Along with the feeling of vulnerability stemming from last year’s Boston Marathon, Amy Pepe carries with her an inbox full of voicemails that she has never listened to. Voicemails from friends, family, and both close and distant acquaintances who reached out to her to make sure she was safe. “I’m not ready to listen to them,” she says. “Maybe I never will. I don’t know.” Amy estimates she was four miles from the finish line last year when the bombs went off, while her family and friends were waiting to see her finish inside the restaurant Forum, where the second blast occurred. This year Amy will be running the Boston Marathon with an estimated 36,000 other runners who are looking to put last year’s tragic events behind them.
For Amy, 30, a North End resident, last year’s race was her second Boston Marathon. Had she been able to finish, it would have been her third completed marathon in 365 days, having run her first Boston Marathon in 2012 (famous for temperatures reaching as high as 89 degrees), and the Newport Marathon in October of 2012. But the tragic events on April 15th, 2013, prevented Amy from crossing the finish line.
From a runner’s perspective, Amy was upset because the Boston Marathon is a wonderful time. “There are so many stories to share and the tragedy robbed every runner of enjoying their accomplishment,” she says. “You didn’t want to talk about it.”
Amy, who was running in tandem with a friend, felt elation as she neared Boylston Street. She says the pair were joking and laughing and high fiving all of the service men and women along the route. The closer she got to the finish line she thought, “I can’t believe we’re going to do this.” Then Amy saw her mother behind a barricade by the Buckminster Hotel in Kenmore Square. Unaware of the tragedy that had struck just 1.2 miles away, her initial reaction was frustration, believing her mother was beckoning her over for a photo opportunity. Then her mother said something she will never forget, “Listen to me. There’s been an explosion.”
“When I heard ‘explosion’ I thought a transformer blew out,” Amy says. “I didn’t think bomb.” She lived in the Back Bay area at the time and remembers when a transformer explosion crippled the area in March of 2012, leaving thousands without electricity. As runners passed, she grew increasingly restless until she noticed blood on her mother’s friend’s clothing. “It’s not mine,” the friend said. “It’s bad.” That is when Amy realized the severity of the situation, and a feeling of vulnerability overcame her.
But Amy is quick to point out that her experience is different from other runners, in that she immediately knew her family was safe. Considering where her family and friends were stationed by the finish line, it is very fortunate that they were unharmed. Her mother, younger brother, and friends were inside Forum on Boylston when the second bomb detonated just outside the door.
After the first blast, the crowd outside of Forum turned to see what had happened, which is when Amy’s mother began to approach the front door to investigate. Just short of reaching outside, the second blast occurred, shattering the glass but leaving Amy’s mother unharmed. Her family and friends were forced to exit through the back of the restaurant. Then Amy’s mother, determined to make sure her daughter was safe amid the surrounding chaos, traced the route backwards until she found her daughter, imparting the words that still remain in Amy’s memory.
The aftermath shook Amy and exposed her to the bubble she was living in. Suddenly, she was thrust into a world where bombs could be anywhere. “I was thinking there could be bombs on the T, in the shrubs,” she says. “That’s what terrorists do. I had never thought like that before.”
Her apartment building off of Boylston Street, where she was living at the time, was closed to residents because it was part of the active crime scene investigation. Amy was left with no ID, no phone, just the clothes on her back. When she was briefly allowed back into the building the day following the bombings to pack a travel bag, Amy realized she would be reminded of the tragic event every time she went home.
“It was like a scene out of an apocalypse movie,” she says. “There was trash covering the abandoned streets. To get into my building I had to go through men with machine guns.”
In July, Amy was able to secure a seat during Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arraignment because a friend of hers was working on the case. “I didn’t know if I was ready to see him,” she says.” I didn’t want to react, didn’t want to break down.” She sat 20 feet from him and watched as he pled not guilty to 30 terror charges.
“He looked in rough shape, with a bandaged arm and swollen face,” she remembers, “but when he was being read the charges he looked like a child being reprimanded by a teacher in detention.” She describes his overall demeanor as “indifferent.”
Amy still wonders how someone could do such a thing, but ultimately realizes she has no control over such horrible acts. Aside from breaking down the night of the Boston Marathon bombings while watching the news and asking a series of “What ifs,” Amy avoided coverage on the tragedy and tried to put it behind her. The day after the bombings, she elected to head into work rather than stay at her friend’s apartment, isolated and watching the constant feed of coverage.
When asked if she is nervous about this year’s race, Amy says she is more concerned about an injury to her knee than she is about security. She reiterates that she has no control over someone in the crowd whose intention is to spread terror, but it is important to her to be a part of this race. “This is the biggest year ever, the biggest race, both in notoriety and support,” she says. “Something was taken from us. It’s important to be a part of it as a Bostonian and as a runner.”
Although the injury to her knee has limited her training, Amy says she is determined to cross the finish line “whether I have to walk, skip, or crawl. My problem is that I have pain in my knee, but there are people who can’t run, or are learning to walk again. It puts everything in perspective.”
The significance of the race really hit Amy after she picked up her bib for this year’s race and walked down Boylston Street, where scaffolding was already being set up. She felt mixed emotions in anticipation of the race. It seemed like no time had passed between last year’s Boston Marathon and this year’s, yet Amy is ready to put the tragedy behind her and focus on moving forward. “I’m going to do it,” she says. “Once my feet hit the pavement and the wind is in my face I’m not going to stop till I finish.”
By David Tulis
Interview with Amy Pepe (April 13)