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Boston's beloved day, dissolved in chaos and tears

Tuesday - 4/16/2013, 6:22pm  ET

A runner tapes a sign combining a Boston Red Sox logo with a yellow ribbon on a corner street post where Massachusetts Street intersects another roadway Monday, April 15, 2013, in Seattle. Running supply store West Seattle Runner hosted a group run early Monday evening to bring local athletes together to honor fellow runners affected by explosions earlier in the day at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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ADAM GELLER
Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- It dawned chilly, clear and blue, a parsimonious but perfect serving of New England springtime that -- because it came on the third Monday in April -- unquestionably called for a celebration.

The kind of morning just right for an 11:05 a.m. first pitch at Fenway Park. A day to remind your kids about the heroes of the American Revolution before heading out to stake a place on the curb and cheer on modern-day heroes of the Marathon. A day, Bostonians say, when their city realizes the best of itself.

And then, in 10 seconds of fury and smoke, the joy founded upon 117 years of sweat and aspiration was stolen away.

When a pair of bombs exploded Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing at least three people and injuring more than 140, it left a scene of shattered glass and severed limbs that terrorized this city. Spectators who moments before had been cheering family and friends were knocked to the ground. Blood stained the pavement. With reports that two more bombs had been found unexploded, Bostonians and visitors hunkered down in fear.

But to appreciate the totality of what Boston surrendered in those moments of horror requires understanding just how much the city had to lose. Other cities have, no doubt, experienced far more horrific tragedies. But few have had their sense of security ripped away at a moment of such singular exultation, on a day that captures an essential part of this city's soul.

Monday in Boston was Patriots' Day, a holiday unique to New England that brings the region's rich history alive with reenactments recalling the battles of Lexington and Concord that marked the beginning of the American Revolution. For the city's children, it means a day off from school as they begin Spring Break. For 23,000 runners from around the world, the day caps months spent preparing to test body and spirit. It is a day when a city feels like a village, when strangers offer high-fives and free food to runners they'll never see again.

When it's over, runners wander through the streets, proudly wearing medals bearing the image of a unicorn. It is a symbol chosen because it represents the endless pursuit of perfection that lives mostly in myth -- except, that is, in those all-too-brief hours when Boston finds a bit of perfection in itself.

To see all that shattered is a hard feeling to put in to words, Bostonians say. But they tried nonetheless, because it felt right to do so.

For Meredith Saillant, the day's transformation was summed up in minutes, just after she finished running the 26.2-mile race, when a gathering with friends in a hotel room overlooking the finish line morphed from a party-in-the-making into a search for an escape route.

"I went into the shower laughing, so happy about what this day was all about -- and I came out and it was all over," said Saillant, who lives in the Boston suburb of Brookline. "It's just that sense of completely feeling just vulnerable, like something's been taken from us for no reason, for absolutely no reason, and it's just completely senseless."

In an old city that prides itself on its institutions, workers at Boston's hospitals seemed stunned by the shrapnel wounds and ruptured eardrums, as much because of the timing and the place they were inflicted as for their severity.

"This is something I've never seen in my 25 years here," said Alisdair Conn, chief of emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital. "This amount of carnage in the civilian population, this is what we expect from war."

But the pain and despair was hardly limited to the emergency wards. Instead, it spread across the city, echoing off empty cobblestones.

By evening, SWAT team members with machine guns patrolled hospitals and stood outside hotels that were on lockdown. Most bars had closed early on a night when they're typically packed with post-race revelers.

"Be Safe and be (hash)BostonStrong," read one sign posted on the door of a darkened bar. "We urge everyone to please stay safe," said the sign posted at another.

At The Hill Tavern, across the street from Massachusetts General, people hunched over their beers and stared in shock at the television screens broadcasting news of the explosions. The mood was somber.

"You don't ever think something like this would happen so close to home, especially in Boston," said 23-year-old Kaitlyn Kloeblen. "You always think it's such a small, safe city."

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