LEE — Jeff Bauman was an ordinary young man chaotically thrown into an extraordinary life.
On April 15, 2013, the then 27-year-old had a good job, a loving girlfriend and was passionately rooted for the Boston sports teams.
Then, the first of two explosions at the Boston Marathon took his legs.
In the days that followed, he fought through the pain and shock of the terrorist attack to help state police and the FBI identify one of the Tsarnaev brothers, who planted the homemade bombs near the finish line.
As he lay in a hospital bed at Boston Medical Center, Bauman was hailed by many as a hero.
"I didn't think I was a hero," he said. "I just wanted to tell what I knew in case I died."
Bauman would live to eventually learn how to walk again with high-tech prosthetic legs, marry his girlfriend, start a family, write a book about his recovery and become an inspiration to others on how to handle extreme adversity.
Now an author and motivational speaker, Bauman stood before a packed auditorium at Lee Middle and High School on Wednesday and recounted — with a dose of levity — how he was thrust into the spotlight nearly three years ago.
Sporting T-shirt made specially for the occasion, he told his story to students in grades 5 and up from St. Mary's School and the Lee Public Schools. He appeared at a second assembly in the evening for the general public.
The shirt in the colors of the Lee High Wildcats was black with orange lettering that read "Boston Strong," the "O" in strong replaced by the logo of the Wildcats' paw.
The school district's Wellness Committee, assisted by several local businesses, sponsored Bauman's visit. The morning session also was attended by representatives from several local police departments invited by Lee Police Chief Jeffrey Roosa.
Roosa praised Bauman for being a key eyewitness to the horrific attack that killed three people and injured more than 200 bystanders cheering on the runners.
"He was the perfect example of 'see something, say something' — even after a traumatic event," he told The Eagle.
Despite growing up in Chelsea, Bauman had never watched the marathon in person until his girlfriend Erin Hurley trained for her first-ever 26.2 mile race from Hopkinton to Boston's Copley Square. Hurley was a mile out from the finish line when the pressure-cooker bombs detonated, dropping Bauman to the pavement.
"I looked down and my legs weren't there," he said.
A pair of good Samaritans rushed Bauman to a medical tent, where he was quickly loaded into an ambulance and taken to Boston Medical Center. The next day he told investigators the strange behavior of one person just before the explosions rocked the area.
"I saw this kid bump into me who looked out of place," he recalled. "He wasn't clapping or taking pictures — he looked miserable."
Bauman then noticed the yet-to-be-identified suspect leave a bag on the sidewalk, but he didn't think much of it at the time.
The information helped the FBI identify the Tsarnaevs as suspects. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with law enforcement in Watertown and brother Dzhokhar was captured, convicted and sentenced to death for the attacks. His execution is pending.
Physically a wreck, Bauman wasn't sure what kind of life he could have, but with support of family friends and his future wife, he literally pulled himself up thanks to sophisticated prosthetic legs — each costing $100,000 — and months of physical therapy.
"Physical torture is what I called it," he said.
The recovery period also included newfound celebrity status as he went on the ice prior to a Boston Bruins home playoff game, threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park and began to receive book offers to tell his story.
Bauman would collaborate with Bret Witter to pen "Stronger," which became a New York Times paperback bestseller, released just before the 2014 Boston Marathon. At first, Bauman reluctantly went back to the finish line with other survivors on the first anniversary of the bombing.
The return visit did wonders for his psyche
"I don't fear it any more," he said. "I'll go every year, if they'll have me."
Physically, Bauman says he needed 18 months to fully recover, especially sleeping comfortably at night.
Emotionally, Bauman has drawn strength from two blessed events in 2014: the birth of his daughter, Nora Gail, and his marriage to Hurley.
"I'm a kid with no legs and I never thought anybody would be by my side — but Erin stayed with me," he said.
Bauman also worried what his daughter would think of him not having real legs.
His new bride put those fears to rest, too.
"Erin said [Nora] is going to think the other dads are weird that they have them," he said.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.