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April 18, 2013

Boston bombings: EMT stories from the scene

The Boston Marathon bombings bring back memories of the 2001 9/11 attacks. As it was then, the grief and sadness surrounding what happened on April 15 is partially offset by the actions of first responders who responded immediately after the blasts and performed selfless and heroic acts of care and compassion to the injured and affected.

Perhaps what made the response even more amazing was the network of trained medical personnel who were on hand for the marathon itself and were on the scene within seconds of the explosions.

Some of the untold stories hold just as much education value as those that make the mainstream press.

I spent the past few hours communicating with EMS providers who happened to be in the area when the event unfolded. Although they may have been mere spectators at the Marathon as trained EMTs they could not help but become involved.

EMT Adrian Will-Orrego, a junior at Northeastern University, was on his way from work when he noticed exhausted and injured runners moving past him. "They were disoriented and dehydrated from the race, and really couldn't talk much," Adrian recalled. "I couldn't do very much for them, other than stay with them until friends arrived to help them home."

Adrian offered to help at the scene, but was turned away by law enforcement who had secured the perimeter. It was just as well; reports of unexploded bombs were rampant and it was clear to Adrian that the scene was not secure. 

"BPD and National Guard personnel had barricaded parts of Newbury and Boylston Streets along Massachusetts Avenue. Friends were texting me that there were reports that another bomb had gone off at the JFK Library and that I should avoid major landmarks," he said. 

Adam Lane is another EMT who worked at American Medical Response in Bozeman, Montana. A physician's assistant student studying at the Massachusetts's College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Adam was with a few friends near the finish line and was cheering on other friends who were in the race. 

"We had just left the area a minute before the explosion," he recalled. "We could feel the concussive energy of the primary blast wave. At first we didn't know what it was."

Told to stay inside the store by security, Adam was able to see what was happening in the moments after the bombs detonated. 
"We saw a lot of people run by. It seemed that it was almost instantaneous that medical responders were all over the place, tending to the wounded" he said. Adam went outside with his friends and offered assistance, but like Adrian, he was told to stay clear of the scene.

The conflict between personal priorities and the call to duty can be significant. As helpers, that what we want to do – help. Sometimes though, it becomes vitally important to realize that perhaps the best way to help is to let others do their job, and not become part of the problem.

"In the end, I made the right decision to stay with my friends and go help other runners who were not injured but were still shocked and exhausted by what happened," Adam said. He had realized that there wasn't much he could do, and that was good enough.

Even for trained EMS providers, events like these will shape their lives. Adam admitted there was a lot debriefing moments spent with friends in the past few days. 

"You realize after something like this, there is a lot that is just beyond your control," he said. "Had we been delayed a few minutes, things could had been very different."

"It's just crazy to think about it."

About the Author

Art Hsieh, MA, NRP teaches in Northern California at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. An EMS provider since 1982, Art has served as a line medic, supervisor and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a textbook writer, author of "EMT Exam for Dummies," has presented at conferences nationwide and continues to provide direct patient care regularly. Art is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Contact Art at and connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.