True Stories of Courage and Valor: The Story of Walter Dunbar, a hero of the Boston Bombing
“My mind was my worst enemy. Controlling my thoughts, feelings and negative emotions was the most difficult thing for me to overcome. Fear of what I knew was going on was bad, but fear of the unknown was worst. Was there another device in the tent? Was there a sniper on the roof? How many of my coworkers got killed? The real danger made these imagined threats very believable. Instead of worrying about it, I accepted death, then I no longer feared it. The bomb squad detonated suspicious packages. Those “controlled” explosions made the same sound as the other bombs. We didn’t know until later, the other explosions were set off by the good guys and not the bad guys. Our incident was not over, it was unfolding. There was a fire on the other side of the city at the JFK library at UMASS that was suspected to be another bombing at that time. None of us can control what happens outside of us, but we can control what happens inside of us. I couldn’t change this disaster happening all around me so I was forced to change myself. If I had not overcame my mind, I could not have helped anybody. I would have been on the train heading home. I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I had run away. I was a dead man either way. I know you’re not supposed to bargain with God, but I did. I prayed “God, if you let me live, I will use my life and limbs to their fullest. I will live my unlived life.” God let me live, that created a divine inspiration to run marathons, climb mountains and pursue my wildest dreams. I’m on a mission.”
As part of my series about “Stories of Selfless Acts of Heroism by Firefighters, Paramedics, Police Officers and Soldiers” I had the pleasure of interviewing…Walter Dunbar, a member of Boston EMS since 2008 and an EMT since 2002. His life changed forever on 4/15/2013 when terrorists attacked the 117th Boston Marathon while he was assigned to the event. Walter was not a runner prior to the bombings, but became one from that day forward. The day he thought his life was ending, he found a new beginning. Walter discovered the purpose of his life is to help people transform their tragedies into triumphs and cultivate healing by unifying mind, soul and body into meaningful expression.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a bit about your “backstory”?
As a kid I loved to play outside with my friends and we would imagine we were called into some fantastic adventure. Dragons burning down our village, invaders raiding the temple, any situation that involved answering the cry for help in the midst of danger. We always had to run to the rescue. After graduating from college, I began working at an insurance agency. I was climbing the ladder of success, but I had it against the wrong wall. I left my cubicle and began working as a landscaper for my uncle and cousin while I was contemplating careers and trying to figure it all out. Working outside felt right, but I was unsatisfied and did not really know what I wanted to do with my life. When disaster struck our nation, I felt the call to help. Now, what I’ve always wanted to do, what I feel I’m supposed to do and what I do every day are all one. I make a living trying to make a difference.
Can you tell us a story about the events that have drawn you to this specific career path?
On 9–11–2001 I was working in our garage, listening to the radio when the DJ said a plane struck one of the World Trade Center Towers and that it appeared to be an accident. I waited a few minutes then ran upstairs to turn on the TV. I watched LIVE in disbelief as the second plane flew directly into the second tower. I saw the twin towers collapse, the sky turn black and innocent people run for their lives while Police, Fire and EMS ran into help. 9–11 changed my life. It changed the world I thought I knew, it really shook me up. NYC would need all the help they could get. They needed professionals trained and ready to take action, not just people who wanted to help, but people who knew how to help. If something like that ever happened again, I wanted to be ready. I could be one more person saving one more person. Together we could make a huge difference.
Can you share your story of Courage and Valor? First can you tell us the background information behind the story?
The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most famous footrace in the world. BOSTON not only brings the best out of its 30,000 runners, it brings the best out of over half a million spectators. There is a symbiotic relationship between participants and spectators unlike anywhere else. BOSTON inspires people, unites people and everyone around here feels like they are a part of it. Boston has always been more than a race, it’s a symbol of triumph over adversity. People say Disneyworld is the happiest place on the planet, but I’ve been to both. Nothing compares to the love, joy and happiness you see watching families embrace after their loved one finishes the Boston marathon. On 4/15/2013 terrorist attacked the happiest place on Earth. It was a beautiful sunny day, marathoners were shouting out PR (personal record), it was all high fives and hugs until 2:50 pm. I was assigned to “the family greeting area” when I heard the first explosion. The same street were dreams were coming true became a living nightmare. I didn’t do anything more than the rest of Boston EMS, “we all ran the right way”, I’ve been running ever since.
Can you tell us the story of the danger that someone was in and what you did to rescue the person?
Terrorists detonated two IED bombs filled with nails and ball bearings in the final 0.2 miles of the Boston marathon. I was close enough to hear the explosions, but far enough to not get injured. I could hear what was happening, but my view was blocked by high rise buildings and the Trinity church from immediately knowing what was happening. Our shift commander ordered everyone to “hold your positions!” over the radio. My partner Joanne said “they need us over there, let’s go!” You never let your partner respond anywhere alone no matter what. We hopped in our golf cart and responded around the corner to a bombing. Both of us grabbed our gear and began to run towards the finish line, but got called into the medical tent to help. My first impression on arrival was that “we are all going to die here today”. A dead body was under a sheet, people had their legs blown off, the air was filled with the odor of burnt flesh and blood was everywhere. I felt the situation was hopeless and thought about running away. I have a wife, son and daughter to care for at home that deserve their father and husband. I felt 100% certain that if I ran in, I would never walk out. Based on my initial impression, I didn’t think many people would survive and even if they did, they would probably wish they hadn’t. Could they ever find any quality of life worth living again after all their surgeries, rehab and infections? I made eye contact with an injured woman inside the tent and she touched my soul. I felt like she was watching me to see what I was going to do. My entire existence seemed to hinge on that moment. I felt sick, scared and frozen, but I decided I couldn’t let the last thing she ever saw in her life be me running away. I chose in that moment, thanks to a woman I’ll never know, that I would rather die here today than live 100 years as a coward. Even if I moved to another country where nobody knew me, I could never escape myself. I took a deep breath and moved in. Someone asked me for help with a tourniquet. We tightened the tourniquet together on a man’s leg and then I just kept helping as many people as I could with treatment, triage and preparing them for transport. I still thought we were all going to die. I was completely hopeless, but I never let it show. We all found someone who needed help and helped them. We did whatever was needed and then moved to the next person. I didn’t think we were actually saving them, but we could give them hope. Man, sometimes it’s great to be wrong. We saved hundreds of lives together that day. Hope saved the day.
What danger did you have to overcome to rescue the potential victim?
My mind was my worst enemy. Controlling my thoughts, feelings and negative emotions was the most difficult thing for me to overcome. Fear of what I knew was going on was bad, but fear of the unknown was worst. Was there another device in the tent? Was there a sniper on the roof? How many of my coworkers got killed? The real danger made these imagined threats very believable. Instead of worrying about it, I accepted death, then I no longer feared it. The bomb squad detonated suspicious packages. Those “controlled” explosions made the same sound as the other bombs. We didn’t know until later, the other explosions were set off by the good guys and not the bad guys. Our incident was not over, it was unfolding. There was a fire on the other side of the city at the JFK library at UMASS that was suspected to be another bombing at that time. None of us can control what happens outside of us, but we can control what happens inside of us. I couldn’t change this disaster happening all around me so I was forced to change myself. If I had not overcame my mind, I could not have helped anybody. I would have been on the train heading home. I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I had run away. I was a dead man either way. I know you’re not supposed to bargain with God, but I did. I prayed “God, if you let me live, I will use my life and limbs to their fullest. I will live my unlived life.” God let me live, that created a divine inspiration to run marathons, climb mountains and pursue my wildest dreams. I’m on a mission.
So what was the conclusion of the story? How did things end up after the dust settled?
Unfortunately, three innocent lives were lost immediately due to the bombing on marathon Monday. Nearly 300 people were injured from the explosions. Every single person treated and transported ultimately survived due to the immediate care they received on scene and with the outstanding medical care that followed. The largest manhunt in New England history occurred that week. MIT police officer Sean Collier was shot and killed by the terrorist on Thursday. Later that night a civilian was carjacked at gun point and eventually ran to his escape. Our city was in “LOCK DOWN”, people were not allowed to leave their homes and there was a 102-hour manhunt. A massive shootout occurred in Watertown Thursday night. MBTA officer Dic Donahue was shot and survived being in traumatic arrest thanks to his fellow responders. The younger terrorist ran his older brother over with a truck and killed him while escaping. On Friday the surviving terrorist was discovered hiding in a residential boat in Watertown aptly named “the Slip Away II”. Multiple agencies apprehended him, restrained him and Boston EMS transported him to the ER. BPD officer Dennis Simmonds died due to injuries sustained at the Watertown shootout a year later. We are still recovering. That week was the most intense of my life. Just because the city was locked down, 911 never stops. The response by Boston EMS completely changed the game. EMS systems around the world have changed how they respond to HOT ZONE situations and MCI’s. Active shooter training, improved ballistic safety equipment and trauma protocols continue to evolve and change along with the latest evolving and changing threats we face. Survivors with amputations have improved prosthetics devices, survivors with hearing damage have become advocates for the deaf. Invisible injuries like anxiety, depression and PTSD are being talked about more to improve the quality of life for people around the world. Emergency medicine has followed the military’s lead. The war has come to us. Now we use the same techniques soldiers use on the battlefields to treat patients we respond to in neighborhoods. EMS has become a lot more tactical since I started. To me, there is no conclusion to this story…we are still living it. Every day is an opportunity to create a better ending.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can become a hero in their own life? (Please share a story or example for each)
- Do the right thing. James Allen wrote “the time of necessity is the hour of opportunity.” You can’t plan when you’ll be needed, but you can fill the need. It’s spontaneous acts out of kindness and compassion that are the most meaningful. I’m now friends with people I’ve helped over the years that I never would’ve known, but bad situations bring together good people. There is no hug better than from a mother thanking you for saving her daughter’s life. You’ll never regret doing the right thing.
- Believe in yourself, development follows demand. You have to leave your comfort zone to make progress and that means doing things you’ve never done before. Forget the old story you’ve been telling yourself of what you can and can’t do and make up a better one. Be the underdog that beats all the odds and turns all the doubters into believers. When I registered to run BOSTON in 2014, I had never run more than 5 miles and that was back in high school. People laughed at me when I said I was going to the run the marathon because I wasn’t a runner. When I started my long runs, I took the train 10–20 miles away from home and made myself run back. I earned people’s faith, but I had to work for it. Like Carl Jung said “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
- Courage is fear with an attitude. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, it just means you didn’t let fear defeat you. When I first looked into the medical tent, I felt paralyzed with fear from head to toe. I had that feeling like during a dream when you try to move, but can’t. I commanded and willed myself to move and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Fear was my opponent, but I defeated it and took its power. My strength grew out of my weakness.
- Transform your tragedy into your triumph. This is the key to creating a meaningful life. Just as the cure for a deadly snakebite is produced from within the snake itself, we can transform our poisons into our antidotes. We can use what hurt ourselves to heal ourselves. I believe this is the best remedy for suffering. When I crossed the finish line in 2014, I became victorious over my doubts, fears and insecurities. I transformed my pain into glory. I thought I was conquering the marathon, but I really conquered myself.
- Be yourself. We all have some spark of individuality that makes us unique among anyone who has ever lived. Discover your spark and turn that into your fire. I lived most of my life too concerned about other people’s opinions of me. Now I place more importance on living a good life rather than worrying about a good reputation. I’m living my “unlived life” now and I’ll leave it to God alone to judge me. Discover your place in the universe, then light it up like only you can.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?
Boston EMS Special Operations leader Captain Haley trained all of our members to be able to handle any MCI (Mass Casualty Incident) that we may encounter. We performed what we practiced and we practiced what he preached. After the final patient was transported from the bombings, “Sarge” as he was known, performed a head count to see how many of us did not make it. Amazingly, we all made it. None of our EMT’s were killed and nobody ran away. Captain Haley told us he was proud of us and “we all ran the right way.” I became a runner the moment he said those six powerful words. My life changed directions. Not only did I overcome myself and run the right way, we all ran the right way. I run as a tribute for those who can’t and as a testimony for all of us who did.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have a lot of projects going on all the time now. They all aim to unite people and bring out their best. Starting on New Year’s Day, I host an “unofficial” Boston Marathon that is completely free. Race Director Gary Allen recently passed me the torch to continue his 15-year tradition of the “unofficial” NYD Boston Marathon. I’ve received more than I could ever give back from running, but I will die trying. Paying it forward on New Year’s Day is my favorite way to start each year. I train year-round for events that I invent. I ran BOSTON officially in 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2017 I started running an unofficial “4–15 tribute” BOSTON marathon on the anniversary date of the bombings. Captain Haley used to tell us he wanted the marathon to run the other way, to start in Boston and finish in Hopkinton. After he passed away, I continued to run my 4–15 tribute marathon in honor of the victims, survivors, first responders and community, but now I “run the other way” in his honor too. I’m on the victim advocacy counsel for Strength to Strength. A nonprofit organization that supports survivors, first responders and their family members to help them move forward and heal after a terrorist attack through peer support. I’m an ambassador for RecoveryDia, an organization that seeks to inspire hope and strength for those beginning recovery by sharing stories of people who are already in recovery. Last year I became a motivational speaker for audiences following BOSTON the documentary at ICON theatres. I will be speaking at TCAN (the center for arts in Natick) this April. My wife and I just opened a gift shop called Paper Fiesta located on mile 10 of the Boston marathon route in Natick in 2018. I created a project from within our store called “mile10connections.” If you can picture all these projects as the spokes of a wheel, mile10connections would be the hub. It’s my home base to connect the strength, history, spirit and hope of the marathon so I can share it with as many people as possible. I want to keep our history alive and the spirit of the marathon strong. People run for help, run for cover and run to save the day. I believe that running creates hope and with hope, anything is possible.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Pursue a life of self-mastery. If everyone worked on their own thoughts and habits, there would be less people getting into trouble and more people better able to get them out. Work on yourself and a world of opportunities will arise to help others. You’ll discover doors where you only saw walls. We are all connected and have an effect on one another. Progress within yourself and you’ll create progress outside yourself. Change yourself and you’ll change the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Follow your bliss” by Joseph Campbell. When I was a little boy I knew what I wanted to do. Play all the time. I ran around the forest pretending to rescue people. As I became a man, I did what I thought other people wanted me to do. I was not living out of my own center and would never have been fully deeply satisfied even if I was a millionaire. I hated to run because it hurt so much and pretending to rescue people is not cool when your 24. It took tragic events to guide me back to my path. 9–11 is the reason I became a first responder. The Boston Marathon bombing is the reason I became a runner. My own suffering is the reason I became an advocate to help others who suffer. Find what you feel the world is missing and then give it to them. By doing what makes you happy, you create more happiness. Follow your bliss and your life becomes your play. That thing you want to do, but scares you, that idea you think people will laugh at and nobody will understand, that’s where your bliss is. Do that.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Facebook: @Mile10connections and Instagram @mile10connections. Our family store is also on Facebook and Instagram @paperfiesta
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
Those were great questions! Thank you for the opportunity.