Faced with health challenges, a mayor rises in face of Boston Marathon terror

Then-Boston Mayor Thomas Menino at press briefing.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

 

(In the coming weeks, you’ll see in our series at FOXSports.com what the Boston bombing means to more than two dozen people directly affected at last year’s marathon. So 2014 is the comeback, because 2013 was the knockdown. This is our latest installment. Read their stories.)

Thomas Menino had six screws and a metal plate freshly installed in his right ankle. He was 70 years old, but Boston’s mayor had sworn off painkillers in order to keep his mind clear.

It was three days after the Boston Marathon bombing, and more than 2,000 people gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for a prayer service. President Obama and Governor Deval Patrick were there, and an entire region would be watching on TV.

Menino’s son, Tom Jr., wheeled him to the stage. The mayor knew that symbolically he needed to make a stand. So he went one better.

"I’m not speaking in this chair," he told his son.

"Dad!" his son started to protest.

"No," Menino said, "let’s go."

He pushed himself up and gingerly put all his weight on his left leg. Menino grimaced, grabbed the lectern for support and the words somehow flowed.

"We are one Boston," he said. "No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city and its people."

There were plenty of examples of that in the days after the bombing. Menino is the first to say he wasn’t nearly as courageous as victims, the first responders and the police. He was just doing his job.

The way he did it, however, helped set a tone of resurrection.

"I did what I had to do," Menino said. "You’re the mayor of the city. People were depending on me. That’s what I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about the pain."

Maybe not, but his ankle sure could have picked a better time to come apart. It happened three days before the marathon. Menino was going to speak to schoolchildren about autism. He got out of his car, took a few steps and twisted his ankle.

Then-Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and David Ortiz.

"It just cracked," he said.

In true Menino form, he hobbled in and gave his talk. Then he went to the hospital that Friday afternoon, and doctors repaired his ankle the next morning. Two days later, an aide rushed into Menino’s hospital room at 2:20 p.m. and said a bomb had just gone off at the marathon.

"Get the chief of police on the phone!" Menino said.

With that, it began. A whirlwind of calls, orders, meetings and decisions, all in the most confusing and threatening civic atmosphere since 9-11.

"That Monday begins the best week of the year for the city of Boston," Menino said. "It’s the official start of spring. And to have this happen, people couldn’t believe it."

The first expanded statements by officials would come at a 5 p.m. press conference. Menino was in no shape to be there, but he was wheeled in and sat until it was time to speak.

Boston Marathon Tribute

He was still attached to tubes, though they were hidden beneath a white sheet in his lap. There was no way Menino could stand that day. Even talking was a challenge.

His cadence was slow and slurry. Menino had always been the antithesis of the slick-haired, silver-tongued politician. He was affectionately known as Mayor Mumbles for the way he butchered the vocabulary.

Over the years, Menino had referred to Boston Bruins as "ball players." He’d called Rajon Rondo "Hondo." Kevin Garnett wasn’t "K.G.," he was "K.J."

He may have gotten names wrong, but nobody doubted Menino’s intellect or appeal. The city’s first Italian-American mayor had led a business revitalization. Menino had a 70 percent approval rating. In one poll, half the people of Boston said they’d met him.

That’d be about 320,000 people in the city proper. That kind of touch helped Menino get re-elected five times. But a couple of weeks before the marathon, Menino announced he wouldn’t seek a sixth term.

While in office he had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, suffered a spinal fracture, battled blood clots, a serious respiratory condition and Crohn’s disease. The last thing he needed was a shattered ankle, followed by the most disruptive event since the Battle of Bunker Hill.

At least those Colonial leaders knew who the enemy was and didn’t have an afternoon press conference to attend after the last musket shot.

"I had to assure the people of Boston we were in control," Menino said, "and we were not going to allow terrorists to take over the city."

As mayor, Menino always got a prime viewing spot of the Boston Marathon. If not for the broken ankle, he would have been perilously close to the scene of the crime. Tom Jr. is a police detective and was working that area. He rushed toward the cloud of black smoke.

"You don’t want to know what I saw," he told his father.

The mayor saw more than enough. The lone benefit from being hospitalized was that he didn’t have far to go to visit victims and emergency personnel.

"I never saw people work as well as they did that day, from the state police to the city police," Menino said. "People working in the tents were the real heroes. Not one person brought into those tents lost their life."

One of Menino’s first priorities was to organize business leaders and quickly set up a relief effort. The One Fund has since raised more than $60 million.

Then there was the small matter of catching the suspects. The manhunt gripped the nation and all but paralyzed Boston. Against that backdrop, people looked to their leaders for reassurance.

They gathered at the prayer service, and Menino was easy enough to identify. He wore a dark suit and a cast. As he struggled to his foot, the huge cathedral was silent.

"It is a glorious thing, the love and strength that covers our city," said Menino, who was diagnosed with advanced cancer that has spread to his liver and lymph nodes in March. "It will push us forward, it will push thousands and thousands of people across the finish line next year. Because this is Boston, a city with courage, compassion and strength that knows no bounds."

Menino finished, and his son helped him back into the wheelchair. He grimaced as he settled in, then was pushed back up the aisle and next to his wife, Angela.

Menino took off his glasses, folded his hands, the bowed his head and prayed. It was obvious that being mayor was not just a job to him.