If you saw news video from the Boston Marathon bombing, you likely witnessed how Massachusetts Army National Guard Soldiers reacted to the attack by running directly toward the scene of the first explosion to help rescue victims.
When those two bombs detonated April 15, 1st Lt. Steve Fiola, 1st Sgt. Bernard Madore and Staff Sgt. Mark Welch, three Massachusetts natives assigned to the 1060th Transportation Company of Framingham, followed their instincts and training without hesitation after the second blast.
“So then it’s game on,” said Madore, who had done two combat tours in Iraq. “You know that these are bombs. So I scanned the area. I was looking for a shooter. I didn’t know what to look for — a trigger man, something.”
One video clearly shows Fiola and Madore rushing across Boylston Street to move the tangle of scaffolding and fencing that separated first responders from the injured on a blood-soaked sidewalk.
“It was really hard,” Madore said. “It was intertwined. It was made to keep people out.”
They acted quickly, with resolve, and without the slightest regard for their own safety in the face of unknown perils.
“People keep asking, ‘What were you guys thinking?’ We weren’t thinking about anything,” Fiola said. “It’s like the switch turns on, and you just go, and you just do what you’re supposed to do to accomplish the mission.”
By 2:50 p.m. when the bombs went off, Fiola, Madore and Welch had already spent a long day helping others. They had set off on the marathon course at 5:22 a.m. as part of a group of Massachusetts Army National Guard Soldiers doing the “Tough Ruck,” marching the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, carrying approximately 35 pounds each to raise funds for families of fallen Massachusetts service members. The end of that effort had put them into position when the unthinkable demanded even more of them.
In an instant, adrenaline replaced fatigue in the Soldiers as they heard the sound of one blast and then another 12 seconds later. The painful blisters that he had developed at mile 14 and that left him limping for another 12 miles didn’t matter to Welch anymore.
“I jumped over the wall, and the pain instantly went away,” said Welch, who, like Madore, had deployed twice to Iraq. “It was like a bolt of lightning. It was just boom, we’re gone. We headed right over towards the first explosion.”
After the barricades were removed, the Soldiers moved to the sidewalk to assist the wounded in any way they could.
“It was just a mess of just stuff that used to resemble people,” Fiola said. “So we just started pulling debris off. There was burning debris everywhere.”
Fiola helped a man whose clothing was still smoldering after the blast. Madore did triage and then watched over a young boy named Noah with a compound fracture to his leg. Welch helped Madore find cloths and waters to treat the wounded, and he cared for a woman with a bad head wound as they moved a man who had lost both legs.
“That’s a sight I’ll never, ever forget,” Welch said.
At one point, Madore was kneeling in blood on that sidewalk, and the situation took him back to his experiences in Iraq.
“I do remember looking down and going, ‘Oh, God, we can’t deal with this,’” Madore said. “And then right back to action — fortunately. So I stood fast, and I’m proud of that, because it got kind of real for a second.”
Madore was astounded by how quickly medical personnel moved the injured out of the area.
“Literally, when we turned back around, the emergency workers already had all these people picked up and gone,” Madore said. “It was so fast. Those people were amazing. I couldn’t believe how fast the first responders were in there.”
While their leaders tended to the injured, the 1060th’s junior enlisted helped those in the grandstand across the street, including families from the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, and the disabled and elderly.
“They created a funnel,” Fiola said of his Soldiers. “There (were) a lot of people there that needed to be assisted. At that time, they could only get out past our Soldiers.”
When there was nothing more that they could do, the Soldiers heeded safety officials, went to the medical tent to wipe off as much blood as possible, and left the area for home. They continue to process what they saw and did that day, when three people died and more than 250 were injured.
“I’m still kind of pissed, but I’m happy we were there to help,” said Madore, who grew up in nearby Somerville. “I don’t feel that we did anything that any other Soldier wouldn’t do.”
Welch almost didn’t do the ruck march but is glad he was there.
“I don’t ever want this to happen again, but (if) for some ungodly reason it does, I hope I’m there,” said Welch, “or I’m hoping that someone like us will be there to do what we did.”
Welch, an 11-year Guard veteran, pointed out that the tragedy was a lesson to young Soldiers about the importance of training.
“Take pride and learn that stuff,” Welch said. “Know that at some point in your life, you could need it, like we needed it last week. We’ve lived it.”
Fiola agreed, saying, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
All three Soldiers plan to be at next year’s Boston Marathon with their rucks to march again. Eight states and Canada have contacted Fiola about sending Soldiers in 2014. Another six states want to do Tough Rucks at their own marathons.
“There’s a bigger meaning behind it now,” Fiola said. “It’s not just about Boston. It’s not just about the Massachusetts National Guard. It’s about Soldiers, and it’s about resiliency and being strong.”