaving the park early and making our way through the crowded streets to watch the runners come through Kenmore Square.
The first man known to have run the marathon distance of twenty-six miles dropped dead soon after. In 490 BC, a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce that the Greeks had won their war with the Persians. While nothing could match that sort of legendary origin, the Boston Marathon is nonetheless America's oldest foot race and over its 120-year history has no shortage of legends who have crossed the famed yellow finish line, from Clarence DeMar's record seven wins to Johnny Kelley's record sixty-one finishes—more than any runner in any race history—to the inglorious Rosie Ruiz, who in 1980 hopped into the race only a few blocks from the finish and was erroneously awarded the crown (a crown she has yet to return, by the way). But beyond the folklore, the Boston Marathon is perhaps most coveted by runners because of the crowds. From the start in Hopkinton to the finish 26.2 miles later in downtown Boston, massive crowds line the entire course. And they don't merely watch. They scream; they yell; they hold up hilarious signs to keep the spirits of the runners high; they run alongside offering water or orange slices; they blow whistles and bells. All day long, and to thousands of complete strangers running for the finish, Boston gives everything it's got. It's a remarkable outpouring of love and respect and encouragement, and runners come from all over the world to experience its magic.
Marathon Monday, April 15, 2013, began as it had for the previous 117 years. You couldn't have asked for a better day to run 26.2 miles—cool and crisp, with a light breeze out of the west at the runners' backs, helping to push them (perhaps mentally if not physically) toward the finish in Boston. The year before, the temperatures had hovered around a dangerous 95 degrees, and officials had almost canceled the entire race. In the end, the race had been run, but after race directors had offered a rain check for the following year, 2,200 entrants had opted to wait and run in 2013 under "safer" conditions. Before dawn the city came alive, with over 23,000 anxious runners making their way by car or bus to the race start in Hopkinton. The trip back to Boston would be made under their own steam. Thousands of police officers from Hopkinton to Boston attended roll call in their local station houses, getting their assignments for the day, most of them positioned somewhere along the perimeter of the race. Their primary duty would be keeping the estimated one million spectators on the sidewalk side of the barricades and out of the way of the passing runners in the streets. Hundreds of firefighters and EMTs had strategically parked their fire trucks and ambulances along the route for those needing emergency care. During every race, they were needed to address a laundry list of runners' ailments—heatstroke, dehydration, muscle cramps, shin splints, and gastrointestinal distress were the usual culprits that brought runners to their knees and out of the race.
That morning I woke up feeling a satisfying fatigue in my legs from having run the Boston Athletic Association's 5K Fun Run the day before. Running it had been a goal of mine for years, but because it took place early on a Sunday morning and I and most of my girlfriends usually chose to sleep in and then gather for brunch around 10:00 a.m., I'd never made it. But that year I decided to forgo the brunch. I ran the 5K, and I absolutely loved it. The best thing about the race is that it takes you across the finish line on the Boston Marathon course. Even though it's the day before and you're not running the actual marathon, the thrill of watching your feet cross that iconic yellow line is truly thrilling. I am not known for emotional outbursts, yet even I teared up. Every year, watching the runners go by, I'd think about training for and running the marathon, but this year I felt inspired in a way that I never had before. As I walked over to meet my friends after the race, I promised myself that I would tackle the full marathon someday.
As a girl, I'd been quite the athlete. I was always in motion—cartwheeling across lawns; playing softball; and running, flipping, and spinning through gymnastics classes. Even my hands were busy. When I learned sign language in junior high, I spent months driving my mother to distraction by signing every word that was spoken in my presence, including my own name. But then puberty hit, and with it a few extra pounds and breasts that overwhelmed my tiny five-foot-one-inch frame. All of a sudden, my body felt out of balance. Then came high school, and my athletic pursuits were replaced by friends, boyfriends, and beer. I would never again call myself athletic. Active, yes, but athletic? Not so much. As an adult, I became more of a "morning-after" runner. You know the kind. We're the ones who gather at our favorite bars with our favorite friends on Friday and Saturday nights, eat too much of the wrong food, have just one more before heading home, and then try to run it all off in the morning.
Unlike millions of marathoners around the world, I did not experience that wondrous beta-endorphin high after a long run, probably because I ran three miles at a time, not thirteen. I had a complicated relationship with running: I would grumble, forcing myself out the door for a run, and then absolutely love how I felt after I had done it. I would feel pride and accomplishment from pushing myself even a little outside my comfort zone. Try as I would to push myself past the five-mile mark on a regular basis, I managed to run seven miles only a couple of times.
But what brings me out to the sidelines every year, and what brings out so many Bostonians and others, is that we can tap in to some of that amazing energy just by being there—being a part of the energy that keeps those runners going. It's one of the reasons why Marathon Monday is a celebration for all—runners and spectators alike. Just being in that wave of joy is intoxicating; its power overwhelms even the most committed couch potato. We absorb the runners' excitement, see the simple and, yes, tortured pride on their faces, knowing that behind them is twenty-six miles and before them at the finish is a rare moment in life: pure euphoria at having accomplished something monumental.
It was a postcard-perfect New England spring day—a navy-blue sky, the first lilac and magnolia-blossom buds making the trees shimmer a verdant green, and the softest of breezes filling the crowded North End streets around my apartment with fresh sea air. The winter had been a long one (another tradition in Boston), so when I opened my eyes to the day, I couldn't wait to meet it. I had a fabulous day planned. First I would attend the Red Sox game with my friend Sabrina, and while we watched, we'd be able to monitor our friend Jen's race progress on the official marathon app. From a tracking chip on her shoe, her data would be uploaded to the app, and we'd see her progress mile by mile, all the way to the finish. We decided that when she passed Heartbreak Hill in Newton, still six miles and about an hour away, we'd leave the game with plenty of time to walk from Fenway Park to Copley Square and meet our other friends so that we could all watch the finish together.
Sabrina and I got to Fenway Park around 10:45 a.m., bought hot dogs in gluten-free buns and gluten-free beer (I have celiac disease, and Fenway has a gluten-free menu—how awesome is that?), and found our seats. The game was slow-moving, so when we got our app alert that Jen was closing in on the city, we were only into the seventh inning. But we were not going to miss seeing Jen run by us on Boylston Street, so Sabrina and I gathered our bags and headed out of the park.
We had about an hour to get through the teeming spectators and maze of closed-off streets and fight our way to our favorite spot for spectating, Forum restaurant. The drinks and food were only so-so, but the vantage point was perfect for watching runners come around the corner from Hereford Street onto Boylston and down the last half mile to the finish near the historic Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
For many spectators, and particularly those of us with friends who would take between four and five hours to finish the race, the afternoon was a long one, but if you weren't running in the marathon, cheering on a friend who was running was the second-best way to celebrate the day.
We had two friends running that day: Jen, a nurse at Mass General, and Johnny, whom I have known since the second grade. We estimated they would be finishing the marathon in about four and a half hours, or between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m. By that time in the day, over 17,000 of the 23,000 runners who began the race have already crossed the finish line, with nearly 6,000 still on the course behind them.
Sabrina and I jostled our way through the crowds in Kenmore Square and finally made it to Forum. We did a quick 360 view of the place to see if any of our friends were there yet, and, finding that they weren't, went to the bar and ordered a drink. We had no sooner arrived than we got a text from our friend Megan saying she was outside and staying there, unwilling to spend the $40 cover charge for a drink. Can't say I blamed her. Forum was hosting a fund-raising party that year, so the cover was more expensive than usual. Because the bar wouldn't let you take drinks outside, we took a quick sip of our cocktails before leaving them at the hostess station and making our way out to the sidewalk. The energy of the crowd was palpable. Once again I felt that stir of excitement in my stomach. As we got near the police barricades, I turned to Sabrina.
"Next year. Let's do it. Let's run this thing."
She looked at me, her eyes hidden behind aviator Ray-Bans but her dark eyebrows arched high above the sunglasses. She knew what would be ahead in terms of training: a training schedule that would begin in the teeth of winter, months of early-morning and late-evening runs, running clinics, even (God forbid) a drastic change in diet to skim off a few pounds. While most Boston Marathon runners have to run another marathon within a set time limit in order to qualify to run the race legally, there were plenty of charity teams you could join, so we could avoid the pesky qualifying requirement while raising money for a good cause. She could see that I was serious. Sabrina smiled and nodded.
"Okay, I'm in."
Looking around at the crowd, we finally spotted Megan and were making our way to her when a friend back at Kenmore Square texted to say that Jen had just run by him.
"She's on her way! Looks great!"
It was 2:40 p.m. Jen was just a mile away and would be arriving in less than ten minutes, maybe sooner with the adrenaline and thrill of the last mile coursing through her tired legs and pushing her forward. If you ask anyone who's ever run Boston what running that last mile feels like, most will answer in one word: "Exhilarating." The crowds thicken exponentially the closer you get, and by the time you round the last corner onto Boylston, their roar becomes deafening, forming a solid wall of energy. It's as if the joy of the crowd is channeled into the aching joints and blistered feet and screaming leg muscles of every runner.
With Megan now in tow, we all agreed that we had to get closer to the street in order to see Jen run by, so we employed some serious city-trained, sharp-elbowed positioning and got to the curb. Unfortunately, as I looked up the street to where Jen would be coming from, I realized that there was a green storage mailbox in my way. I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes, trying to see over it. (Yes, I am that short.) But no matter how far I stretched and maneuvered, the damn thing still blocked my view up Boylston Street. While my taller friends were fine with our position, I knew I had to move. I told Sabrina and Megan that I was "going in." I shimmied through the tightly packed bodies and was able to sneak around the mailbox to its other side and squeeze myself right up against the steel police barricade. This was the perfect spot! I finally had a clear view of the runners coming down Boylston, I relaxed and settled in to watch the excitement.
Sabrina and Megan followed as far as they could but both got stopped by the crowds and ended up against the barricade on the far side of the mailbox.
At 2:47 p.m. our friends Jenna and Alissa finally made it to Forum and found us gathered near the mailbox. Unable to get anywhere near me on the opposite side of the mailbox, they squeezed in next to Sabrina and Megan along the fence.
Seeing that they had arrived, I waved to Jenna and Alissa over the mailbox, then turned back toward the race, its runners, and the sun, leaned my elbows on the barricade, and took a long, relaxed breath. This, right here, was what it was all about—standing in the midst of the fun and frenzy of Boston's best afternoon, absorbing the sheer magic of the day.
I checked my phone, as I had been doing obsessively all afternoon, for alerts on Jen and Johnny's progress.
Behind me, people gathered on Forum's patio were cheering and ringing cowbells and joking with their buddies, beers in hand, their plates of appetizers forgotten on nearby tables.
I craned my neck looking for Jen—she should be right here.
Jen Anstead was running her third Boston Marathon in as many years, and as in the years before had trained long and hard for this day, taking time from her demanding job as a cardiac nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital to run on the hospital's fund-raising team for pediatric cancer. Before getting into marathon running, she would have called herself merely a social runner like me, more often running the races for the after party than setting any land speed records. In fact, she was a regular at our monthly summer Thursday "Let's Run and Have Fun 5K" along the Charles River.
But a marathon was far from a fun 5K, nearly ten times as far, and Jen took her training seriously. She loved that she was now wearing a T-shirt designating her a "Team MGH" runner. She was running to raise money for pediatric oncology at Mass General helping those without deep pockets and comprehensive health insurance policies.
After four hours and eleven minutes of running, Jen finally turned the last corner of the race and onto Boylston, still not quite in my sight line. She felt an almost electric current of energy surge through her body. It seemed as if the crowd was ready to burst around her.
"YOU'RE ALMOST THERE!"
"GO, MASS GENERAL!"
"THERE'S THE FINISH! YOU MADE IT!"
Tears sprang to her eyes. Her emotions were a combination of a beta-endorphin high and the sheer joy of having the finish in sight. It was the same relief, almost a sacred deliverance, that many endurance athletes feel when finishing a multihour race. She was almost there. But first she had to find us and, knowing we were at Forum, trotted toward the curb in front of it.
I was standing less than seventy yards away, leaning over the steel fence, feeling it press into my armpits, trying to get my first glimpse of her. If I had had any more height or weight, I probably would have toppled the whole thing over, I was leaning so far.
Suddenly the air was shattered by an explosion. Something had blown up down the street to my left, closer to the finish line. The moment, caught on a security camera positioned above Forum's patio behind me, recorded our collective flinch as the crowd around me all reflexively hunched our shoulders at the exact same moment.
About two hundred feet from where I stood by the mailbox, Jen stopped dead in her tracks. Four police officers, patrolling the barricade, all looked over their shoulders as the blast ricocheted through the buildings and then at each other with a collective expression of "What the hell was that?" While other spectators and runners were thinking it might be a celebratory cannon of sorts, Jen knew in that instant that if the cops weren't aware of it, something terrible had happened. With people still running around her toward the finish, she stood stock still, trying to collect her thoughts and the growing realization: Oh, my God, that was a bomb!
"We need to get the fuck out of here."
It was Alissa, from behind me. Like Jen, her instant reaction was panic: That was a fucking bomb. No question. No debate.
I stood up on the barricade to see if I could see down Boylston toward whatever had exploded.
Sabrina, meanwhile, standing on the bottom rung of the barricade and leaning comfortably against the mailbox, wasn't budging. While Alissa and Jen instinctively knew the shit had hit the fan, Sabrina thought the blast was benign—a car backfiring or maybe a transformer—and she wasn't about to give up her prime spot. Sabrina watched others around her begin to move, from what and to where no one really seemed to know. Alissa's increasingly frenzied mantra of getting the fuck out of here felt melodramatic to Sabrina, and she all but said something. Instead she stepped down from the barricade and turned to try to reassure Alissa that whatever it was, it was nothing to worry about.
She never got the chance.
Around me people started to scatter in all directions, no one knowing what it was but everyone wanting to get away. A man near me yelled, "Jump the fence! Get in the middle of the street!" correctly guessing that whatever had caused the blast, it hadn't been sitting in the middle of Boylston Street. I looked down at the barricade I was standing on but realized I would never be able to climb over it. Even standing on it, it came right up to my chest. There was no way I could jump it. If I tried, I might hurt myself falling over the other side. I could even sprain an ankle or maybe my wrist. So I stepped off the barricade and turned to my right to run up the sidewalk.
As I was skirting a tree, I heard two loud popping sounds and saw two white flashes of light at my feet.
It was the last time I saw my right foot.
When the second bomb exploded, Jen was so close that she felt a surge of hot air rushing toward and around her. Instantly and without a word, the four cops in front of her clasped their wrists together, forming a human chain, and corralled incoming runners off Boylston and toward the Lord & Taylor store on the other side of the street, Jen among them. As she felt herself being half pushed, half carried across Boylston, a fire truck appeared out of nowhere, passing so close that the steel bumper brushed her leg and she marveled that it hadn't crushed her.
Sabrina had been blown off her feet and landed on her back a few feet away from the mailbox. Alissa, Jenna, and Megan had all turned to run but were also blown through the air, landing violently on their heads and backs among the other spectators on the sidewalk.
Anyone who had thought in the twelve seconds after the first blast that it was just a manhole cover, or perhaps a celebratory cannon, or even a ruptured gas main, knew now that both were bombs and that Boston was under attack. Those who weren't mortally wounded began running in every direction, not knowing if there would be a third bomb and, if there was, where it would blow.
Before the smoke cleared, video of the blasts shows an incredible scene: two distinct waves of people moving in different directions—the majority away from the obvious locations of the explosions and lesser numbers, many of them wearing the neon-yellow vests of police, firefighters, and medical personnel, running directly into the smoke and fire. Everywhere people were lying in ever-widening pools of their own blood. And I was one of them.
IF YOU WERE to ask my mom or dad to describe the kind of kid I was, they'd immediately say the same thing: determined and stubborn as hell. Not only did I start walking when I was nine months old, I also started talking (as I write this I can hear Mom finishing the sentence, "and you haven't stopped yet.") Mom also insists I potty-trained myself. "You were determined
- "Roseann is a warrior who brings light to everyone around her. Perfect Strangers is an amazing story of strength and friendship."—Jeff Bauman, author of Stronger
- "With humor and her trademark Boston honesty, Roseann gives us an intimate portrait of what really happened that day, the raw insight on her rehab post amputation and the healing journey she is on with Shana, Shores and Mike. This candid memoir shares it all, including a beautiful and triumphant love story, that kept me turning the pages."—Sarah Reinertsen, Paralympian and Nike Athlete
- "Roseann perfectly captures the feelings that so many of us experienced while lying on the streets of Boston awaiting help, wondering whether or not we would live. Her raw and honest narration is a true reflection of her 'tell it like it is' personality and a moving account of the heroism, friendships, and love she found as a result. Her silver lining sparkles, proving that good can always prevail."—Heather J. Abbott, President, Heather Abbott Foundation
- "From the outside it is hard to find anything good that came from the events of April 15, 2013. But Perfect Strangers shows us that there can be a positive outcome from such a tragic event. This personal story of unexpected loss and tragedy on our home soil will resonate with all Americans. It reinforces the American spirit and that people can be brought together in the darkest of times. This book will touch you deeply and leave you feeling hopeful about humanity and what the human spirit can endure.—Melissa Stockwell, Veteran and Paralympic medalist
- "A frank, personal account... Sdoia is unsparing in describing her own weaknesses as well as her strength, but this candor only makes her story all the more inspiring."—Publishers Weekly
- "A tapestry of solidarity, unity, love, and selfless humanity...A moving testimonial to the transformative power of human compassion and connection amid catastrophe."—Kirkus Reviews
"Sdoia expresses her understanding of how trauma shapes people differently and how their connection, strengthened by loss, has provided a key constant and comfort in four lives."
- On Sale
- Mar 28, 2017
- Page Count
- 256 pages