The Man In The Cowboy Hat
We arrived at the home of Carlos and Melida Arredondo on Wednesday mid-morning at about 11 o’clock. A cadre of international journalists — France, Switzerland, Spain, the UK — had already set up their cameras on the walkway of the modest brick and cement Roslindale home.
We waited. After about twenty minutes, Carlos came out. He walked down the front steps, wearing a blue and yellow long sleeved shirt from a past Boston Marathon. His dark, curly hair was slicked back. His hands, nervous and trembling.
“We’re talking to the FBI,” Carlos said in a quiet voice. “If you want to you can come around here.” He gestured to the shade near the front door. “You can wait here. We need to finish with the FBI first.”
After about an hour, two large, square shouldered men left the Arredondo’s house. One in a blue windbreaker. The other in a beige trench coat. They carried a clipboard and a bag full of… something. We asked the federal agents for details, but a matter-of-fact “just call our Boston office”, was the most we got.
Terse. Cryptic. Business-like. Exactly what the FBI agents needed to be in that moment. And exactly the opposite of what Carlos Arredondo needed to be, when he stood near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday.
Standing in Support in Copley Square
You may not have heard of Carlos Arredondo, but you’ve seen his picture. He’s the “man in the cowboy hat.” The man racing alongside a gravely injured young man whose legs had been blown off by the first bomb blast on Boylston Street. The picture of Carlos, that young man, and other first responders beside him has become one of the iconic images of the Marathon bombings.
The Arredondo’s already have deep knowledge of tragedy. They’ve lost two sons. Marine Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo was shot and killed by a sniper in Najaf, Iraq in 2004. Their other son, Brian was severely depressed, distraught by the death of his brother. Brian committed suicide in 2011.
Carlos Arredondo is both a broken man, and a survivor. When the Marines came to tell him Alex had been killed by a bullet to the head, it shattered Carlos’s spirit. He locked himself in the Marines’ van and set himself on fire. He still has burn scars on his body.
And yet, he survived. He dedicated himself to peace activism, traveling the country in his pickup truck, a painted coffin strapped to the truck’s bed.
That is why Carlos and his wife Melida were at Monday’s Marathon. They were there to thank the people who were running in honor of both their sons.
“The National Guard was coming in wearing rucks. The 40-pound rucks they had on their backs,” Melida said. “And so we were there specifically looking for the person who had Alex’s yellow ribbon.”
Melida was sitting in the stands at the finish line with other families of the fallen. Carlos was on the street. He was handing out American flags to other spectators, so that they too could cheer on the Guardsmen as they ran by.
Carlos adjusted his cowboy hat. Then, all hell broke loose.
Two Barriers, Many Broken Bodies
“We were just across the street from the first explosion,” he said. Melida added, “It sounded just like a cannon. I’ve heard the cannons go off in Charlestown.
Carlos ran. Across the Boylston street. Towards the blast.
“I jumped two fences,” he said. “And when I landed on the other side, it was really chaos. All the bleeding, broken limbs, missing limbs. It was chaos.”
There’s a grainy photograph of Carlos vaulting the second fence. He’s still holding a flag in his hand. There was blood. People moaning on the ground. Debris everywhere. But, instead of rushing to a victim, Carlos — who is also a Red Cross volunteer — realized that other rescuers were going to have to get to that part of the sidewalk, and that not everyone would jump the barricade. He tore at the plastic, and tried to pull down part of the fence to let others in.
And then he turned around and ran to the first person he could, an injured woman whom Carlos reassured. “Hang on. Help is on the way,” he told her.
He ran to another person. A young man named Jeff Bauman, Jr., though Carlos didn’t know it at the time. All he knew was that the bomb had blown off both of Bauman’s legs. And that this was another man’s son.
Carlos told me: “When I first came down on my knees to the ground, I told him, ‘You’re going to be OK. Relax. Help is on the way.’ He was very awake the whole time. Then I saw that he was bleeding very badly. Another samaritan came along to help. I picked up a sweater and tore it apart to put it on his legs, to tie the tourniquet. Then another young lady came with a wheelchair…and I picked up Jeff and I put him in the wheelchair. And I told the young lady, ‘We need to move fast. We need to move fast.’”
They ran down the street. Jeff Bauman, in the wheelchair, legs shattered, his face both ashen and stained with dark powder and blood. A young woman in a white Boston Marathon jacket pushing the wheelchair behind him, an EMT in a bright yellow jacket leading the way. And Carlos Arredondo, his hands bloody, still holding on tight to the tourniquet… the man in the cowboy hat.
They ran right past AP photographer Charles Krupa, who snapped the picture that hours later would be seen around the world.
The Golden Hour
“I push that wheelchair, and I was screaming, ‘I need an ambulance!’” Carlos said. “And I picked up Jeff from the wheelchair, and I put him in one of the beds of the ambulance, and they took over from there, the paramedics.”
Because Carlos had insisted that Jeff be put in an ambulance immediately, Jeff Bauman was the first person to arrive at Boston Medical Center. The father of a fallen Marine had known that Jeff could have bled to death, and not a second could be wasted.
Melida beams with pride at this point in the story. “They call it a golden hour, when you’re in the field and you have a very serious injury during war. That golden hour. And Carlos helped save some of those seconds, some of those minutes.”
When Carlos lifted Jeff Bauman, Jr. into the ambulance, yes, he was thinking of his own son, Alex Arredondo, who died in a firefight in Iraq in 2004. His wife Melida felt as if Boston was under attack, that Boylston Street had turned into a war zone. “This happens all the time, all over the world,” she said, “And [it was happening] back on our own soil.”
“Jeff has a mother, a father, a wife or a girlfriend, a family who could help their son,” Carlos said.
The One He Could Save
The Arredondo’s have spoken to Jeff Bauman’s stepmother. She called Wednesday morning, and they’re supposed to get in touch with each other at some point. Melida was told that Bauman was scheduled for additional surgery on Wednesday, but that’s as far as the communication has gone at this point.
It was also at this point when I had to ask an uncomfortable question. Carlos Arredondo suffered the death of both his sons. He has been a passionate peace activist for nine years. The media paid him some attention, but not as much as it was showering him with now. Reporters from five countries were on his doorstep. The phone was ringing constantly. He’d told his Marathon story dozens of times in less than 48-hours. Did he feel at all angry that this was the moment the media listened to him, when they all but ignored his peace activism?
He gently deflected the question. “I don’t consider myself a hero, at all.” Carlos said. Melida added, “It’s being human, OK? It’s not about being heroic. There were a lot of people who did a lot of heroic things that day.”
And yet, for this moment, Carlos Arredondo is now one of the most famous people in the world. The picture of “the man in the cowboy hat” has flashed across television screens, computer monitors, and smart phones around the world. It’s been shared on Facebook, and retweeted countless times.
I shared one Tweet in particular with Carlos. One that made my heart catch up in my throat. It said, “Maybe Carlos Arredondo has endured so much pain so that he could save another man’s son.”
I asked Carlos what he thought about that.
“As a father, it’s my responsibility to honor my sons,” he said. “You know, from one family to another family. I’ve received comfort from families. And now it’s time for me to give comfort to another family. That’s the beauty of it. That we can all unite in difficult times.”
Melida put it succinctly, searingly: “This is the son he could help.”
Carlos and Melida Arredondo, peace activists, Roslindale residents who were at the site of the Boston Marathon bombings.
WBUR “Maybe the flames spared Carlos Arredondo so that, nine years later, Carlos Arredondo could save Jeff Bauman.”
Washington Post “Carlos Arredondo ran across Boylston Street, jumped the security fence and landed on a sidewalk smeared in blood. In front of him, two women lay motionless. Another woman walked around in black-powder smoke, looking down at the fallen bodies.”
Other stories from this show:
WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer is co-hosting Radio Boston while Meghna Chakrabarti is on maternity leave.
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