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A decade after the Boston Marathon bombing, first responders share their experience

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

A decade after two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, some medical volunteers stationed at the finish line are speaking publicly about the experience for the first time. Martha Bebinger from member station WBUR brings us the story of what they saw that day and the love that emerged from this act of domestic terrorism. This story may be disturbing for some listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The percentage of finishes here...

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: April 15, 2013 was a near-perfect race day. Brian Fitzgerald, a volunteer athletic trainer, was stationed just outside a vast, white medical tent at the finish line. He remembers feeling relief. It wasn't hot like the previous year, when runners suffering from heat stroke packed the tent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).

BEBINGER: Then at 2:49 p.m...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION BOOMING)

BEBINGER: The first bomb exploded about 75 yards from Fitzgerald. He remembers heading into the stream of runners - toward the smoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION BOOMING)

BEBINGER: A second pressure cooker packed with nails and ball bearings exploded further down the course as Fitzgerald reached the first blast site.

BRIAN FITZGERALD: Once you stepped into that, it was a different world. It just - shock. It was like hell. As soon as you walked in, all you could do was smell blood and burning flesh. Yeah, it was horrific.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: 761 Boylston Street. We need backup badly.

BEBINGER: Police officers made call after call for ambulances. One pleaded for aid from the marathon's volunteer doctors and nurses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Get help up from the medical tent. Get as many people up here as you can from the medical tent.

BEBINGER: Inside that tent, nurse Lynn Landry heard the call and headed for the street.

LYNN LANDRY: And then I saw what everyone else saw on TV - victims coming toward us. I stopped dead and thought, I didn't sign up for this. I don't know if I can do this.

BEBINGER: Someone pulled Landry back into the tent. A woman with shrapnel wounds needed IV fluids while she waited for an ambulance.

LANDRY: You know, I was shaking like a leaf. I got it in, and I thought, OK, this is what I'm going to do - go from one patient to the next to the next and just put in IVs.

BEBINGER: Twenty-two minutes after the first bomb, emergency responders had sent 97 people to hospitals. Landry and colleagues kept tending to victims and runners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Got a possible device at 671 Boylston - possible device.

BEBINGER: Police detonated at least one suspicious package not far from the tent.

CHRIS TROYANOS: Now you could - I could start to feel panic.

BEBINGER: Chris Troyanos is the marathon's medical coordinator.

TROYANOS: Because they're coming to me. Where do we go? Where's safe? I had no idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We're going to get the victims out. We're then going to conduct a sweep with...

BEBINGER: Three people died at the scene. A long recovery began for hundreds of others. Thousands of marathon volunteers attended free counseling sessions. Back at work at a local hospital, Landry realized she needed help.

LANDRY: Sometimes I would pull back from patients, and I thought, how do I know they're not a terrorist? And I thought, oh, this is so wrong.

BEBINGER: A year later, Troyanos had returned to working the marathon. The theme was Boston Strong. Afterwards, he was ready to quit.

TROYANOS: I just didn't think I wanted to do this anymore - not because of the bombing, because it was just - it was overwhelming.

BEBINGER: But out of the fear, anger and despair, something powerful was taking shape - what Troyanos now calls his race medicine family.

TROYANOS: Every one of these people, medical or not - I mean, I trust them with my life. I mean, I know that they're going to do what we need, and I never question it.

BEBINGER: The family is 12 to 15 members who traveled with Troyanos voluntarily to a dozen or so races every year. They packed the supply trucks, set up cots, run hoses and IV lines. Race days start with wake-up calls between 3 and 5 a.m. and...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER IT TAKES")

IMAGINE DRAGONS: (Singing) Break me down, and build me up.

BEBINGER: ...The race day playlist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER IT TAKES")

IMAGINE DRAGONS: (Singing) Whatever it takes. 'Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins, I do whatever it takes.

SARA MENENDEZ: I start dancing on the sidewalk...

BEBINGER: Yes.

MENENDEZ: ...Before I get in the car at 5 in the morning.

BEBINGER: Yeah.

Sara Menendez is an athletic trainer. She doesn't want to talk about 2013, her first year volunteering at the marathon.

MENENDEZ: That's not a defining moment. We have come together afterwards, and that's what we focus on.

BEBINGER: With love and humor. At official race family events, for example, everyone wears what's become lucky red underwear. Since this interview is an official event, Landry canvasses the room.

LANDRY: So we all have on our reds. Do you have on your red?

MENENDEZ: I sure do.

LANDRY: Do you have on your red, Chris? OK.

BEBINGER: The group shares nods, smiles and a look that Emma Nelson, an orthopedic physical therapist, sums up.

EMMA NELSON: We have to be there. We have to be there for each other. So it's difficult to put into words exactly what it means, but it means everything at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER IT TAKES")

IMAGINE DRAGONS: (Singing) Whatever it takes.

BEBINGER: Because together this family has learned they can face anything, and they'll be ready on Monday at the marathon finish line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER IT TAKES")

IMAGINE DRAGONS: (Singing) 'Cause I love how it feels when I break the chains.

BEBINGER: For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAGINE DRAGONS SONG, "WHATEVER IT TAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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