Who are Kris and Kayla? “The K Girls,” as they are known in Boston, are a heroic mother-daughter duo who sought to become the first females to run the Boston Marathon in the disabled division. If all went well, Kris Biagiotti would be pushing Kayla in a wheelchair the full distance, 26.2 grueling miles from Hopkinton to Copley Square in last year’s race.
Did they finish the race? Yes and no. When Kris and Kayla conquered Heartbreak Hill and then drew within sight of the finish line, Kris’ fiancé, Brian Bridges, and Kayla’s uncle, Rick Biagiotti, left the sidewalk to help them navigate a bevy of reporters waiting to interview them. Seconds later — BOOM! — the first blast blew Boston from a festive sporting event to a city soaked in blood.
What happened? The shock wave reached Kris’ entourage almost instantly, blowing some runners off their feet and leaving bloodied bodies in its wake. Brian shielded Kayla — helpless in her wheelchair — from the full force of the blast. But he took shrapnel to the head and was bleeding. Dazed, confused, defiant, frantic, the foursome stumbled across the finish line to find help, safety and security. Kris usually runs for disability charities. This time she was running for her life.
What’s my link to Kris, Kayla and Boston? My wife and I moved from Ohio to Boston to begin married life many years ago. Kris is a family friend, having attended our son’s wedding while our niece is Kayla’s godmother. By chance, I began writing on terrorism three decades ago when tracking old family letters took me to Northern Ireland. I had no idea that the letters would link me to terrorism and that Boston and Belfast would be bonded by such violence.
I made eight trips to Belfast, having first tracked our letters to a farm near the border, an area notoriously known as “Bandit Country” due to hit-and-run raids and random terrorism. Days before my family and I arrived, the area was hit by two attacks by the Irish Republican Army, a bomb blowing four policemen to smithereens while a gun-and-grenade attack mowed down four female prison guards. I began writing on terrorism and taught a university course on the Irish conflict. After 30 years, I retired.
My instinctive reaction to Kris and Kayla’s close call last April was to write, blending my Boston background with my Irish experiences. I wrote about Bob Gourley’s wife, on her way to work one morning, having her legs blown off by an IRA car bomb. But Celia Gourley “walked back into her Belfast office just five months later on artificial legs to tearful cheers from her co-workers.” I quoted the Belfast mayor’s letter to victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, “We have not been defeated by the bomb. You will draw strength from the suffering and courage of ordinary people.”
A defiant Celia Gourley showed terrorists that lost limbs need not mean lost lives.
Kris, Kayla and scores of other Boston bombing survivors form the core of a wider, in some sense worldwide, effort to face down terrorism and move on with their lives. Kris recently ran a 21-mile pre-Boston Marathon race and is involved in ongoing efforts with Boston Children’s Hospital, city firemen and a network of related charities to help handicapped children as well as grieving families.
She well knows Martin Richard’s heroic family. He’s the young boy killed by that first blast, his sister losing a leg; but, like Celia Gourley, defying terrorists with a new limb and renewed hope for the future. Kayla, Brian, Rick and multitudes more will be cheering Kris on at this year’s Boston Marathon as well as others there to make a statement as well as run a race.
I marvel at the strange mix of circumstances that knit together our family letters with modern terrorism, Kris and Kayla with the marathon bombing, and many families’ heroic efforts to help the handicapped. May we cheer them all on and unite to support their many worthwhile causes and charities.
But the terrorists? Oh, they all claim to have heroic causes of their own, ones steeped in so much evil and moral blindness that killing children is just collateral damage for their beloved but twisted causes.
In a 1796 letter, my Irish ancestor said of the turmoil taking place there, “The innocent suffer with the guilty.”
When it comes to marathon murders and victims of violence, may we aid the innocent but condemn and convict the guilty.
Boston Strong 2014.
(About the author: Dr. James F. Burns is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida.)