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'BC Strong' Offers Personal Sides to Boston Marathon Bombings Story

WBZ TV news anchor Paula Ebben '89 introduces (L-R) Dave Wedge ’93, Brittany Loring JD/MBA ’13 and Patrick Downes ’05, the panelists for "BC Strong: Boston College Alumni Share Their Personal Stories of the Marathon Bombings.” The April 14 event, held in Robsham Theater, was sponsored by the Office of News & Public Affairs and BC Alumni Association. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Apr. 15, 2015

On the eve of the second anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Boston College community gathered April 14 to hear three alumni speak on how the event changed their lives, as well as their perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

Held in Robsham Theater before an audience of nearly 450, “BC Strong: Boston College Alumni Share Their Personal Stories of the Marathon Bombings” – sponsored by the Office of News & Public Affairs and BC Alumni Association – featured survivors Patrick Downes ’05 and Brittany Loring JD/MBA ’13, along with Dave Wedge ’93, whose reporting on the tragedy provided the basis for his co-authored best-selling book Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy.

The panel discussion frequently took on the air of a conversation, as its moderator, WBZ-TV news anchor Paula Ebben ’89, P’17, effectively shifted the context for exploring different facets of the April 2013 event and invited the three to contribute their own impressions.

Loring and Downes spoke of the normalcy of daily routines and future plans, suddenly and forever altered in a matter of seconds. They recounted the struggle to regain control over their lives, coping not only with physical injuries but also the emotional and spiritual toll of the ordeal.

And both said the support of family, friends and even complete strangers have helped them to take a wider view of their experiences and move forward.

“There was plenty of time for sadness, concern and worry,” said Downes, who lost a leg while his wife, Jessica Kensky, was left a double amputee (she attended “BC Strong” in a wheelchair). “That took up a lot of energy. But there was not much room for anger, especially because of the way our city came together. It was so overwhelming for me, and I’ve reflected on it a lot.”

“After the shock, my focus was on my physical recovery,” said Loring, who suffered leg injuries and a skull fracture. “That’s what brought me forward, and I needed my energy to be positive. A lot of it had to do with the community, and the outreach from BC and others. My friends set up a schedule to take care of me. There were so many layers of support that it made it hard for me not to look forward.”

For Wedge, the Marathon bombings evoked another event, 9/11, which had challenged him – like other members of the media – to do the job of a journalist even while bearing witness to scenes of terrible human devastation. Yet the bombings carried an additional weight, he said: They happened in the city he called home.

“This felt very personal,” said Wedge. “Boston often can be a big dysfunctional family, but when someone threatens us, we’ve got each other’s back. It was comforting to me that Mayor [Marty] Walsh is a BC grad, and in overseeing that first anniversary last year, he brought the grace and respect of BC to the commemoration.”

Ebben, in underscoring the significance of the Boston Marathon as beyond a sporting event, talked about a lasting impression from the bombings. She noted that the Marathon brings together both world-class athletes as well as participants who run to raise money for causes or simply for the enjoyment of a personal challenge – categorized as “amateurs,” a word that often carries an unflattering connotation but in its Latin derivation translates to “those who do something for the love of it.”

In the moments following the explosions, she said, she saw “everyday people” rush to give aid to the victims, heedless of potential risk to themselves. “All those amateurs,” she said, “helping others purely for the love of it.”

Befitting the idea of a community gathering, “BC Strong” also had moments of levity, including an inside joke or two. Loring told how her father would bring burgers and milkshakes to the hospital in which she was recovering, ostensibly to give to her, but actually for himself. Downes – who earlier had mentioned his relief at discovering that the nurses at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center were BC graduates – was relayed a question from the audience via Ebben: “Who is your favorite nurse at Beth Israel?”

“That’s obviously a trick question,” grinned Downes. “My favorite nurse is my wife.”

Downes and Loring said the BC community had played an important role in their recoveries. Downes pointed to the fundraising effort set up on by his BC friends – “I used to throw potatoes at them,” he quipped, “which actually meant that I loved them” – to help pay the medical bills and other costs for Jessica’s and his rehabilitation. The donations of more than $890,000 were instrumental in aiding them to rebuild their lives, he said, but the website also became “a daily source of strength, courage and good will” for them because of the encouraging comments left there.

Their fellow alumni’s involvement “rekindled our friendship in the best way,” said Downes, who noted that his class will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring. “It will be a real treat to come back and see everyone.”

Loring said the outpouring of support from BC “seemed pretty natural at the time. I had to step back for a moment to realize how amazing it was.” Having been only weeks away from graduating at the time she was injured, she said, she was particularly grateful to the University and her classmates for “making sure my life could move forward as I intended.

“They were there with me every step of the way,” said Loring, who was able to attend her Commencement.

Among other topics, Ebben and the panelists also touched on the trial of Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev (Loring said she had followed the first few days on Twitter, then stopped; Downes said he and his wife were “ready for it to be over”), and what they felt they had learned through their experiences and observations of the bombings and their aftermath.

Wedge said that Boston was in many ways “a better city,” and while the events of 2013 left an enduring sadness, “we have a better appreciation for each other and a better awareness of our safety as well.” Harnessing that spirit will help to continue “making us a better city.”

Loring said that she had learned “not to take anything for granted” and “to enjoy what I’m doing or change what I’m doing” – clichés, she acknowledged, but ones that ring true for her. For example, she said, although she had turned 29 the day of the bombings, she hadn’t made big plans for celebrating her birthday – in retrospect, a good idea because her friends or loved ones were spared potential injury themselves.

“The reason I didn’t do anything was I didn’t want to make a big deal out of my birthday. But I feel completely different now. All those things we see written in pink, scrawly letters on cards? They’re all true, and we should live by them,” she said with a laugh.

Downes noted that the Opening Day ceremonies at Fenway Park the previous day had included appearances by the Richard family – who lost their son, Martin, in the bombings and sustained injuries themselves – and former BC baseball player Pete Frates ’07, who is battling ALS.

“I’m struck by how amazing our city is: Where else would you see people who have experienced trauma or are struggling with disabilities and are front and center at one of the biggest events of the year?” said Downes, who was at Fenway himself the next day to throw out a ceremonial pitch.

Downes recalled how the “rich, indescribable capacity of the human spirit” had often been a topic in his philosophy and theology classes at BC, but seeing it demonstrated in real life was “a remarkable thing.”  

At the closing, Ebben asked the panelists what message they wanted to send on the occasion of the bombings’ second anniversary.

“It’s a day on which we should reflect, but not be too sad,” said Wedge, “because we can focus on the positive elements that we’ve seen from what happened. The ultimate good message is that we’re going to run the Marathon again.”

Loring said, “It’s important to know how much your support is appreciated and still needed. It will always be with me, and I will use it, and use my experiences, to help others.”

“This was a public disaster, but so much care and love has come with it,” said Downes. “It’s important to remember that people struggle under a cloud of anonymity, and there’s no panel discussion for them to talk about it. I’ve learned in a very intimate way what it means to have a connection with someone. We may not have words to define it, but we know we’re part of something special.”   

The audience responded with a sustained standing ovation.