Bostonians take back their town

Dan Soleau of Marathon Sports stands where he was on April 15, 20 feet from the first explosion. Ian O'Connor/ESPN New York

BOSTON -- Beneath the storefront window, people had placed flowers, American flags, stuffed animals and the image of Jesus Christ. Pedestrians were taking cellphone pictures of the memorial and a conspicuous block of smooth cement under a lamppost, the spot where the bombers turned Marathon Sports into ground zero on Boylston Street.

It was Thursday evening, and the place had reopened for business only a few hours earlier. The blood-soaked carpeting had been ripped out and replaced, and customers and employees inside were embracing each other -- sometimes tearfully -- between displays of T-shirts and running shoes.

"I've had 10 complete strangers give me a hug today, a big hug too," said Dan Soleau, brand development manager at Marathon Sports. He had just watched a 4-year-old girl drop down a daffodil amid the homemade signs calling for love and strength and just heard the girl's mother explaining to her why such gestures are important.

At 2:49 p.m. on April 15, as Soleau leaned near a bench in front of his store and watched runners finish the Boston Marathon, a bomb went off 20 feet from where he stood. Glass windows behind him and above him exploded, and spectators in front of him crumpled in an unfathomable heap that reminded the store's manager, Shane O'Hara, of the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan."

Soleau kept checking his arms and legs for the kind of limb-severing horrors inflicted on those around him. By the grace of God, Soleau believes, he emerged with only a couple of minor cuts on his calf, nothing compared to the overwhelming feeling of sadness that has left him sobbing more than once over the past 10 days.

But Soleau, O'Hara and Colin Peddie, the store's owner, all said they were inspired by countless acts of human kindness since their business was made the site of the first of the two bombings that killed three and injured 264 and started a manhunt for two suspects, brothers, that ended with one dead and the other captured in a boat docked in someone's backyard.

The explosions, the murder of an MIT police officer and the wild shootout in Watertown traumatized a region as tough as the worst New England winter. So for those who have frequented Boylston's restaurants and bars, or who have passed them on the way to and from Fenway Park, Thursday evening was a perfect time to walk the street and feel the pulse of the people taking back their town.

Outside the Old South Church near the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth, worshippers gathered to pray for the victims and to listen to a man in a Red Sox cap play the saxophone and sing a little Pete Seeger. Across the street from Marathon Sports, residents sat on the steps of the Boston Public Library, under a fading sun and a sign promoting the library's Boston Sports Temples exhibit.

Traffic was thick on the marathon route, with more than one impatient Boylston motorist honking the car horn at a rubbernecking driver ahead. The Duck Tours could be seen running a few blocks away, where rickshaw drivers were soliciting fares to Fenway. The places to eat between the sites of the two explosions, Marathon Sports and the boarded-up Forum restaurant, had few, if any, patio tables that weren't already taken.

No, it didn't look like a street recently hit by a terrorist attack that would have been far worse if not for the courage of those who ran toward the carnage, not away from it. Mike Powers, who served as captain of the athletic trainers stationed inside the medical tent near the library, was talking to two physicians about their luck with the cool weather -- a relatively small number of runners were dealing with heat-related illnesses -- when he heard the first explosion and immediately tore through a seam in the tent to get out and help.

"It's a sound I'll never forget, and I didn't think for a second it was something accidental," said Powers, a Boston native, Northeastern grad and the director of the athletic training education program at Marist College. "The first thing that came to mind was North Korea, and I actually thought it was a missile."

Powers helped dismantle the barricades so medical personnel could reach the victims and found bodies on top of bodies, including a woman and her 5-year-old son, both missing parts of their legs. With one hand Powers tried to stabilize the mother's wound, and with the other he tried to stabilize her son's.

The responders started a triage unit in the street. Powers and fellow athletic trainers suddenly became war-zone medics, frantically trying to stop people from bleeding to death. They had heard the second blast and understood that a third bomb could go off at any second. Powers had done a training exercise in New York last year that involved a simulated suicide bombing on a packed city bus.

"We had to go into the smoke and fire and do everything we ended up doing at the marathon," he said, "but in the middle of the exercise, they blew the whistle and stopped it. They said, 'A secondary device just went off, and you all died.'"

It didn't go down that way on April 15 in Boston. Assisted by five Marist students, Powers helped lead a team of professionals that hadn't practiced anything of that magnitude, a team he estimated had 50 percent turnover every year, a team that nonetheless treated and transported the victims at a remarkably efficient rate.

Powers was planning to return to the Boston area this weekend to play in a rugby game, cheer for his Celtics against the Knicks, maybe catch his Red Sox at Fenway and maybe even stop at one of the Boylston places he used to hang in as a college kid.

"I'll be back at the marathon next year," he said. "And if they announced a makeup date for this weekend and asked me to volunteer, I wouldn't think twice about it. I'd be there."

Same goes for the businessmen of Boylston affected by the attacks. At Sugar Heaven, next to Marathon Sports, general manager James Brennan said wounded spectators who staggered into his store were treated by nurses who used his candy ribbons as tourniquets. Brennan was scheduled to reopen Sugar Heaven at 10 a.m. Thursday but started an hour earlier when he saw a line of customers waiting outside.

"I've had people come in all day saying, 'God bless you,' and, 'We wish you the best of luck,'" Brennan said. "People have been crying, some of them smiling. Some told us they played hooky from work today just to shop in our store."

Standing under three small panes of glass blown out by the bombs, Brennan estimated his store was out as much as $30,000 in lost wages and food; its insurance policy doesn't cover acts of terrorism.

"But we'll make up for it with this turnout today," he said. "Our sales are 400 percent greater than they were on this same date last year. People are coming in and spending 50 and 60 bucks on candy, and they're telling us they don't even eat candy. They just want to help our store come back."

At Marathon Sports, O'Hara, the manager, stepped away from his cash register to relive the moment he helped Powers and others pull down the barricades to clear a path to the bodies. His hands bloodied from helping a woman with a severe leg injury, O'Hara would grab everything he could off his shelves -- shirts, shorts, belts -- to serve as tourniquets.

"There was another woman who was down on the sidewalk and bleeding," he said, "and I looked at her and actually walked past her. I knew she was hurt, but I also knew other people were worse off who needed the help more. Here I am making those kinds of decisions I was never prepared to make."

O'Hara spent part of Thursday hugging every colleague in the store, including Alejandro Ruiz, who had fetched a bottle of alcohol from the basement in case medics could use it to treat injuries. O'Hara choked up when he said he had a child the same age as 8-year-old Martin Richard, among the three to die in the bombings.

Emotions were running high at Marathon Sports. Peddie, the owner, was the first and only store official police allowed back into his place on Saturday morning, five days after the attacks, around 6 a.m.

"It was very strange walking in here by myself," he said. "It was like an old Western movie, going through a town where nobody's there. It was like the marathon was held the day before. The stands were still up, my doors were open, the winds were blowing through, and there was a lot of blood on the floor."

A second pane of safety glass had held up and prevented more bloodshed, protecting the employees and customers inside. Peddie needed new carpeting and stonework, and his sidewalk had to be scrubbed and sanitized. His entire staff helped with the cleanup over the last few days, and finally, with his employees' blessing, Peddie welcomed in his customers Thursday around 2 p.m.

"It was a great feeling," he said.

It was another great day for the heroes of Boylston Street, and for all Bostonians who refused to surrender their town.