Photographs by Brooks Canaday and Mary Knox Merrill

Northeastern student caught on video used those phrases to describe how he felt on the day after terrorists exploded two bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line. But he could have been speaking for a university community that was unbowed by the sudden, deadly attack in its figurative backyard.

There was much to be daunted by. In addition to three people killed, 264 were injured, including two Northeastern parents and three students. Dozens of other members of the community—students, faculty, and staff—were witnesses to the tragedy, as spectators and race volunteers. Thousands watched as a Boston tradition and worldwide sporting event—one that has made generations of Northeastern students proud—was transformed into a war zone. And the entire campus endured the daylong “shelter in place” order on April 19 that immobilized the region while law enforcement officers searched for the second bombing suspect.

President Joseph Aoun comforts members of the Northeastern community at a campus vigil.

However, from the moment of the first explosion, at 2:49 p.m. on April 15, the Northeastern community—along with fellow Boston citizens—responded to these wrenching challenges with equal measures of grace, compassion, and unity of purpose.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, students from the physical therapy and nursing programs—who had volunteered for medical-tent duty to treat nothing more disturbing than routine runner’s injuries—calmly remained in harm’s way to help hundreds of trauma victims get desperately needed care.

Joan Lynch
Students comfort each other at the campuswide vigil held the day after the bombing, where several hundred students, faculty, and staff gathered in the Curry Student Center Ballroom to share reflections, prayers, and hugs.

Fast-forward to the afternoon of April 22, when the campus observed a moment of silence to mark the one-week anniversary of the attack—a solemn bookend to the chaotic, horrific scene in Copley Square on Marathon Day. 

The few seconds of profound quiet moved one blogger to the news@Northeastern website to post, “Thank you for making a difficult week a bit less so by helping to ensure we all feel connected to someone or something.”

Those points of connection varied: the public campus-wide vigil held the day after the bombing, when several hundred students, faculty, and staff gathered in the Curry Student Center Ballroom to share reflections, prayers, and hugs; the private hospital visits made by President Joseph Aoun and Senior Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Philomena Mantella to the injured students and parents; and the coordinated, tireless efforts of dining and residential life staff during the tense hours of that April 19 citywide lockdown.

Class of 2013 graduates display their Boston Strong wristbands, which were distributed to all graduates at Northeastern’s 111th Commencement, making the day a celebration not just of accomplishment, but also of unity with the wider community.

For many at the university, connection was just a simple matter of communication: the emails sent during the week by the president to comfort, encourage, and inspire; the continual university updates that were a lifeline for students, staff, and faculty; the supportive blog posts from alumni and parents; and the ubiquitous Boston Strong wristbands that added a dimension to Northeastern’s 111th Commencement, making it a celebration not just of accomplishment, but of unity with the wider community.

And while the news cycle has moved on, the support for those in the community who still need it remains. Dave Nolan, an associate clinical professor of physical therapy who for several years has overseen the physical therapy students working the Boston Marathon medical tent, notes that university leaders continue to reach out to him to ask about his students. “The Northeastern community has helped make them feel that they’re not alone.”

 

SIDEBAR: AS IT HAPPENED

A team of Northeastern faculty members is creating a digital archive of photos, videos, oral histories, emails, blog posts, texts, and tweets that capture the sights and sounds of the Marathon bombing and its aftermath with an unfiltered immediacy. 

Log onto the archive site Our Marathon to find more than 160 pages of content that run the emotional gamut, from a gently concerned email sent by a college professor to her students, to a pixilated cellphone video that starkly conveys the confusion set off by the first explosion, transitioning instantly to anguished shock and terror after the second explosion.

Based in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks—the university’s research-based Center for Digital Humanities and Computational Social Science—the archive serves multiple purposes, says project director Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English.

As a potential trove of primary sources, the archive will be of obvious value to historians as well as to the news media for documentary purposes. It is also drawing interest from faculty and students focused on the role such archives play in helping communities heal from traumatic events.

Healing, and a community-wide desire to “reclaim” Marathon Monday, is important to those who have contributed material to the archive, says Cordell. 

The team, which also includes five graduate students, plans to solicit oral histories from those most affected by the attack—the injured and the first responders who treated them—but Cordell says they are taking their cues on timing and outreach from a similar 9/11 oral history project.