BOSTON — As runners in the Boston Marathon charged over the finish line Monday afternoon, two bomb blasts released orange balls of fire into the air, lifting runners off their feet, killing at least three people, injuring more than 130 others, and driving Boston and the nation once more into the grim work of responding to terror.
The devastating impact of the explosions, which came 16 seconds apart at 2:50 p.m. on one of Boston’s most important days of civic celebration, spread almost instantly across the city and country: Air traffic was halted at Boston’s Logan Airport, police told motorists to evacuate the city, and cellphone service was temporarily silenced to prevent remote detonation of devices.
An 8-year-old boy was killed and at least 10 other children were among the injured, according to law enforcement officials. Medical personnel said many people suffered from shrapnel-type injuries in their legs, though they were uncertain whether the metal pieces were embedded in the bombs or were blast debris.
“We still do not know who did this or why, and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts,” President Obama said in a brief statement after 6 p.m. “But make no mistake: We will get to the bottom of this,” and whoever is responsible “will feel the full weight of justice.”
Federal authorities were treating the explosions as a terrorist attack. Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Boston, said the investigation is being led by a joint terrorism task force of federal, state and local authorities. “It is a criminal investigation that is a potential terrorist investigation,” he said at an evening news conference.
On Boylston Street, where moments earlier runners consumed by exhaustion and joy had embraced friends and family, blood was streaked across sidewalks and the street. Witnesses saw detached limbs in the gutter. Volunteers turned into impromptu emergency squads, loading the wounded onto boards. A cook tied his apron around the stump of a woman whose leg was severed.
There were so many injuries that first responders had to use lanyards as tourniquets. Marathon runners halted, then ran again, this time with no destination but for an elusive place they could call safe.
At an afternoon news conference, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said the explosions caused “multiple” casualties, but he gave no details. Officials said more than 130 people were injured.
Police said the bombs had been placed in trash cans, less than 100 yards apart. Unconfirmed reports said the explosions were triggered by remote control. Officials said police found at least two suspicious packages at other downtown locations, including a footbridge near the Copley Plaza Hotel.
Davis said he could not say whether the bombs were a terrorist attack, then added, “You can reach your own conclusion based on what happened.” In Washington, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she believes the bombings constitute a terrorist attack, but she based her judgment on news reports, not on official intelligence.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said her staff had been told by the National Counterterrorism Center that there was no specific warning of the Boston attacks. Collins also concluded that “this attack bears all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack.”
News reports in Boston said a surveillance photo showed a man with two backpacks at the scene shortly before the explosions. Davis said Monday night that there were no suspects but that the police were talking to some people. Late Monday, Boston’s Fox 25 television channel reported that police were searching an apartment in the suburb of Revere as part of the investigation.
Allan Kaufman, 54, of Manchester, N.H., was on Boylston Street watching the marathon when the bombs went off. He turned away when he saw body parts on the sidewalk. “We can’t do this anymore. We can’t have open events anymore,” he said. “You can’t control it.”
The explosions ripped into an idyllic afternoon finish for the marathon. The first men had passed the finish line 2 hours and 10 minutes after the staggered start, and the first women crossed 16 minutes later. But at 2:50 p.m., a bulge of slower runners converged on the finish line, which was marked by a string of colorful flags from countries represented by the racers.
The first blast sent oddly gentle puffs of white smoke two stories high. Runners stopped in their tracks. After the second blast half a block away, the news reverberated back through the line of runners like a Slinky toy.
“I was two kilometers away,” said Michael Johnstone, 57, a runner from Newton, Mass. “I suddenly noticed people in suits and other clothes on the street going the other way. I thought it was a breakdown in security, but then we were stopped.”