"Are you nervous?"
My words hang awkwardly in the air for a few seconds while Tommy Meagher, the Boston Marathon finish-line coordinator for the past 17 years, gathers his thoughts. We're sitting in the wood-paneled conference room at Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, Mass., where he has worked for more than four decades. He shifts uneasily in his chair and fiddles with his keys for a moment.
"I'm not one to be skittish or frightened off," Meagher replies. "I'm the person most responsible for that piece of turf, and I can't walk away because of a fear that I'm putting myself in harm's way. That's not who I am."
Today — April 15 — is the one-year anniversary of last year's horrific Boston Marathon bombing. And with the 2014 Boston Marathon set to take place next Monday, April 21, I'm hardly the only one to ask Meagher some variation of this question, wondering if he has any apprehension about signing up to supervise the same spot where two bombs killed three and maimed hundreds more.
In the 12 months since the tragedy, Meagher has become something of a local celebrity because he turned and ran toward the blast, hoping to pull people to safety. Though he emerged physically unscathed, what he saw that day was gruesome. People were lying on the sidewalk, covered in blood and shattered glass. He saw bodies flying uncontrollably and then watched as frantic emergency workers tried to save mangled limbs and revive victims who were knocked unconscious.
It's clear that Meagher would prefer not to dwell on the trauma. As the planning for next Monday's marathon reaches a peak, he's concentrating on preparing for the 36,000 runners who will be crossing the finish line. Some will require drug testing. Others will need medical attention. Everyone will need to be shepherded out of the area to make room for the waves of people coming after them. His job is to make sure that all goes smoothly, especially now with the heightened security.
"I'm just moving on, and on April 21, 2014, we'll have another marathon," the 68-year-old grandfather of three says. "And it's going to be great."
A lifelong Boston-area resident, Meagher has been involved in the Boston running community one way or another since he was a boy. He was a standout performer on the track at Boston College, competing in the half-mile, one-mile, and two-mile events. He was named captain his senior year and won several races that propelled his team to victory at a number of meets. (He no longer runs thanks to an osteoarthritic left knee.) After graduation, he became a social studies teacher and a track coach at a nearby high school. Meagher eventually found his way back to his alma mater, taking a part-time coaching position with the Eagles while he kept his day job as an educator. He left coaching in the late 1970s and joined the Massachusetts Track & Field Officials Association shortly thereafter. From January to June, most weekends — and even some weekday afternoons — you can find him at a track meet.
Since 1996, Meagher has been the Boston Marathon's finish-line coordinator, managing everything from the press to the time clocks. He is usually the first person to greet the elite athletes as they cross the finish line. From his spot on Boylston Street, he has seen more than 350,000 people finish the race, multiple records set, and even dozens of marriage proposals.
Officials with the Boston Athletic Association, the organization that runs the marathon, say Meagher is a master of keeping order amid the chaos. "Last year, when we had the most difficult situation ever, he moved quickly to address the needs of people who had been badly hurt," said Tom Grilk, the BAA's executive director. "He has a sense of perspective and a sense of what needs to be done in the moment."
I first met Meagher four years ago when I wrote an article about him for The Boston Globe Magazine. What struck me back then was the sheer joy he takes in watching non-elite runners finish the race. "What sticks in my mind are the average people who come across that line having run three, four, or even five hours," he told me at the time. "There are so many faces coming at you. I see a lot of emotion. I see people who may be running for Dana-Farber [cancer institute], running for someone in their family. I see crying. I see elation — just happiness. I can see how relieved they are that they finished and crossed that line."
This year, that sense of triumph will be mixed with feelings of sadness and remembrance. A record number of spectators — an estimated 1 million people, or twice the regular crowd — are expected to line the streets along the 26.2-mile course and cheer on the runners, many of whom didn't get to finish last year. There will be tributes and people running in honor of the victims. Many of the wounded — some of whom lost limbs in the attack — and their families have vowed to take part in the event, giving this year's marathon an extra emotional charge.
Meagher broke down only once during our latest interview. His blue eyes teared up when he mentioned Celeste Corcoran, a spectator who was waiting for her sister to finish when shrapnel ripped through both of her legs. Corcoran is now a double amputee (her daughter also sustained major injuries and had to have several surgeries to repair her leg), but will be at the marathon again this year to support her sister. Meagher met her at an event held by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Boston branch to reflect on the bombings and was astonished by both her resilience and the randomness of her wounds.
"I will probably have a few moments like when Celeste Corcoran comes to the finish line," Meagher says. "What really puts me over the top is the thought that here is a woman that was 20 yards away from me and she lost two legs and nothing happened to me."
Moments before the attack, Meagher was walking toward the site of the first explosion. A security official tapped him on the shoulder and delayed his progress by maybe 30 seconds. When the first bomb went off, he heard the boom and knew immediately what had happened. He recognized the smell of explosives.
Meagher saw a wave of smoke and glass coming toward him. He ran to help a man who was knocked to the ground by the concussive force of the detonation. (In a video taken in the aftermath, you can see Meagher in his blue race jacket darting toward the explosion.) Almost immediately, the police started tearing down the metal barricades to get to the injured, and were shouting at him to get out of the way.
His actions earned him praise from the FBI, which relied on Meagher as a key witness. "When the bombs went off, Tom became one of the most important people at the finish line," said agent Kieran Ramsey, who oversees terrorism investigations and preparations for special events like the marathon, in a written statement. "There is little doubt that [his] actions saved lives and helped the investigation itself."
As Boston has healed from the bombing, so too has Meagher. As the marathon approaches, Meagher is trying not to focus on the two men who attacked his spot during the premier road race in his city. Instead, he's looking to get things as close to normal as he can.
"It won't ever go back to being the way that it was," Meager says. "But I'm moving forward."