John Guilfoil Public Relations

2013 Boston Marathon

Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis walks the grounds near the Finish Line (City of Boston Mayor's Office photo)

I was standing in front of The Tannery on Boylston Street (in Orange) when the bombs went off at the 2013 Boston Marathon (PBS/NOVA)

I hadn’t written these thoughts down until now. It’s not something I ever wanted to experience. A terrorist attack. But there I was, standing in front of The Tannery with my fiancee on April 15.

A bomb went off to my right. Before I knew what had happened, a bomb went off to my left. We weren’t hurt, thankfully.

Of the three of us in the Mayor’s Press Office, one of us had just finished the marathon. The other one was out of the city on what was supposed to a day off. My first call was to my dad. It was a quick call. He’s a firefighter, and he knew what the tone in my voice meant. I told him where I was and that I was OK.

Then I called 617-635-4500, the mayor’s 24-hour hotline, to report in what I had seen, generating a report to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and the Boston Police Unified Communications Center.

Then my personal cell stopped working. I called my mom, on my work phone, which was still working. She was at work, and like most of the world, she didn’t know what had happened yet. All I remember from that call was her incorrectly hearing me shout the numbers for Caitlin’s parents because Caitlin’s cell phone was not working.

Ten minutes later, I was at City Hall, Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s Deputy Press Secretary, and Caitlin and I were fielding the first local and national media calls that were coming in non-stop.

Mayor Menino, in the hospital one day removed from surgery for a broken foot, checked himself out of the hospital to attend press conferences that week. (City of Boston photo)

I didn’t see my home in Hyde Park much that week. The hours went by, and I was glad to be working, but it was also a little numb. I knew it was going to bother me. As a former news reporter, I’d seen people who had been shot, stabbed, and killed. I’ve been around the flashing lights and tense police officers and grown a certain level of comfort with it, if there is such a thing. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw at the Marathon and the weeks that came after that.

I had it easy. I still had all four limbs. I have nothing to complain about from that day.  Our Press Assistant crossed the finish line about 10 minutes before the explosions and was getting her finisher’s medal when it happened. And the poor Mayor. He was in the hospital, one day removed from surgery for a broken bone in his foot. He would, several times, ignore doctors’ orders that week and check out to lead the City through this.

The days that followed

The next day, we announced the formation of One Fund Boston.

Thursday, President Barack Obama came to Boston for a prayer vigil, as the investigation progressed. At that vigil, something really poignant happened. Say what you will about Mayor Menino, but I know how much pain he was in that day. He was in a wheelchair. He had just had surgery. He rarely, if ever, takes pain medication. There was a microphone set up for him, at wheelchair height. But he stood up when it was his time to speak. Wincing in pain, with his son helping him, it was a moment I’ll never forget.

Then investigators released the first good photos of the suspects. They had no choice. Reddit and other websites, blogs, social media channels, and one newspaper front page had started casting wholly innocent people in a terrorist’s light.

Overnight, I returned to City Hall as reports of a incident in Cambridge surfaced. By daybreak, we put out a series of communications asking residents of Boston to “Shelter in Place.” The City was quiet, but there was a flurry of activity just to the west.

At 7:50 p.m., I made my most visible contribution of the week, when I sent out this tweet from the Mayor’s account:


In five days, we held no fewer than seven press conferences, and Mayor Menino weathered physical and emotional weights to give dozens of interviews to local, national, and international media.

Week two

The FBI turned Boylston Street back over the City one week after the bombings. (City of Boston photo)

With a new week came new challenges. The investigation was far from over, despite the capture of a suspect. At the same time, we had to work toward re-opening Boylston Street — letting residents return home and business owners clean up to start working again.

In a moving ceremony on Monday, April 22, the FBI turned Boylston Street back over to the City. The next day, the City announced a play to return the street to its residents and business owners privately, before re-opening it to traffic and the public.

By Tuesday, April 23, One Fund Boston had received $20 million in donations, and we formally introduced Ken Feinberg as administrator.

Boylston Street re-opened to the public at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24. The City announced the “Boylston Strong” effort, encouraging people to visit Back Bay businesses and offering free parking in the neighborhood.

Aggressive use of social media made the City’s messages much more effective during those two weeks in our history. No one had ever been told to “shelter in place” before, but hopefully they felt more comfortable with explanations coming out over email, text message, automated phone calls, Twitter, Facebook, and the traditional news media.

This was far from a traditional piece of work experience for me, but I hope our efforts made a difference for people.

I will be running the 2014 Boston Marathon with Caitlin and several of our friends. It will be the first marathon for each of us, except for one of our friends, who was stopped on Massachusetts Avenue, a mile away from finishing, with thousands of other runners last year.