by Alicia Lutz ’98
Photography by Heather McGrath
This is when it matters. This is when it counts. This is when everything else is irrelevant, everything but life and death is just white noise. when Alicia Moreau Shambo ’89 heard the bombs exploding at the Boston Marathon last spring, she didn’t hesitate. If she were going to save lives, she had to act now. This was her chance – their only chance. This was the golden hour, and she was going to make the most of it.
The stunned crowd and gray-brown smoke linger for a brief moment, shielding onlookers from the horror – concealing the blood-soaked streets, the mangled bodies, the detached limbs. There is a confused silence, a hesitant pause before the dust settles and reality sinks in.
Before the screams of terror. The wails of pain. The sobs of mothers looking for their children, of husbands looking for their wives, of people looking for their feet.
And then, the mad scramble to get away, to escape whatever this is – whatever is doing this. Chaos spreads, pushing through the crowds, down the street, taking its tears, its tremors, its suffocating fright somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t have cannonlike explosions blowing out windows and blowing off legs. Somewhere safe. Anywhere but here.
Instinct has kicked in.
Alicia Moreau Shambo ’89 knows there could be more blasts. She knows she could be killed – taken away from her three children she loves so much. The only thing there is to do is run.
And, once the people around her have fled for safety, that’s exactly what she does – straight into the fading haze of the bombs.
She has no illusion about what she’ll find there – she knows from the force of the explosions what she’s walking up on. But not going just isn’t an option. Not when there are children, women and men lying in the street, bleeding, screaming, suffering. Not when she knows she can help.
Not when she can save lives.
Alicia Shambo has goose bumps on her arms, and her eyes are welling up a bit. Something about that combination of pride and humility, of anticipation and nostalgia: The national anthem gets her every time.
And today, as the voices of her fellow volunteers – mostly strangers – fill the Patriots Room at John Hancock Hall with this song of unity, Shambo, who served as a Navy hospital corpsman for 12 years, feels her heart swell. This is what she loves about this country: that thousands of people from all walks of life can come together to celebrate Patriots Day and the great American tradition of the Boston Marathon. That they can sing together. That they can support one another. That they are happy to be there, happy to help.
It’s one of her favorite days of the year.
“It’s a great day. I love everything about that day,” says Shambo. From the emergency teams there to volunteer, to the athletes there to compete, to the costumed runners – the bride and the groom, the superheroes, the gorilla – there just to have fun: “Why ever they’re here, it’s just really nice to see everybody come together and be part a tradition that’s been going on for so long.”
The day began early in her town of Hopkinton, Mass., where the race begins. The Athlete’s Village is set up on the Hopkinton High football field – essentially Shambo’s backyard – and, by 5:30 a.m., she could see the vendors arriving at their tents, smell the dough being fried and hear the helicopters overhead, the PA system welcoming the runners being bused in from Boston.
“It’s just a very electric atmosphere, the morning of,” says Shambo, who – like many of her neighbors living close to the start line – has used the marathon as an opportunity to help out different kinds of people, opening up her home to runners looking for a place to relax the morning of the race and even housing them overnight. “These people inspire me. I mean, my family stands at the end of our road and watches the runners come by, and, you know, you see some of these people, and you think, I don’t know how they can run around the block, never mind how they complete 26 miles. But those are the people you cheer for the most.”
This year, though, Shambo and her friends are cheering at the finish line, where they have volunteered to distribute Mylar heat blankets and – at least in Shambo’s case – screen the finishers’ faces for signs of dehydration or instability. So, this morning they were rushing to check into their room at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel and change into comfortable jeans and shoes before their 9 a.m. information meeting at John Hancock Hall.
“Ready!” Shambo called out to her friends as she tied her teal- and-black Montrail waterproof running shoes and stood to go, pausing in front of the window to take in the view of the historic city. What a great day to be in Boston, she thought.
And, with a projected high of 54 degrees, a lot of sunshine and very little breeze, it was certain to be better than last year, when the temperatures reached 88 degrees.
“People were dropping left and right. Left and right,” Shambo remembers as she and her friend Cyndy arrive at their station on Boylston Street and set about preparing 2,000 Mylar blankets – unrolling and opening each one before shaking it out and stuffing it into the racks for easy access. “I played medic more than I passed out Mylar blankets last year. I was just trying to catch people before they hit the pavement.”
“Yep, this year is going to be a lot easier on everyone,” Cyndy agrees. “It’s a perfect day for a marathon.”
The runners are looking good, looking strong, as they come across the finish line. Shambo stays on her toes, though, screening each finisher’s face for any kind of instability – or familiarity. So far, she hasn’t seen anyone who needed her help – or anyone she knows.
“Hey, Mrs. Shambo!”
She looks over into the sidelines and spots her daughter Brittany’s friend, J.R.
“Shouldn’t you be at home studying for the SAT?” she teases the rising senior, whom Brittany had accompanied to junior prom. “Or are you here to woo someone else?”
“I’m going to do both, Mrs. Shambo! You know me!” he laughs, before disappearing into the crowd.
She smiles after the boy before turning her attention to the runners approaching the finish line. They are getting to close to four hours – the average time for a full marathon – and the stream of runners has picked up, demanding more of her attention. Which is why she’s surprised when she spots a friend.
“Hey! Great time!” she calls out to Ann-Michelle. “Congratulations!”
And then, over Ann-Michelle’s shoulder, an explosion. She sees the smoke, feels the ground shake. She knows exactly what’s happening. She’d know the crackling boom of that kind of detonation anywhere, and there’s no mistaking the burnt sulfuric smell spreading across the finish line. There’s no doubt in her mind: Navy medics know when a bomb goes off.
“Alicia, what was that?” asks Ann-Michelle, hoping Shambo will tell her it wasn’t what she knows it was.
“I’m not sure. Let’s get out of the way. Just keep on walking,” Shambo says calmly, gently pushing her in the direction of safety. “Your family will meet you at the family meeting center. Keep walking. Keep walking.”
Ann-Michelle had just seen her parents and three of her children on the sidelines, has just waved and smiled for the camera as she’d finished the Boston Marathon for the seventh time. She knows they were there. Right there, where all that dust and smoke now hangs in a low, angry cloud. But she follows Shambo’s direction, follows the crowd, lets the mess of fast-building panic carry her with it. Mostly because she is too exhausted to do anything else. She’s moving slowly, watching people deteriorate into a frenzy around her. They’re crying, they’re hyperventilating, they’re running over and into each other.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen!” “Do you think it’s a terrorist attack?” “Oh, no, not again! Not again!”
Ann-Michelle listens to the fear in the voices around her. She listens to the sirens whirling around the city. She doesn’t know what is happening, but she just keeps going, even after she gets to the family meeting center. It’s closed, the volunteers tell her, “Keep moving. Keep moving.”
But she can’t keep moving. She’s desperate to know what happened to her family. She gets up on the sidewalk in front of Grill 23, where she’d agreed to meet her husband, and she waits.
If my family made it through this, this is where they’d come, she thinks to herself. If they don’t show up, I’ll have nobody left in the world. I’ll be completely alone. I’ll have nothing.
She’s scared, she’s cold. She watches as other stranded runners – also without their phones, their wallets, their clothes, anything but their two feet, really – just keep on running. Some run right out of the city. Others, early finishers, stop and offer her their sweatshirts, their Mylar blankets, their water. They try to help her reach out to her husband, but cell lines are all tied up. All she can do is wait.
Meanwhile, back at the finish line, nothing can wait – especially not Shambo.
Ten seconds after saying goodbye to Ann-Michelle, a second bomb explodes. Shambo doesn’t hesitate. She spins around to the runners and spectators, immobilized by fear, on the street and sidewalk behind her.
“Clear the street!” Shambo demands. “Everybody get out of here. Go as far out of the way as you can. Take your loved ones, don’t worry about turning around. Just go and take cover.”
And she takes off toward the explosions, deterred neither by the probability of another explosion nor by the officer who tries to stop her.
“I’ve got to go,” she calls out as she runs past him. “I can’t not go!”
The scene is mass chaos. People dart around frantically – uncertain where to go, but certainly too alarmed to stay. The maimed howl. Lost children weep. The police bumble. Everyone is looking for something they can’t find. Something they may never recover in all the rubble.
But even if there were no sound, no movement, at this scene, it would still be pandemonium. This is a war zone. The smell of blood is everywhere. The sign of blood is everywhere. Human scraps litter the sidewalk. Even as the uninjured clear the scene, this is nothing less than a combat site.
The first victim Shambo comes across is as white as a ghost. His left leg is nothing but hamburger meat. Bone fragments. His foot just dangles. Shambo gently places her hand on his head to hold it back so she can look into his eyes, make sure he hasn’t gone into shock. All she can feel, all she can see, is debris – metal fragments from the BBs and knives and nails and whatever else had been used to make these bombs. She does what she can do to stabilize him and wheels the young man out on a gurney, through the medical tent and into an ambulance headed to one of Boston’s many hospitals.
Next: a woman with a missing leg, a gaping abdominal wound and blood all over her mouth. She is so covered in blood and dust that Shambo isn’t sure what to do first. She can take care of the wound on her leg, pack the wound on her abdomen – but, she can’t even tell what had caused the wound on her face. And is she choking on blood, or is she choking on her teeth?
“I can’t even explain the things I saw. It was horrific. It was absolutely horrific,” says Shambo. “I don’t know how many people I assisted, because it was like a conveyor belt of bodies: one after another, one after another.”
It becomes like a well-oiled machine: Get the victims from the bomb site to the front of the tent. Get them on a gurney. Get them stabilized. Get an IV started. Try to prevent them from going into shock. Get them out the back end of the tent, into an ambulance and on the way to some hospital. Return to the other end of the tent and assume the next casualty. Repeat.
“Time just kind of stood still. I remember my phone vibrating and me thinking, I know my kids are trying to find me and make sure I’m OK, but I couldn’t even pull my phone out of my pocket,” says Shambo. “You can’t stop caring for even one person to answer the phone.”
Very few people look up or away from their patient or the task at hand. Very few words are spoken. The patients are quiet, bewildered, uncommunicative. Most of them are in shock. Nobody is screaming anymore. And, as more and more people – marathon volunteers, medical volunteers, police officers, state troopers, bystanders who want to help – surge the site offering support, the scene takes on a calm, determined atmosphere.
“People just jumped into action and did the best they could with whatever they had to work with,” says Shambo. “Even people with no medical training – they worked to make tourniquets and bandages out of their own clothing, responded to the cries of individuals, helped mothers find their children, helped husbands find their wives, carried injured children. It was humanity at its best: people helping people. People just being human.”
After a day like this, it feels good to know that was still possible. And it feels good to reciprocate, to show some compassion. Which is why Shambo simply couldn’t say no to her last patient’s simple request.
Victoria McGrath, a 20-year-old college student who was watching the marathon alone, had caught some shrapnel in the back of her leg. It had severed major arteries, tendons and muscles – as if somebody took a knife and slit the back of her left calf. She was going into shock.
“She’s surrounded by medics, who – at that point – are all men, and they’re cutting off her clothes, and she was a little modest. She looked at me and said, ‘Please don’t leave me,’” Shambo remembers, her voice cracking with emotion. “And I just couldn’t leave her. Even though there were more patients to be dealt with, I knew there was enough medical staff to take care of them, and I just felt like I could not leave that young woman. I just couldn’t. To me, she was just like a little girl. And I couldn’t leave her.”
And so, Shambo goes into the ambulance with Victoria, holds her hand and kisses her face.
“No, open your eyes. Open your eyes,” she repeats every time Victoria starts to drift off. “Talk to me. Talk to me. Where are you? You’re going to be OK. We’re on our way to the hospital. You’re going to be OK.”
And she is. Shambo keeps her going just long enough to get to the hospital, where they hook her up to a second IV, take X-rays and ask Shambo what she knows about her injuries. Twenty minutes later, they wheel Victoria into surgery, leaving Shambo at a complete loss.
It is the first time in almost two hours that she doesn’t have a life to save, that she isn’t faced with an immediate need. My God, now what do I do? she thinks.
“I’m sorry,” she says to a nurse, “but where am I?”
“You’re at Tufts Medical Center.”
“OK,” she says. “How do I get out of here?”
“Come on, I’ll walk you out,” the nurse replies, putting her arm around Shambo’s shoulders.
“I could use the fresh air.” The two walk through the front doors, and the nurse gives Shambo a hug and a kiss. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
The world outside seems eerily still. Quiet. And it isn’t just because the airways are clear or because public transportation has been halted or because 15 blocks around the bombing site have been closed. It is more than that: something surreal. The atmosphere feels almost one-dimensional – as if, after the life-and-death urgency and deafening commotion of the day, it has nothing left, it lacks a certain depth.
It is all so unfamiliar to Shambo: the quiet stillness, the city streets, the Boston Herald reporters.
“What are you doing at the hospital?” “What were you doing at the finish line?” “What kind of injuries did you see there?” They want to know.
Shambo answers accordingly and then just stands, still in a little bit of shock, asking her own questions: What just happened? Is this just a bad dream? Now what? I don’t even know where I am.
She pulls her phone out of her jeans pocket. Not that it has any answers, but she could at least put her kids at ease – if she could only get a text message through these congested cell lines.
“Brittany, I’m OK,” her French-manicured fingers tap out, trembling slightly from the tension of the day. It takes longer than usual, but the message goes through, and Shambo breathes out slowly, sharing the relief that she knows that message will bring her three teenaged kids.
She doesn’t even know what direction to start walking, so it’s with another sigh of relief that she gets through to one of the friends she’s rooming with at the Renaissance. Fortunately, Liz knows Boston better than she does, and Shambo begins to feel a little less lost as she follows Liz’s directions down the quiet
sidewalks, joining the other dazed-looking pedestrians – runners who’d taken public transportation into the city and had no way to get home, no cell phones to call home, no money to buy a meal.
It is like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie: the stragglers who get left behind wandering aimlessly about, hoping for something to change, hoping to find a way out, to find someone they know.
“Mrs. Shambo! Mrs. Shambo! Are you OK?”
It is J.R. The first familiar face she has seen since the trauma has unfolded. She runs up to him and holds him tightly, sobbing. She feels all of the tension and stress and heartache and devastation of the day just surge. She has seen so much. Too much. Even for her.
“There were no words at that point,” says Shambo. “Just, ‘Did this really, really just happen?’”
Standing on the street corner in Boston, sobbing into the arms of her daughter’s prom date, she still can’t quite wrap her head around it. But she pulls herself together, wipes the tears from her eyes and kisses J.R. goodbye.
The dry eyes don’t last long. Shambo has already ordered a drink at the bar at P.F. Chang’s when Liz walks in. The restaurant was packed full of runners and spectators and volunteers who have nowhere to go, who can’t get around the city, who have stories to share with one another. But – even with all those people
between them – they can read the emotion on each other’s faces from across the restaurant. They have been through the same tragedy – Liz, an M.D. who’d spent the afternoon in the medical tents, has witnessed all the same gore, all of the same pain.
“We immediately embraced and started crying,” says Shambo, recalling the barrage of questions that they had for each other.
“Almost like, ‘Did that really just happen? Are you kidding me? Did we just do that? Did we just go through that? Where’s Tracy? Where’s Cyndy? Where’s Anna? Have you been in touch with your family?’”
Cyndy and Anna, it turns out, are stuck at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, on lockdown until 7 p.m. “They wouldn’t let anybody in, and they wouldn’t let anybody out,” says Shambo.
She and Liz, however, are determined to get back to their hotel room – and, since there are no taxis or other kind of transportation – they flag down an emergency vehicle.
“I’m sorry, but you’ve got to take us to our hotel,” Shambo says to the driver.
“I’m sorry,” he replies, “but I’m probably really not supposed to do that.”
“Well, you know what?” retorts Shambo. “People are not supposed to throw bombs at the marathon, either, so, please, just take us to our hotel!”
Back at the hotel, Tracy, who had to walk back to the Renaissance, and Liz go downstairs to meet with some other volunteers, while Shambo orders a cheeseburger and fries and stays in the room.
“I wasn’t even up for it. I wanted to stay in the safety of my room,” she remembers. “We didn’t even turn on the television, because at that point, it was too fresh. We couldn’t watch what we had just witnessed up close and firsthand. It was too painful. We had seen too much.”
The flashbacks that night are enough: the shudder of the explosion, the dangling limbs, the blood-soaked faces. The suffering.
“And then, I remember waking up the next morning, again, still kind of like in shock. Still kind of like trying to catch my breath. Thinking, Did that really, really just happen?” says Shambo. “And that’s when we turned on the television.”
And just in case there is any doubt in her mind, there she is on the small screen in her room: Shambo, running toward the bomb with a look of devastation on her face, has become one of the tragedy’s iconic images, broadcast over and over across the world.
Yes. That really did happen.
Department of the Army’s Commander’s Award for Public Service for her actions
during the Boston Marathon bombing. (Photo by AP Photo/Jeremy Pavia)
Boston may still have been partially paralyzed, but the cell towers had clearly freed back up, because Alicia Shambo’s phone was ringing nonstop.
Everyone Shambo knew had seen the AP images of her heading into the explosions or helping one of the victims – and everyone who knew her knew that she hadn’t hesitated.
“Everybody was saying the same thing: ‘We’re so proud of you. We’re so glad to know you. We would think nothing less,’” she says. “‘So glad it was you who was there. You’re the perfect person for that situation. If anybody’s going to run into a burning building, it’s you.’”
Shambo does have a bit of a reputation. This isn’t, after all, the first time she’s been known to run toward explosions. In fact, it’s not the first time her last words before running in were, “I’ve got to go,” either. Last time she felt so compelled, it was in Hopkinton, en route to drop off her daughter’s friend after a play date.
“Don’t you dare get out of the car. Don’t you dare move. I’ve got to go,” she told her 10-year-old daughter and her friend as she hopped out of the car and ran toward the flames reaching out from under a garage door.
“What are you doing?” she yelled, when she saw that there was a man in there. “You got to get out of here. The garage, it’s full of gasoline. There are flames. They’re going to blow.”
“No! I’ve got to put it out!” he shouted back before Shambo yanked him out herself. “My daughter’s inside!”
Shambo ran into the garage, where things were exploding right and left – gas cans, paint cans, pesticides, propane – and tried the door. It was locked. She ran to the front door. It, too, was locked. So she grabbed a brick, put it through the window and reached inside to unlock the door.
“You’ve got to get out of the house!” she told the girl when she found her up in her bedroom, listening to music and completely unaware of any danger.
Back downstairs, she found the man had returned to his garage to try to save everything in it. By the time the fire department got there – he was covered in burns, his rubber boots melted to his legs.
“I did what I could for that man,” Shambo shakes her head.
Indeed, Shambo always does what she can. Like the time she gave the Heimlich to a choking baby at a restaurant. Or the time she helped a woman through labor in an elevator. Or when she helped children escape through the windows of their overturned school bus. Or the many times that she has helped injured people on Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch, N.H., where she is a volunteer ambassador.
As the first one on the scene when a teenage boy lost control of his skis and went flying into the woods, for example, Shambo checked his breathing, laid him down and saw that he’d hit the tree just above the boot. His leg looked like an S, where it had just wrapped itself around the tree.
“What do you do for sports?” she asked him, hoping he didn’t say football.
He said, “I’m a golfer.”
“Well, you’ll still be able to golf. You’ll be good. We’ll get this leg working,” she said, knowing he’d broken both the fibula and his tibia and that he’d need extensive surgery. She stayed with him until the ambulance took him.
“That was my job, though. Responding to accidents like that is just what I do,” she says. “To me, it doesn’t sound like stepping in, because it’s what I was trained to do.”
But it takes less emergency training and more compassion to ride with a scared young woman like Victoria to the hospital in the middle of a national tragedy or to accompany a lost child like four- year-old Johnny off of a foggy mountain trail.
The next time Shambo ran into Johnny, his mother said, “Look, Johnny! That’s your guardian angel.”
It’s exactly what Victoria called Shambo when she spent the day with her in the hospital a week or so after the marathon bombing: her guardian angel.
“I was so ready to give up, but you were there, and I remember you telling me to hold on,” Victoria told her. “You gave me the will to live.”
Shambo has continued to be there for Victoria. And together, they – along with her other three first responders – have been on the Today Show and on the TD Garden Stage at the Boston Strong benefit concert, where Victoria announced that she would make a full recovery and extended her thanks to Shambo and all the heroes who saved lives that day.
Shambo knows she saved lives that day – she doesn’t know how many. And she’s proud of her response, her ability to respond. Still, she’s reluctant to think of herself as a hero – chalking her actions up to 25 percent Navy training and 75 percent instinct, doing what she had to do. Besides, she says:
“I don’t think any of us really feel that we were the heroes. The heroes were the victims of the bombing – the people that have to get up every day and figure out how to get their coffee. It was just one day for me. For the victims, it’s the rest of their lives.”
Tradition and tragedy: Nothing brings Americans together more. In the face of one, we come together to celebrate the courage, strength and fortitude of the American spirit; in the face of the other, we come together to execute it.
When more than a half a million people came to the streets in the great American tradition of the Boston Marathon that crisp, sunny morning, it was in celebration. Some were celebrating their personal triumphs, some the success of others. Some came just for the sake of celebrating. But, ultimately, the marathon is a celebration of the American spirit. That’s what filled the air.
Then the smoke.
And, as tragedy unfolded, the people stepped up, coming together to show true humanity, true compassion, true bravery: showing what that American spirit is all about. Carrying each other to safety, giving clothes to one another, leading children to parents, flocking to the hospital to give blood, opening up apartments and beds, buying meals for one another. Simply holding and comforting one another. Vowing to come back from this Boston Stronger. That’s just good old American spirit: Our flag is still there.
And, as the smoke lifts from the bombsite and reveals the details of that day, it exposes some true bravery among us. Those heroes, who, while everyone else went one way, they went the other; when everyone else took shelter, they took aim. Those who risked their lives to save others.
Yes, tragedy brings us together. But it also has a way of showing us who stands apart.
And Alicia Shambo, for one, stands apart.