Feature Thousand Words

Thousand Words: The Everyday Heroes of Patriots Day – A Conversation with Sergeant Jeff Pugliese

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The world seems to be following a tragedy-a-week ratio this year. Human crises rage on in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, natural disasters have destroyed lives in Afghanistan and Italy and terrorists have struck in Pakistan and the Middle East. What matters in the face of these events, divisive as they are, is how they bring people together. Communities are pulling together in rescue, support and, simply, compassion. No story tells of the strength of a united community better than that which began on 15th April, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.

The story of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath is the focus of Patriots Day, released in the UK on Friday. It tells of Boston’s unbreakable will to protect itself and others. At approximately 2:50pm, two homemade bombs exploded amongst the cheering crowds. Deep plumes of smoke filled the sky as panic filled the air. Three people would lose their lives and hundreds more were injured. It could have been much worse, however, as the two terrorists who committed this heinous act planned to do it again. They were thwarted four days later by the incredible response of over 1,000 law enforcement personnel as well as the Boston community, which united in response.

Sergeant Jeff Pugliese was on the set of Patriots Day almost every night, working as a consultant to ensure the film, in which he is played by J. K. Simmons, captures what really happened over those intense days that followed. We sat down with the Sergeant to find out his story.

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Pugliese heard of the attack in the same way everyone else did, over the news. As the reports filtered in over the radio, he “sat there in disbelief”, at first hoping it was an underground electrical explosion, but soon realising the reality was much worse. Three days later, he would take a stand. What’s more, Sgt Pugliese should have been wrapped up in bed by the time he was called to action. A lost report changed the course of his life.

By 18th April, the authorities had narrowed in on Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon terrorists, forcing them to leave the Boston area. The brothers carjacked an SUV and took the driver hostage. The hostage escaped, however, seizing the chance to flee when Dzhokhar had stepped out of the vehicle to pay for fuel.

At this time, Sgt Pugliese was in the neighbouring Watertown, busy trying to recover a report that his lieutenant had deleted from the computer. After an hour of searching, he called it a night.

“I went out to my van and I’m sitting there having a cigar, listening to the police radio, and I heard that there was a carjacked vehicle, the suspects may possibly be armed. And it’s in Watertown on Dexter Avenue.” The hostage had tipped off the police to a GPS tracker in the car and the net was closing. He was no longer on duty, but instead of heading home, Sgt Pugliese decided to “head in that direction” to be an “extra set of eyes”.

He arrived at a shootout, with police pinned down by incoming fire and homemade explosives. “I put on my vest and as I’m coming around the corner the pressure cooker bomb goes off. I go into the front yard… but nobody’s advancing so I decided I’d cut through some back yards, come up on their flank and engage them that way.”

After hopping some fences, Sgt Pugliese engaged in a firefight with one of the terrorists. At one point he was just six feet from Tamerlan Tsarnaev, bullets skipping both ways between either side of justice. Sgt Pugliese’s actions led to the capture of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, consequently, also to that of Dzhokhar. He should have been at home, but he wasn’t. He took the harder path, and helped save the lives of unknown others.

Sgt Pugliese was not the only person to act for the good of the others in the days following the tragedy; the Boston area was full of stories of ordinary heroism, from ‘the man in the cowboy hat’ who acted fast to help save a life on the finish line, to the man who noticed something strange in his boat and whose actions led to the capture of the second terrorist, Dzhokhar. These stories reflect those we hear today, from the altruists who worked through the night to dig people out from beneath the snow in Italy to the numerous stories of ordinary heroes working to make the lives of Aleppo citizens that bit brighter.

The story of Patriots’ Day shows just how vital this selfless support is. “The police and the community joined together,” says Sgt Pugliese. “They hunted these individuals down and brought them to justice. It was the cooperation of the police and community.” Just as rescue squads or aid agencies can’t react to the world’s tragedies by themselves, Sgt Pugliese says, “the police can’t do this job alone. We can go out there and we can do what we have to do but we can’t function without the community’s input.”

As Sgt Pugliese puts it, “It’s not just pertinent to Boston or the United States, this pulling together, you’re seeing it now all over the world. Communities are stepping up everywhere and cooperating with the police and making a unified front.”

We must remember that heroes like Sgt Pugliese are not as large as their on-screen counterparts. Spending hours at a shooting range with Oscar-winner J. K. Simmons must have been a thrill, but Sgt Pugliese’s life is much like any of ours. Every day he goes to Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up a coffee for himself and his wife. “If I’m going into work I’ll leave a little early, get a coffee and bring it home. Even on my days off I’ll get out of bed, I’ll say to my wife ‘Do you want a coffee?’ and she’ll say ‘Yeah, sure’. ‘Do you want anything with it?’ Sometimes it’s a blueberry muffin and sometimes it’s a bagel… We’ll sit there and drink our coffee and read the newspaper or whatever else.”

Heroes smoke, drink coffee and read the newspaper. They’re all around us, saving lives and buying their partner breakfast.

Patriots Day is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 23rd February.

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