Point of Impact
By Chris Oakley
One doesn’t have to go too far to look for reminders of how the face of Boston was changed ten years ago by the Faneuil Hall asteroid strike. In fact, much of the city is still clearing away debris from that devastating July afternoon when a chunk of the heavens slammed into the Athens of America and unleashed a firestorm the likes of which the world hadn’t seen in an urban area since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosion from that impact was heard all the way to Cape Cod, and the smoke from the fires which burned in the aftermath of the asteroid hit could be seen from the top floors of office buildings in Montreal. In this article, we’ll review the chain of events from that catastrophic day and meet some of the Bostonians who lived through it.
The Faneuil Hall asteroid weighed approximately three tons and was approximately equivalent in size to a Greyhound bus. It was traveling at a speed of approximately 20,000 miles per hour when it struck and generated the explosive force of a 10-megaton nuclear warhead; windows shattered instantly and fires raged which took Boston firefighters at least three days to get under control. One of those firefighters, Sean Moran, has been visiting the impact site at least once a month since the asteroid strike to pay homage to his fallen comrades. And there’s a lot of them to remember; the casualty toll suffered by the Boston Fire Department as a result of the Faneuil Hall asteroid strike was the highest such count inflicted on a metropolitan US fire department, surpassing the previous record of 343 FDNY personnel killed in New York City in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
"It was like a war zone." Moran says, a BFD battalion chief’s badge pinned to his chest in spite of his relatively young age. Some 502 BFD firefighters were killed during the asteroid strike and its aftermath; Moran’s old battalion chief was one of the first casualties. "I mean, you could literally see the smoke for a thousand miles....we had to call in engine companies from New Hampshire, for God’s sake. The fire was that bad-- it was just like Chicago in 1871."
He’s not exaggerating by much; in terms of property damage and civilian loss of life, the Faneuil Hall asteroid strike is ranked as one of the worst natural disasters in American history, on a par with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Kansas City tornado of 2028. The 502 Boston firefighters lost in the asteroid strike were among a larger death count of 11,347 people who died either from the strike itself or from the fires that raged in the hours and days immediately following the catastrophe. Moran himself suffered nearly as much as his comrades did, spending weeks in Massachusetts General Hospital recuperating from second-degree burns and a sprained leg.
The image which has stuck most firmly in Moran’s mind from that day is the sight of huge curtains of flame scorching the charred remains of what had once been Faneuil Hall Marketplace. "It was like something from one of those Michael Bay movies I used to watch on Netflix when I was a kid." Moran says, shaking his head in melancholy wonder. "The thing must’ve been, like, a thousand feet high. And the smell-- you couldn’t get away from it. So many people getting burned, not to mention all the animals at the Aquarium..."1 Moran spent months in psychological and physical therapy trying to recover from the horrors of that day, and even today he still has physical and emotional scars from the disaster.
Though he has no physical wounds, former Massachusetts General Hospital burn unit chief Dr. Zhou Wang bears a number of emotional ones from that day. What Dr. Wang saw and felt during the first 48 hours after the asteroid strike so deeply injured his psyche he was driven to leave MGH less than six weeks after the strike; in fact, he almost quit the medical profession completely. He refuses to talk about precisely what it was that made him abandon his lucrative and highly successful surgical practice at MGH, but he has indicated in general terms that the feeling of helplessness that overwhelmed him in the aftermath of the Faneuil Hall disaster was a major factor in his decision to resign.
In the years since leaving MGH, Dr. Wang has worked mostly in Toronto at York University Hospital’s pediatric ward, with occasional consultative visits to hospitals in his ancestral homeland Taiwan. He rarely if ever visits the States anymore, and when he does he usually makes it a point to avoid Boston as much as possible. "It’s much too depressing for me to even hear its name anymore." he sighs, casting a melancholy gaze out his office window at the Toronto skyline. "All I can think about whenever anyone brings up Boston is the people that I couldn’t help when they needed it most."
He’s not the only physician to experience such feelings in the wake of the Fanueil Hall asteroid strike; a US Labor Department report published two years after the strike shows that nearly all of Boston’s major medical facilities experienced a surge in personnel turnovers in in the first year following the disaster. One Boston hospital lost so many doctors, nurses, and support staff that it was forced to shut its doors for good within six months after the post-impact recovery effort began. Psychiatrists’ offices in the Boston/Cambridge area today are still treating impact-related cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among the city’s remaining health care professionals.
If you follow the National Hockey League on even a semi-regular basis, you probably won’t have much trouble recognizing the face of Bruins defenseman Nikolai Petrov. Petrov, chosen by the Bruins in the second round of the NHL draft three years prior to the asteroid strike, may be the most well-known player to wear the black & gold since Bobby Orr; his face has appeared in every major media outlet from Sports Illustrated to TMZ.com. In fact, he was sitting for an interview with a Boston Herald sportswriter when the Faneuil Hall asteroid hit. He’s said he could actually feel the impact of the hit from his suite in one of the city’s largest hotels, and if this sounds like an exaggeration, it’s only a very slight one.
"I remember falling out of my chair, almost like somebody had pushed me." Petrov says, his buzzcut making look more a prison guard or an army recruit than one of the NHL’s most popular players. "The whole building seemed to be shaking from side to side...At first I thought it was an earthquake, and I told Evan(ex-Boston Herald hockey beat writer Evan Schumer) to follow me out of the hotel as fast as he could run." It wasn’t until Schumer and Petrov were out on the streets in front of the hotel that they realized what was actually happening. The pictures of the impact site that Schumer took with his cell phone camera would later garner him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and play a major role in FEMA’s post-impact efforts to determine the fate of Bostonians reported missing after the strike.
Petrov and Schumer both climbed into Petrov’s SUV and drove up to Jamaica Plain, where emergency aid stations had been set up to ease some of the burden which had been placed on Boston’s hospitals by the asteroid strike. Once there, they pitched in right alongside the aid workers in tending to the injured and helping families who’d been separated by the strike reconnect with one another. Petrov would later be honored by the NHL and the Massachusetts state Senate for his volunteer work in the aftermath of the asteroid strike.
In contrast to Dr. Zhou Wang’s decision to leave Boston for good following the strike, Petrov chose to make the city his permanent home after the asteroid crisis. "It would be disloyal of me to abandon this city." he says, fingering a coffee mug given to him by the Boston Fire Department in recognition of his volunteer work. "Boston has given me so much, and to turn my back on it would be unforgivable." Putting his money where his mouth is, the Bruins star and two-time NHL defenseman of the year has bought a house in East Boston and sponsors a number of scholarship programs for the children of asteroid survivors.
Sue Connor is a powwow dancer of mixed Wampanoag and Scotch-Irish descent who uses her dancing and storytelling talents to educate her audiences about Native American culture. She takes a great deal of pride both in her blended heritage and in her ability to connect with the audience, particularly the schoolchildren for who she most often performs when she’s not participating in the dance competitions that are an integral part of the powwow circuit in North America. "I consider it a huge gift to be able to connect with others through my dancing and my stories." she says, modeling the white buckskin dress she often wears in her performances. "Children are my favorite audiences, because they’re so curious and open-minded..."
In fact, she was heading home from a visit to an elementary school in South Boston when the Fanueil Hall asteroid hit. "I was out on the highway when I heard this loud blast," she says, "almost like somebody setting off dynamite in the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Two seconds later I hit my brakes so hard I could feel it all the way up my leg. I turned to see if anybody was behind me, and that’s when I noticed the fireball bursting up from the Boston skyline." Ms. Connor also noticed a school van that had run off the side of the road and overturned; the van’s passengers were thankfully for the most part unharmed, but its driver had been seriously hurt and needed help.
"The minute I saw the van, I knew I couldn’t just leave." Connor recalls. "I pulled over and used one of my hairpins to open the lock for the van’s back door...once I’d made sure the kids in the van got out and were safe, I unhooked the driver’s seat belt and carried him as far from the van as I could." It was fortunate that she did so; in a matter of minutes the van had caught fire.
A Massachusetts State Police helicopter noticed the fire and radioed for assistance; two Cambridge firefighters showed up with fire extinguishers and put out the flames in the van, and shortly afterward a medevac chopper arrived to take the van driver out to Harvard Medical Center to undergo treatment for back and shoulder injuries. For her actions in rescuing the van’s driver and his passengers, Ms. Connor would subsequently be honored by the Boston City Council and the Massachusetts state senate.
The experience would also inspire Connor to create an original interpretive dance work, Guardian Spirit, which blends traditional Native American dance styles and modern ballet steps to tell the story of a mystical being who swoops down from the heavens to pull a group of children out of the path of a terrible forest fire. She dedicated her first performance of Spirit to the children whom she had saved from the overturned van the day of the asteroid strike.
Current Boston mayor Joaquin Valdes cut his political teeth as a canvasser for the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign. The skills he learned on that job would prove to come in handy when the time came for him to embark on his own political career. "When you spend seven hours a day pounding pavement and ringing doorbells," he jokes, "you learn a thing or two about hanging in for the long haul." And he’s definitely had some long hauls in his mayoral campaigns, not to mention several runs for the Boston City Council. In fact, he was in the midst of revising a campaign speech in his Jamaica Plain home when the Faneuil Hall asteroid hit.
"The thing I remember most is hearing this huge thud, kind of like somebody dropping a safe off the top of a cliff." Valdes recalls, pointing out his kitchen window in the direction of Faneuil Hall. "My first thought was that a transformer had blown....it wasn’t until one of my aides called me on my cell that I knew what really happened." As soon as the phone call ended, he jumped in his car and drove towards the impact site; he got to within fifteen miles of the site of the asteroid strike before he was stopped by a Massachusetts State Police trooper. "The guy told me Faneuil Hall had literally been wiped off the map, and while he was talking I looked out my car window and I saw huge black puffs of smoke like you get when a volcano erupts." He then made his way over to Boston City Hall, where the mayor had called an emergency session of the city council to debrief them on the strike and begin coordinating the city’s response to the disaster; during the session, one of Valdes’ fellow council members happened to turn on CNN to look for additional news, and at that point Valdes saw the first live video footage of the Faneuil Hall area post-impact. "It just...it just turned my stomach." he recalls hoarsely.
The impact site resembled a war zone, as Valdes remembers it. "It reminded me of those old World War II newsreels from when London got bombed." he says, vaguely shuddering at the memory. "There was fire and smoke coming from all directions." He would spend several months after the asteroid strike receiving professional mental health counseling for the psychological wounds he’d sustained on that tragic day; in his first mayoral campaign, one of his challengers touched off a major controversy when the challenger’s campaign aired a series of TV ads citing Valdes’ post-strike mental health problems as a sign Valdes would be unable to lead the city government effectively. That tactic backfired to the extreme-- Valdes won the Boston mayoral race in a landslide.2
There are plenty more stories we could tell about the Faneuil Hall asteroid strike and the scars it left on the city of Boston and its people, but perhaps the one which best sums up how Boston’s been changed by the disaster has to do with the now-demolished Fenway Park. Before the asteroid strike, virtually all attempts to replace the venerable baseball shrine had met with bitter resistance; some such attempts had been abandoned before they were even started out of a sense that they were predestined to fail.
That, however, was before Fenway Park became a mass graveyard to accommodate the overflow of corpses which could not be stored in the city’s regular morgues for lack of room. The memory of that grim event turned out to be a severe deterrent against anyone wanting to return to the park to see an ordinary baseball game; it was a blow from which the Red Sox had trouble recovering, and within eighteen months after the asteroid strike the once-highly lucrative franchise was facing a $200 million deficit and having to sell off many of its most important assets in order to avoid going out of business.
Three years after the strike, the Boston City Council would overwhelmingly approve a budget bill providing funds for the team to construct a new permanent home park in Dorchester on the site of the old Boston Globe building. Ironically, the paper had shut down for good scarcely a week before the bill was passed, which meant that two long-standing Boston institutions were vanishing from the scene almost simultaneously.
All that remains of what the late John Updike famously called "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark" is the fabled Green Monster, which now serves as a memorial wall listing the names of those who perished in the asteroid strike. With these people, and the debris cleared away after the rest of Fenway Park was torn down, there lies buried the memory of a Boston that no longer exists. The city has been forever transformed by the asteroid strike physically as well as emotionally; to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe’s favorite phrase, Bostonians can’t go home again-- and in some cases wouldn’t want to.
 Prior to the asteroid strike the New England Aquarium, located just a short distance from the impact site, had been one of Boston’s most popular tourist attractions. The Aquarium’s entire marine life inventory was lost in the asteroid strike along with most of its human staff; little remains of the Aquarium’s facilities today except for the ruins of its IMAX theater and the overturned hull of a whale-watching boat that had been preparing to set sail just before the asteroid hit.
 Some of the votes which helped push Valdes over the top came from former supporters of the challenger-- in a few cases including people living in the challenger’s home district --who switched their support to the Valdes campaign as a sign of protest of what some considered insensitivity towards people struggling to cope with mental health issues in their daily lives.