Interview: The race set before us
Rebekah Gregory, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing talks to Stephen Tomkins and Charissa King
Rebekah Gregory and her five-year-old son Noah were cheering on a friend at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013 when a young man’s backpack brushed Rebekah’s arm. Moments later it exploded, three feet behind Rebekah and Noah. Three people were killed and hundreds injured. One of the perpetrators, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed that day. The other, his brother Dzhokhar, was arrested and is under sentence of death.
Rebekah had more than 65 operations over the next year to repair her legs but eventually the left leg had to be amputated and she was given a prosthetic one. She has gone on to become a motivational speaker, using her story to encourage others to overcome their obstacles. In 2016 she ran in the Boston marathon. Her story is told in Taking My Life Back (Revell, 2017, ISBN: 9780800728663).
You must have told the story of what happened at the Boston Marathon so many times.
Yes, probably a couple of thousand!
What was it that took you to Boston that day?
It was my birthday weekend, my first time ever in the city, and I went to watch a friend who qualified in the marathon. My five-year-old son was with me, so we watched a Red Socks game, took a tour of the city – it was a great weekend. We had packed up and were ready to go home right after the marathon concluded. We made it to the 17-mile marker, we were cheering, and Noah had a home-made sign that he was very excited about, having just learned how to write his name.
Can you describe the experience of the bomb going off?
Someone told us we needed to go closer to the finish line to be in the middle of the action, so we made our way there and found a great spot. I remember Noah being so bored, because there’s only so many runners a five year old can watch cross before he’s over it. So I told him to sit down on my feet. He sat down with his back resting against my shins, and that’s where he was when the bomb in the backpack went off about three feet behind us.
The biggest misconception people have is that you’re knocked unconscious when something like this happens. That wasn’t the case. I was thrown backwards on the ground and couldn’t move anything but my head. My bones were next to me on the sidewalk, other people’s body parts were all around me, there was blood and nails and ball bearings that these two brothers had packed into these pressure cooker bombs. I couldn’t see my baby, I couldn’t see my legs, and I thought that was the day we were going to die – right there on Boylston Street.
Where was Noah?
I eventually managed to see him out of my peripheral vision and realised he was nowhere near as badly injured as I was. He had been saved by my legs and I was so thankful for that. Even with all
the chaos going on around us, knowing that Noah was OK was enough for me to say: ‘All right, if this is my time to die, my little boy is going to be all right.’
They took us to different hospitals because they didn’t know we were a mother and son. I was put into an induced coma and emergency surgery was performed right away. By the time I woke up, Noah was able to visit me, so that was the biggest blessing – that I was asleep and didn’t know he was in a different hospital.
There’s a beautiful moment in your story when an FBI agent gave Noah his jacket – a thoughtful little gesture amid so much horror.
To that agent it probably was a little thing, but to Noah it was a big sign that things were going to be OK. He still loves that jacket, he thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world and it’s still way too big for him. It showed us that though so much evil tried to overtake that day, there was still so much good. It was the same with those people who rushed in trying to help, not knowing if a third or fourth bomb was to go off. It was an amazing thing how everyone came together.
It seems that having to be there for your son helped you.
It gave me so much strength to know I could never give up, because I was a mom and Noah deserved better than that. It might have been a lot different if I didn’t have him – or if he didn’t make it that day; I don’t know if I could have been so positive. But it’s hard – there’s so much
survivor’s guilt associated with that. I was so aware that a little boy died that day but my little boy survived, and some people lost both their legs. It’s hard to comprehend and there’s no rhyme or
reason to it. All I know is we’re here because there’s a bigger plan and a bigger purpose for our lives and I want to spend it in the most meaningful way possible, because I don’t want to take any of that for granted. …