It’s been five years since twin blasts near the Boston Marathon’s finish line changed thousands of lives forever.
Since then, survivors of the April 15, 2013, attack have endured surgeries, post-traumatic stress and hearing loss. They’ve had to relearn how to walk and to rebuild their lives.
They’ve also written books, launched charitable organizations, run more marathons, had babies, and developed lifelong and even romantic relationships with their heroes. They proved to be “Boston Strong.”
HuffPost recently caught up with five of these incredible people. Here are their stories.
It’s been a whirlwind five years for Rebekah Gregory.
The 31-year-old, who lost part of her left leg from the blasts, has divorced, run the Boston Marathon on a prosthetic limb, married her college sweetheart, had her second child (something doctors told her wasn’t possible), wrote a memoir, and this year started a nonprofit to help children with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I look at my life ... it’s just been absolutely crazy. It’s unrecognizable really,” she told HuffPost. “I almost feel like we were given a second chance at life that other people, unfortunately, didn’t get that day and that’s a huge responsibility.”
Her son, Noah, is also a survivor. At 5 years old, he was by her side when the bombs went off.
Although Noah was physically shielded from the blast by his mom, he was still emotionally scarred and he’s needed therapy for post-traumatic stress. His experience inspired Gregory to launch her nonprofit in February. Rebekah’s Angels works to provide therapy for children dealing with PTSD.
“I really felt a calling for it when I noticed how well Noah responded to therapy and treatment. Even though Noah wasn’t as injured as I was, emotionally he was really messed up from the bombing,” she said. “There was a time when he wouldn’t leave the house. He was afraid to interact with the world.”
“We were given a second chance at life that other people, unfortunately, didn’t get that day and that’s a huge responsibility.”
While doing research on her son’s condition, Gregory was surprised to learn that most children who experience trauma don’t get treatment. “So mentally they’re never OK,” she said. Years later this can lead to substance abuse or violent behavior or suicide, she noted.
“There’s a lot of things for the military and adults with PTSD, but no one has honed in on childhood PTSD,” she said.
Her foundation’s goal is not only to provide treatment for children nationwide but also to cover the costs. They’re seeking private and corporate donations to support this mission, she said.
Besides the nonprofit and various speaking events, Gregory is kept busy raising Noah, now 10, and daughter Ryleigh, 2. In November, she also underwent surgery because of shrapnel still in her leg.
“I have hundreds of pieces still lodged in my body and every time they come to the surface, they have to go in and do another surgery, but they don’t realize the damage until they’re in there,” she said.
Despite that ongoing struggle, Gregory considers herself fortunate.
“It’s tough some days, but I think that everybody goes through their own stuff,” she said. Everyone may not have survived a bombing attack, but as she sees it, “every single person has life blow up in their face.”
Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes
Of all the stories Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes can tell, the best is not the one about what they’ve lost but the one about what they’ve found.
The bombs took three legs from the Boston couple, who were watching the marathon as newlyweds. But this month they released their first children’s book, drawing inspiration from their own relationship with service dog Rescue.
Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship highlights the bond between a girl learning to live with two prosthetic legs and her service dog. It is loosely based on Kensky’s own life, with the characters in the book sharing her and her dog’s names.
The book, which was illustrated by Boston Marathon runner Scott Magoon, aims to educate others about people with disabilities. It has also served as a kind of therapy for the couple.
“Even when we were in a bad place, this was a project that we could work on that would brighten our moods and get us thinking critically and analytically, imagining what children would think and how they’d feel,” Downes told HuffPost.
“It’s been so exciting to see kids really getting it, really getting the emotions of the book,” Kensky said of the response so far. “Because we often don’t trust kids to be able to handle sadness, hopelessness, kind of some of the feelings that we as adults try to shield kids from.”
Instead, they said they’ve found children to be extremely understanding, albeit inquisitive and even amazed by their physical differences and prosthetics. In a video of them discussing the book, Downes recalls comparing himself to a Transformer robot to a curious young boy, which really wowed the child.
“Hopefully we’ve paved a trail here, and we’re hoping other people will come in and help fill the gaps.”
“We need more people with different disabilities in media,” Downes said. “They deserve to have a hero.”
“Hopefully we’ve paved a trail here, and we’re hoping other people will come in and help fill the gaps,” Kensky said.
In addition to authoring their first book, the couple completed the Boston Marathon in 2014 using handcycles, which are arm-powered bicycles. Two years after that, Downes completed the marathon on a prosthetic running blade.
He was the first bombing amputee to complete the marathon on foot after the attack.
As for Rescue, he was honored last November as the Dog of the Year by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for his impact on the lives of Kensky and Downes.
A portion of the proceeds from their book will go to NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services), a nonprofit that provides service dogs. The group donated Rescue to Kensky about six months after her first amputation.
“Our hope is that we raise funds and awareness for NEADS and the great work that they do,” Downes said. “We hope by doing our little part we can support a lot more teams of amazing humans.”
Tragedy has been known to bind people together, like bombing survivor Roseann Sdoia and Boston firefighter Mike Materia.
The couple, who exchanged wedding vows on Cape Cod last fall, met five years ago when he came to her rescue after the bombs went off.
“Our whole relationship has not been textbook dating,” Sdoia told HuffPost.
Materia and two others ― Boston police officer Shana Cottone and then-college student Shores Salter ― rushed to her aid following the blast, with Materia holding her hand the entire way to the hospital. She lost most of her right leg that day.
Fast forward to this week. They are six months into their marriage, with Materia preparing to participate in the Boston Marathon for the first time while raising money for the Ed Walsh Foundation, which benefits Boston-area families and organizations.
“He’s not a runner at all,” Sdoia said, “so this is really kind of a huge challenge for him.”
But she plans to be there cheering her husband on, having inched her own way back into crowds over the years.
“There’s a list of things in life that you say you always want to do,” Sdoia said. Then, some life-changing event comes along and opens your eyes.
“I’m just kind of living life more so and really kind of enjoying life,” she said of her outlook these days.
Last year Sdoia published her first book, Perfect Strangers: Friendship, Strength and Recovery after Boston’s Worst Day, which documents her struggle as well as her relationship with her three heroes: Salter, Cottone and Materia.
She does book signings, peer mentoring, public speaking and “pays it forward,” as she puts it, by visiting with and helping other amputees.
As for her physical condition today, she considers herself lucky. “I had multiple things wrong but they weren’t as bad as other people,” she said.
Mentally, she’s still coming to terms with it all.
“Although all of us amputees were injured on the same day, in the same way, we’ve all had different journeys.”
“It’s still weird to say that I was blown up. It’s still weird to say I was in a terrorist attack,” Sdoia said. “Some days I wake up and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a leg.’ It’s just so weird. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
If there’s one thing she does seem sure about, it’s not feeling sorry for herself.
“Although all of us amputees were injured on the same day, in the same way, we’ve all had different journeys,” she said. “I’m very, very fortunate.”
It was Dave Fortier’s first marathon, with his 13-year-old daughter waving him on ― until the bombs went off.
His daughter wasn’t hurt, but the blasts left Fortier with hearing loss, shrapnel damage and PTSD, as well as a newfound mission to ensure that survivors of the Boston attack or any other tragedy aren’t forgotten.
“People don’t realize that after these things happen, the injuries go on and on and on,” he told HuffPost. “There are [survivors] actually being operated on this week.”
In the wake of the marathon attack, Fortier co-founded One World Strong with fellow survivors Celeste Corcoran and Michelle L’Heureux. The focus of the nonprofit organization is to help connect trauma survivors to others like them who understand what they’re going through. Fortier said he was helped by the Semper Fi Fund, which arranged for injured Marines to talk to some of the Boston survivors.
“People don’t realize that after these things happen, the injuries go on and on and on.”
“They came to visit us in the hospitals and rehab centers, and they made it very clear that it wasn’t a one-time visit,” he said of the Marines’ efforts.
He considers One World Strong ― which is supported by donations ― to be a civilian version of that group, similarly striving to ensure that no one is left behind.
“The lights and the cameras and everything move away, people move on, and there are the folks who were injured or impacted, they’re starting to realize their new reality, and that’s where One World comes in,” Fortier said.
Since they began outreach efforts in 2015, One World Strong’s members have connected with survivors and their families globally. They’ve connected with people impacted by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; the 2016 attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida; the 2017 massacre in Las Vegas; and this February’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
Internationally, One World Strong has worked with survivor groups from last year’s bombing in Manchester, England, and the 2015 terror attacks in Paris. They’ve also connected with those hurt by terror that received far less attention in the U.S. media, like the twin truck bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia, last October that killed more than 500 people and left more than 300 others injured.
“It was in our news for maybe two minutes,” Fortier said of that attack. “When you mention Mogadishu, [Americans] might mention ‘Black Hawk Down’ or Somali pirates, but there are people in Mogadishu that were injured like people in Boston.”
“We don’t look at borders, we don’t look at color, we don’t look at religion, we don’t look at politics. It’s just people,” he said of his group. “This started out as an attempt to kind of pay it forward and it has turned into something really powerful.”
Fortier will be running again in Monday’s Boston Marathon, for the first time with his now-18-year-old daughter by his side.