Boston bombing trial witnesses say blast was like 'a horror movie'

Two years after the Boston Marathon bombing, the horror of that day is fresh in the minds of the witnesses testifying at the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The trial so far has focused on the aftermath of the blast and the human cost, writes Paul Hunter.

Warning: This story contains graphic content

Jeff Bauman, seen here in the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, was one of the witnesses to testify at the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, charged with conspiring with his brother to place twin bombs near the finish line of the race, killing three and injuring 260 people. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Warning: This story contains graphic content.

Two years after the Boston Marathon bombing, the horror of that day is fresh in the minds of the witnesses testifying at the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

For many, much of the coverage immediately after the bombing — which killed three people and injured 260 — focused on the manhunt for Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan.

But this trial is heavily focused on the aftermath of the blast and the human cost.

During a break in the first week of testimony, I took a quick look at my laptop so I could highlight phrases uttered in court that I’d tapped out on the fly.

Here are some of them:

“Designed to tear people apart.”

“Kill as many…as possible.”       

“Shredding their flesh.”

As we sat there, with reporters in the main courtroom and in two overflow rooms with closed-circuit TVs, it all seemed full-on surreal.

Even though we all knew well what had happened, we’d now have it spelled out in bloody detail by those who lived through the attacks.

Witnesses teared up as it all poured out. No one held back.

Some likened the scene on Boylston Street on April 15, 2013, to a war zone. Or, as one woman put it, “I felt like I was starring in a horror movie” and those walking nearby were “like zombies."

She said someone shouted at her to get up and get out, but “I didn’t have a leg,” she said. “I couldn’t get up.”

“It was the most excruciating pain that one could ever anticipate,” she said.

Gasps in the courtroom

Lawyers put images on screen that had never been seen publicly before: Smartphone video with close-ups on pools of the brightest red blood you can imagine amid smoke and sirens and shouts from off camera such as “Whose leg is that?” and “There’s no way she’s going to keep that foot.”

This still image captured from surveillance video at the Boston Marathon shows the scene moments before a second bomb exploded on April 15, 2013. (U.S. Attorney's Office/Reuters)

Sidewalk security video captured the moment the second blast went off. The camera was directly behind where the bomb had been set. When it played out, there were gasps in the courtroom.

Typically, each witness would be asked to identify themselves or family members from photos taken just before and just after the bombings.

William Richard, whose eight-year-old son Martin died in the blasts, did that several times with photos of his family. In the "before" shots, William pointed to himself, his wife, Denise, his sons Henry and Martin and then to his daughter.

“And that’s Jane with two legs,” he’d say each time. 

In the "after" photos, it’d be simply, “And that’s Jane.”

Richard later testified he had to leave Martin on the sidewalk with his wife so he could rush Jane (who now has only one leg) to the hospital. Richard said the air smelled “vile” and he knew Martin was dying.

The bomb, said prosecutors, “tore large chunks of flesh out of [the little boy’s] body.”

“Did you say anything to Martin before you left?” Richard was asked.

“No.”

A police officer testified how she cradled Lingzi Lu, the Chinese student fatally wounded that day. She said Lingzi had vomited and there was debris in her hair and “blood, flesh, bone” everywhere.

“Her body was… quivering,” she said. “Her eyes appeared shaky, as if she couldn’t understand what was going on with her.”

The officer later sought out Lingzi’s family to tell them their daughter hadn’t died alone.

'Zipper-like wounds'

Once in court, someone used the term “zipper-like wounds." 

Others were equally graphic. “Legs were ripped off,” said one witness. “It wasn’t anything clean or neat.”

One young woman, now 21, had her foot blown off and her femoral artery severed, which in most cases means you could lose all of your blood within roughly a minute or two.

She said she thought, “This can’t be real” and heard a man saying “he could see I was going white and my eyes were going white and I could feel my body getting tingly and I was getting increasingly cold and I knew I was dying.” Thankfully, she didn't.

Jeff Bauman lost both his legs above the knee that day, has a hole in his arm with burns and scarring on his back and, like so many others, still has constant ringing in his ears.

He walked into the courtroom on what was a bitterly cold Boston morning – while wearing shorts. His two prosthetic legs looked like black sticks.

Bauman explained that his mechanical knees aren’t motorized and “if I wear pants it kinda gets in the way.”

A challenging defense

It was hard to tell, but it seemed as if Bauman kept glancing at Tsarnaev, sitting with his lawyers a couple of metres away, wearing a sport jacket, button-down shirt and goatee.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's defence team has acknowledged that their client planted a bomb to kill people at the Boston Marathon in April 2013. (Jane Flavell Collins/The Associated Press)

Tsarnaev’s lawyers cross-examined no witnesses those first two days. What could they ask, anyway?

By acknowledging in their opening statement that Tsarnaev was the perpetrator, they underlined that the defence's focus is strictly to highlight the influence of Dzhokhar’s older brother, Tamerlan, who died in the manhunt immediately following the bombing.

But in efforts to keep Dzhokhar from the death penalty, his lawyers will need to win a degree of sympathy from jurors.

That’ll be a challenge.

In the prosecution’s opening statement, they described the activity of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev 20 minutes after the bombs went off, while those on Boylston still bled.

Tsarnaev, they said, went to a nearby Whole Foods grocery and bought a big carton of milk, later returning to try and exchange it.

Exiting the courthouse at the end of the trial’s second day, I happened to step into the elevator alongside Tsarnaev’s two main lawyers, who were wrapped tight in thick scarves and winter coats. They stood silently watching the floor numbers go down.

Then one of them took a deep breath, dropped his head and let out a long, slow sigh.

About the Author

Paul Hunter

Foreign correspondent

Paul Hunter is a correspondent for CBC News in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was a political correspondent for The National in Ottawa. In his more than two decades with the CBC, he has reported from across Canada and more than a dozen countries, including Haiti, Japan and Afghanistan.

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