As Diane Montiel was being herded out of the grandstands away from the finish line after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, she noticed a few people running the opposite way. It was those people-those who ran into the chaos and commotion at the finish line after the explosions-who inspired the creation of the recently published book If Not for the Perfect Stranger: Heartwarming and Healing Stories of Kindness from the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Montiel, a Chicago native, attends the Boston Marathon each year and was sitting as a spectator at the finish line at the time of the attacks. “We were at the Boston Marathon, the holy grail of Marathons, and that day we were sitting in the first row of the grand stands when the explosions occurred,” Montiel said, recounting the tragic events of that day. “One thing I remember as they were getting us out of the stands, I realized that there were people running into it. Running in to help, as we were running away.”
Upon returning to Chicago, Montiel and If Not for the Perfect Stranger co-publisher Steve Alexander continued to struggle to understand what happened that day-shell-shocked and brokenhearted like the rest of the nation. Stories about the Marathon tragedy repeatedly flashed on the news. A story about how Celeste Corcoran, a double amputee as a result of the attack, was saved by a “perfect stranger” caught Montiel’s attention.
“We knew we couldn’t focus on the tragedy, but the kindness that happened after,” said Montiel, who titled her joint publication with the phrase Corcoran used to explain her Marathon story. “Still six to nine months after we left Boston I think we were just trying, as many others were, to sort out what had happened.” It was then that the pair began to collect the narratives that would make up their book.
Over the next few months Montiel and Alexander contacted runners, spectators, responders, doctors, police, and the injured to discuss the fearful moments after the explosions occurred. A common theme of the positive impact that surrounding strangers made ran throughout the stories they heard, whether they were trained professionals or inebriated college students. “There were things that happened that day that were tragic but also things that were absolutely joyful, about people helping others,” Montiel said. “As we talked to people we realized that it was still very raw, that though these were functional people who continued to live their lives, that day had a profound impact in many ways.”
Montiel and Alexander interviewed each contributor to the publication, and turned them into two- or three-page stories. After writing the story in the format of the anthology, they sent the edited version back to the contributor in order to assure accuracy. “I think they trusted us to tell their stories both because they were such a huge part of the process but also because we were there,” she said. “We saw all of these big and little wonderful acts of joy they described that day.”
Montiel and Alexander retell more than 40 stories in their book, including that of Jeff Pflanz, A&S ’15, who was just a mile short of the finish line when the bombs went off, and his “perfect stranger,” Sue O’Brien Lynch. Pflanz’s story provided Montiel with one of her favorite quotes from If Not for the Perfect Stranger, which was from O’Brien Lynch: “The police were spending so much time and manpower looking for who did this, looking so hard to find the evil; but you didn’t have to look for goodness because it was everywhere.”
Beyond the perspectives of those close to the finish line, If Not for the Perfect Stranger also includes the stories of others who were impacted by the bombing. Tedy Bruschi, for example, who played for the New England Patriots, composed a forward and Jack Fultz, the winner of the 1976 Boston Marathon, penned an introduction. In addition, Montiel said that, because the stories are very human responses, they include a degree of humor as well.
“This is such a passion project,” Montiel said. “I have to ask myself if I even care if it does well.” Despite this, If Not for the Perfect Stranger has sold well and is the topic of many Marathon-related discussions. It is now being sold at Barnes & Noble stores in the greater Boston area, Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Newbury St., and online on both the book’s website and Amazon.
“It was a scary day for many people, and, especially in the coming anniversary, I think it is important to process it again,” Montiel said. “This book is history. We have so many perspectives, it is like an archive told beautifully without sensationalizing anything. Unfortunately that day will always be talked about-the whole world was watching-but this book highlights the beautiful stories that happened in the aftermath.”
The original version of this story ran a subheadline with the incorrect name of the publication.