How a man in a white cowboy hat rode to rescue at the Boston Marathon

First responder Carlos Arredondo acknowledges the crowd prior to the Opening Day game between the Red Sox and Brewers at Fenway Park.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

 

(Our continuing series about the Boston bombing tells the tales of 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.)

Most spectators near the finish line when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon were there to see friends and family complete their grueling runs. Carlos Arredondo didn’t have family in the race, but he was there for an intensely personal reason — and possibly because of fate.

“I was there because of two people,” he said. “I was going on behalf of my sons.”

One had been killed in Iraq and the other committed suicide. Arredondo devoted himself to helping others who were enduring such trauma. So out of the smoke and confusion last April 15, a mysterious hero emerged.

The Man in the Cowboy Hat.

A spectator’s lower legs had been blown off. He was in a wheelchair, ashen from losing blood and gripping what remained of his left knee.

Boston Marathon Tribute

An unidentified man in a white cowboy hat was helping two emergency responders rush the victim to help. News photographers snapped the shot. The picture has been worth far more than 1,000 words.

It had to be fate.

“No question,” Arredondo said

The picture was posted online and quickly symbolized the carnage and courage of that day. Within hours, media identified the man and Boston had a hero.

Arredondo’s life became a whirlwind of interviews and adulation. He tossed a first pitch to David Ortiz. He sang “God Bless America” with James Taylor at the World Series.

He made fast friends with Jeffrey Bauman, the victim he wheeled to help. They were Michelle Obama’s guests at the State of the Union address. They received all-expenses-paid trips to France and Costa Rica.

Arredondo has made scores of appearances at fund-raisers, golf tournaments and road races. He’s been the grand marshal at parades and posed for thousands of pictures with starry-eyed fans.

He’s been knighted as Boston’s Comforter-in-Chief. It sounds like a dream role, especially for a guy who was largely living on government assistance before the bombs went off.

Pedro Martinez shows his grip to Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Baumann and Carlos Arredondo.

It’s not.

“It’s a responsibility,” Arredondo said.

There have been plenty of gratifying moments, of course. But they all lead back to one thing.

“I lost my son,” Arredondo said. “I always try to honor him and remember the fallen.”

That quest began a hot August afternoon in 2004, when a military van pulled into Arredondo’s driveway. His 44th birthday was the next day.

Arredondo thought his 20-year-old son, Alex, was making a surprise visit from Iraq. Instead, Marines got out and informed Arredondo that an enemy sniper had killed his son.

Arredondo lost it. He took a sledgehammer to the windshield, poured gasoline on the van and himself and lit a propane lighter. The fireball left him with serious burns over 20 percent of his body.

Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bowman on the field before a Patriots game.

He spent a year recovering, part of it in a psychiatric hospital. Arredondo still doesn’t know why he went on the rampage. The fire was an accident, he said, not a suicide attempt. Grief simply overwhelmed him.

“How am I ever going to feel better?” he said in an interview after the incident. “I have no idea.”

Arredondo became an anti-war activist. He traveled the country trying to raise awareness of the human toll, and protesting recruiting methods the military used to enlist teenagers.

Arredondo’s younger son, Brian, was devastated by Alex’s death. He suffered from depression and drug abuse. On Dec. 19, 2011, the 24-year-old committed suicide.

That’s why his father was on Boylston Street around 2:50 p.m. Arredondo works with suicide prevention and veterans groups, and was handing out miniature American flags to spectators.

There was an explosion across the street. All the people who’d been cheering disappeared in a cloud of gray smoke.

“Everybody started running away,” Arredondo said.

Why didn’t he?

I want everybody to know we have the capacity to help one another and share in times of grief. It’s important to be human.

Carlos Arredondo

“People were hurt,” Arredondo said. “They needed help.”

He had a flashback to his days as a rodeo clown. That was 30 years ago in his native Costa Rica, back when he first started wearing cowboy hats. He’d rush in to distract snorting bulls after riders were thrown off or gored.

A devout Catholic, Arredondo crossed himself, asked God to protect him and ran into the smoke. He cleared barricades and comforted a couple of women who’d been hurt. Then he noticed Bauman.

He was lying in a pool of blood. His T-shirt was still smoldering, and Arredondo snuffed out the flames with his hands.

“Help is on the way,” Arredondo said. “Don’t move.”

He found a tattered sweater and helped tie it around Bauman’s legs. Arredondo put Bauman in a wheelchair and helped push him toward the medical tent.

Knowing Bauman was slipping away, they rushed him past medical personnel and straight to an ambulance. Arredondo picked up Bauman and placed him inside.

The ambulance sped way, and Arredondo finally paused to collect his senses. He was splattered with blood, so emergency personnel took him back to the tent. He wasn’t hurt, though he’d need medication to get to sleep for a few weeks.

The next morning, reporters were outside his two-bedroom row house in the Roslindale section of Boston. It didn’t take great detective work to find the mystery man.

For starters, he was wearing a “Tough Ruck” T-shirt. It’s a military support group that raises money by doing marathons while lugging full backpacks. Not many members also wear cowboy hats.

The photo hit America’s emotional chord, like the one of firemen raising the American flag amid the smoldering 9-11 debris. The cowboy hat evoked visions of heroes rushing to the rescue. As selfless as Arredondo was, his headwear turned the picture into a rallying point.

Police and FBI came to interview Arredondo. They took the clothes and sneakers he was wearing at the marathon, hoping to find forensic evidence that would help crack the case.

The man he helped save turned out to be a key witness. Bauman remembered seeing two people wearing coats on a warm day, and lugging a backpack. That helped identify the Tsarnaev brothers as the prime suspects.

A few days later, Bauman met the man in the cowboy hat. They became an unlikely pair of Boston Strong icons, a 27-year-old New Hampshire native and a 53-year-old Costa Rican immigrant.

“He’s a beautiful guy with a beautiful family,” Arredondo said.

Producers from “The Today Show,” “Oprah” and CNN soon came calling. So did People, the New York Times, GQ and dozens of other media outlets. Arredondo had been living on public assistance due to health issues. His wife, Melida, quit her job as a manager at a health center in order to handle all the requests for appearances and interviews.

Everywhere he went, Arredondo was called a hero.

“I don’t like being called that,” he said.

He points to people like Bauman, and the emergency responders and the police. And then he thinks of his heroes, Alex and Brian. As much as Arredondo helped Boston heal, the experience has helped him deal with his private anguish.

“I want everybody to know we have the capacity to help one another and share in times of grief,” Arredondo said. “It’s important to be human.”

He’d been preaching that message for years, then everything came together in an instant. All that remained was finding out who the man was in the white cowboy hat.