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Boston Fire Chief Remembers the Horror and Tries to Move On

Dennis Keeley is grateful for the support over the year since the Boston bombings, but he's eager to move on--as he runs his first marathon.

The Boston Marathon was into its sixth hour when Dennis Keeley, a district fire chief, looked at his watch. It was almost 3 p.m. — time to head back to the office, take care of paperwork, make sure the nightside staff knew their assignments.

He had never run the race himself, but he knew the routine: He had put in 27 years with the department, six as the man in charge of District 4, which covers 600,000 people across the Back Bay and South End, including the joyous last mile of the route.

His driver made it about a block, back toward the firehouse, when Keeley heard a buddy scream over the radio: We have an explosion at the finish line. Then, a moment later: It’s mass casualty. Send help.

What the chief saw

The driver hopped an island, headed for Ring Road, just off the Boylston Street finish. Keeley looked down the street and saw a wall of people, thousands upon thousands, panicked and running right at him.

He moved a block away to set up a command post, and it was worse: He was overrun by people. Bleeding and screaming for help. Clinging to firefighters as a drowning, flailing swimmer might grab for a lifeguard.

Keeley was the first district commander on the scene.

He fished his gear out of the back of his car. He saw an older couple, maybe mid- to late 70s, staring across the street at the wreckage of one of the bombs.

He told them: “Hey guys, you got to get out of here.” He turned around, put his gear on. They were still standing there. He said: “Guys, you’ve got to get out of here.” The man looked back at him, dazed.

“I went right up to his face, and I grabbed him by the arms, and I said, ‘RUN for your LIFE.’ I’ve never used that phrase in my entire life. And I, like, shocked him. He grabbed his wife and they ran up the street.”

“So I said, ‘Huh, that worked,’” he said. “It’s the only way I could get people to move. They were dazed and shocked, and I had to get their attention. ‘Get the f--- outta here’ wasn’t working.”

A simple reminder

Keeley, 57, was reflecting in his firehouse office on the day of the anniversary, last Tuesday.

At a table nearby, four firefighters were eating lunch — open-faced smoked-ham subs — and glancing up at a television feed of the memorial service, where Vice President Joe Biden was speaking.

On the walls were the typical trappings of an American firehouse. Flags, black-and-white photos of crews long forgotten. Little shields with the names Ladder 7, Engine 17. By the stove there was a spatula with a “17” carved into it.

There was only one noticeable tribute to the marathon. A woman sent the firehouse her marathon medal from last year, with its blue and yellow ribbon, and attached a letter to it. She had not finished the race. She signed the letter only by her bib number, 19509.

“I still have not earned the medal that I was given,” the letter said, “but you have and I would like you to have mine. You were the first heroes we saw as we stood on the corner of Boylston.”

Engine 7, Ladder 17, had taken every brownie package, every thank you note, every hug, channeled it into that one letter, and framed it for the firehouse wall.

Reflecting a year later

The anniversary has been tough.

“We all knew that we couldn’t move on, we couldn’t close the book on the marathon and put it on the shelf, we couldn’t do that until we got through this [bombing] anniversary and then the run on Monday,” Keeley said. “We all know that. But we’re all looking forward to Tuesday.”

Keeley remembered the chaos of that day: The initial suspicions that homegrown extremists might have been behind it. It was Tax Day in the United States, Patriots Day in Boston.

The two false alarms that seemed, in the fog of the moment, perfectly reasonable— a report of a bomb under the grandstand and a report of a fire or explosion at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

He remembered barking at his younger officers, surging with adrenaline, to take it slow bringing the trucks around the corners, not to hit anyone fleeing the scene.

He remembered looking down, at one point, to realize that he was standing on the finish line, his boots caked in blood.

There was so much chatter on the fire radios that it was sometimes hard to get clear information.

He assumed, when he heard about the second bomb, that it was in the same place as the first. Bomb school last fall had taught him that: The bad guys tend to set off one bomb to kill people, then a second to kill first responders.

As a result, he said, other firefighters down the street, at the site of the second bomb, didn’t have the help that Keeley had. Few people would characterize it this way, but Keeley counts it a mistake, and it haunts him.

“You always remember the bad ones,” he said. “That stuff doesn’t go away. You remember every little kid you ever worked on. You remember most of the jumpers. You just remember. We’re humans too. it doesn’t go away.”

Moving on

It has been a long year for the Boston Fire Department. They got through the shock, the three-mile stares of firefighters who saw it, the counseling matters, now the anniversary rush of tributes and attention.

Last month, two firefighters under Keeley’s command — Lt. Edward Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy — were killed in a nine-alarm blaze. Their firehouse is blocks from the finish line, and the two deaths compounded the media attention there.

Keeley paused here to consider what he was about to say.

Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this April 15, 2013DAN LAMPARIELLO / Reuters file

“Everybody cares about us and loves us, and I understand that, and they want to reach out and touch us,” he said. “But sometimes you just — you get tired. And you want it to stop. You want to move on.”

On Monday, Dennis Keeley, at 57, will run the Boston Marathon. He hadn’t run at all since high school, in 1975, he said, and he didn’t particularly like it then.

But he grew close to two survivors this past year, and decided six months ago to give it a shot, write their names on his shirt. The Boston Athletic Association gave him a bib number.

Training has been tough this brutal winter, but he said it was something he needs to do for himself.

“When I stand on that finish line, there won’t be blood over all my shoes like there was last time,” Keeley said. "I want it to be nice and clean and yellow and blue.”