At approximately 2:50 p.m. yesterday a pair of blasts tore through the crowds gathered near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As least three people were killed and hundreds more were injured.
Pictures of blood-soaked sidewalks and victims missing limbs lit up TVs and computer screens. Reports swirled that more explosives had been discovered; hotels in the vicinity were evacuated; people were told to keep away from trash cans and not to use their cell phones. Fear and confusion reigned.
In times of crisis like this one, the image of first responders rushing into danger to assist people is a familiar one. In a jarring video of yesterday's events, race officials and what appear to be soldiers clad in military fatigues are seen tearing away the barriers separating them from the site of the carnage. A now iconic photograph shows Boston police reacting to the chaos, guns drawn. And bystanders attested that "you had doctors racing down there, putting people in wheelchairs, within two or three minutes of the explosion."
These men and women are rightly lauded as American heroes, whose fearless response and quick instincts are responsible for helping to keep the death toll in Copley Square as low as it seems to have been. Less familiar is the image of another set of professionals who spring into action during moments of harrowing crisis. As columnist Rod Dreher noted in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, "There are three kinds of people who run toward disaster, not away: cops, firemen and reporters."
Such was the case yesterday.
Boston.com blogger Garrett Quinn was not present at the time of the explosions, but within minutes he was on a determined trek to get to the scene. A train ride gave way to a cab ride, which gave way to maneuverings on foot. Although he did not make it to the finish line of the marathon—by the time he arrived, police were forcing back everyone, press included—he kept close by, using social media channels to publish updates and photos of the chaos. In the process, he brought some measure of illumination to a situation where information was scarce but desperately in demand.
Even more impressive were the contributions of a handful of writers on hand not to cover the day's action but to participate in it. By late afternoon, major news publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post were posting stories bylined by reporters who, just hours earlier, had themselves been runners in the race.
One of those was technology reporter Jessica Meyers. She was celebrating the completion of her fifth marathon when she heard the explosions from a couple of blocks away. Although she felt guilty leaving her family, who had traveled to Boston to see her run, she was not about to walk away if she could be of help covering the story. "You just sort of know, when something like this happens, it's your job" to be there, Meyers said. She went on to file a report about the attack for the newspaper Politico.
For journalists, the ability to come alive in the face of tragedy and strain is almost an occupational imperative. I spoke to Meyers around 9:45 p.m., some seven hours after she finished her race. She was up and at a press briefing—still doing her job despite having performed one of the most grueling athletic feats known to man earlier the same day. "I think I'm on a little bit of an adrenaline kick right now," she explained.
During crises, rumors always abound—all the more so in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Yet the courageous work reporters do to put the record right is what allows good information to overtake bad.
Understanding what was happening on the ground in Boston meant any number of responses could be more efficiently coordinated. Evidence that this was an attack and not an accident let law enforcement in other cities know to tighten their own security. News about the whereabouts of additional suspicious objects helped large numbers of people avoid danger.
A last example: At some point yesterday, the realization set in that many out-of-towners had unexpectedly found themselves in a strange city without hotel accommodations. Soon, throngs of Boston residents were volunteering to open their homes to those affected.
In short, the availability of information meant fear and confusion could be replaced by action and resolve.
Saving lives requires a subset of the population to be willing to run toward, not away from, disasters. Many of those people are our first responders, who have earned every ounce of gratitude they receive. But journalists also do a great service when they bring us the knowledge that calms our panic and makes smart decisions possible. They shine a light on things we need illuminated, though they don't always see it that way.
"I don't think I did anything noble or courageous," Meyers, who also happened to cover the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Tex., said. "I'm just here trying to be helpful."