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The Marathon Bombing Survivor Whose Mission To Get 'Stronger' Inspired A Movie

Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Jeff Bauman was just a kid from Chelmsford. He never imagined himself a hero, or a symbol for something that stretched beyond his home turf in Massachusetts, all the way around the world.

But those things happened to him because he showed up one day — something he wasn't always known for doing.

He went to the 2013 Boston Marathon to watch his on-again, off-again (because of that not showing up thing) girlfriend Erin Hurley finish the race. You know what happened next.

The bombs exploded. Three people died. More than 260 were injured, many of them horribly. Jeff lost his legs. He was one of more than a dozen men and women who became amputees that April afternoon.

The now famous photo flashed across the world. An EMT, a man in a cowboy hat and a race volunteer pushing Jeff in a wheelchair to a waiting ambulance.

Jeff Bauman is wheeled away from the bombing on April 15, 2013 by Paul Mitchell, Carlos Arredondo and Devin Wang. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Jeff Bauman is wheeled away from the bombing on April 15, 2013 by Paul Mitchell, Carlos Arredondo and Devin Wang. (Charles Krupa/AP)

You can see the bloody remains of his legs.

From his hospital bed, after he regained consciousness, he scrawled the words "I saw the bomber" on a piece of paper. That information played a key role in identifying the suspects, which eventually led to the shootout in Watertown and the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of his younger brother, Dzhokhar.

Jeff soon became the public face of Boston's quest for justice and its desire to move on. It was called "Boston Strong" and the phrase was suddenly everywhere. He made appearances at TD Garden and at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox memorably won the 2013 World Series just a few months after the bombings, with Boston Strong as their theme.

In 2014, Jeff Bauman published a memoir called "Stronger." That's when I met him for the first time.

He seemed shy, a bit overwhelmed by everything -- what had happened to him, what was happening to him. He had a strong support system, especially his friend Kevin Horst, who was his manager at Costco. Jeff called him "heavy Kevy." Erin was still in the picture. She and Jeff were a couple again.

Time passed. We all watched the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Eventually the jury handed down its sentence: death.

Erin and Jeff with their daughter, Nora, in 2015. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)
Erin and Jeff with their daughter, Nora, in 2015. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)

Robin Young and I went to interview Jeff again for Here & Now. It wasn't something he really wanted to do, but I think he trusted us.

By this time, Jeff and Erin had a baby girl. Nora and their dog, Bandit, played while we talked about the verdict and the sentence.

The picture that we saw that Sunday afternoon looked pretty good. They looked like a family. I guess that didn't tell the whole story though.

Now I've seen the new movie that's based on Jeff's memoir (the premiere was at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown Tuesday night). It's Hollywood of course, but the film strips away sentiment.

I think it's really closer to the truth. Jeff and Erin have said as much, which made it very hard to watch for them.

The physical pain of losing two legs and trying to walk again comes across completely in "Stronger," thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. This is especially true when the dressings are removed for the first time from the stumps that were suddenly the ends of his Jeff's legs. I turned away from the screen.

Jake Gyllenhaal, front, and Jeff Bauman in the WBUR studio during an interview on Here & Now. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jake Gyllenhaal, front, and Jeff Bauman in the WBUR studio during an interview on Here & Now. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But what stands out for me is a different kind of pain, more accurately a strain, that rippled out and engulfed all of the people orbiting Jeff.

"This didn't just happen to you," Tatiana Maslany, the actress who plays Erin, screams at one point in the movie.

In the film, when Erin tells Jeff she's pregnant, he responds by falling apart, saying he can't deal with it. She leaves him in the car. He crawls out of the car and tries to claw his way on the ground to their apartment. He ends up pounding on the front door and flashing back to the moments right after the bombing. It's terrifying.

They've come through so much in their lives. The film closes the latest chapter. The next will involve raising their daughter, which they are doing together even though they are no longer a couple. I've spoken to both of them in recent days and they are OK with that. Perhaps they understand their own story better now.

Jeff stopped drinking; he's getting therapy. He still shakes my hand with a firm grip, looks me straight in the eye and asks me how I've been, adding, "Call me if you need to anytime."

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, director David Gordon Green, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and actress Tatiana Maslany at Spaulding Tuesday night. (Steven Senne/AP)
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, director David Gordon Green, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and actress Tatiana Maslany at Spaulding Tuesday night. (Steven Senne/AP)

Jeff and Erin were both at Spaulding for the premiere the other night — a fitting spot since that's where Jeff and others injured in the bombings received treatment.

Erin told me that she's "really proud of the movie, and happy to be here and happy to support Jeff."

Four years after the event that changed Jeff Bauman's life forever, people are still showing up for him.

He's showing up too, perhaps most importantly now, for himself.


Alex Ashlock is a producer at NPR and WBUR's Here & Now. He has been covering the Boston Marathon for WBUR since 1998. 

Related:

Alex Ashlock Twitter Producer, Here & Now
Alex Ashlock has been a producer for Here & Now since 2005. He started his WBUR career as senior producer of Morning Edition in 1998.

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