April 20, 2013

Across America, a week of chaos, horror – and hope

'It seems to be a spiral of things happening one after the other. It can be inundating on your senses.'

Jesse Washington / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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In this Wednesday photo, a mourner reacts during a candlelight vigil at City Hall in Cambridge, Mass. in the aftermath of Monday's Boston Marathon explosions.


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People react as an explosion goes off near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston on Monday. Event after nail-biting event, America was rocked this week, in rare and frightening ways, with what felt like an unremitting series of tragedies.

AP / The Boston Globe, David L. Ryan

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"I think it's fair to say this entire week we've been in pretty direct confrontation with evil," Secretary of State John Kerry said.

All this happened as the Senate, with high feelings on both sides, voted down legislation that would have banned assault weapons and expanded background checks of gun buyers. The measures, sought for decades, only became possible after 20 children and six others were gunned down at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

The defeat of the bill "brought the whole Sandy Hook thing up again," said Rachel Allen, a lawyer from suburban Pittsburgh.

"There are so many senseless things that go on, and you see how people can come together," Allen said Friday. She recalled being moved to tears watching the first Boston Bruins hockey game after the bombing, when the national anthem singer fell silent and let the entire arena roar the song to a finish.

Events in Washington can magnify the sense of chaos, says Fischoff, the psychologist. "Most of our institutions that we use to stabilize ourselves and our country are damaged, crippled," he said. "What you're having is a kind of emotional, cognitive anarchy."

Late Wednesday night, reports emerged of an explosion outside Waco, Texas. As Thursday dawned, the magnitude became clear: A fertilizer plant had blown up with such force, it registered as an earthquake and wrecked homes, apartments, a school and a nursing home. As of Saturday morning, 14 people were dead.

"Is this week feeling a little apocalyptic to anyone else?" tweeted Jessica Coen, editor in chief of the Jezebel.com blog. "Boston. Poison. Explosions. Floods. Tomorrow, locusts."

Recent Aprils have often been cruel to America. In 1993, dozens died in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. In 1995, a domestic terrorist killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. In 1999, two students killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves at Columbine High School. In 2007, a student rampage left 32 innocents dead at Virginia Tech.

But April 2013's convergence of events is extremely rare, statisticians say.

Such calculations are based on the likelihood of each individual tragedy, said Michael Baron, a professor of statistics at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Baron has no actual data on how often this week's events have separately occurred throughout history. But he estimated that if a terrorist attack occurs once every four years, a suspicious mailing once per year and an industrial accident twice per year, there is a .000004 probability of them all happening in the same week — "once in 4,808 years."

Such absurd odds were too much for the satirical publication The Onion to resist.

The Onion "report" offered this "quote": "'Maybe next time we have a week, they can try not to pack it completely to the (expletive) brim with explosions, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies, weeping, and the utter uselessness of our political system,' said basically every person in America who isn't comatose or a complete sociopath.'"

The week was no joke for Mary Helen Gillespie, a bank vice president who lives near Boston. When she saw news of the Texas explosion, "I got sick to my gut."

"If we were to look at a map of the United States right now — our country is strong and proud and brave and we will win. But if you look at a map, we are bleeding," Gillespie said.

"The world is upside down," she said. "Facebook can't keep up with it, TV can't keep up with it. It's just overwhelming."

"What I found was hope in prayer," Gillespie said. "The more the media started reporting on the stories of hope, the heroes, the first responders, the everyday Americans going out trying to save others. That was my inspiration. It was, OK, this will get better."

(Continued on page 3)

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Additional Photos

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Emergency personnel on Thursday search the rubble of an apartment destroyed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.


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Federal agents wearing hazardous material suits inspect a trash can on Friday outside the house of Paul Kevin Curtis in Corinth, Miss. Curtis is in custody under the suspicion of sending letters covered in ricin to President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.



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