Immediately following the Boston Marathon attacks, individuals near the scene posted a deluge of data to social media sites. Previous work has shown that these data can be leveraged to provide rapid insight during natural disasters, disease outbreaks and ongoing conflicts that can assist in the public health and medical response. Here, we examine and discuss the social media messages posted immediately after and around the Boston Marathon bombings, and find that specific keywords appear frequently prior to official public safety and news media reports. Individuals immediately adjacent to the explosions posted messages within minutes via Twitter which identify the location and specifics of events, demonstrating a role for social media in the early recognition and characterization of emergency events. *Christopher Cassa and Rumi Chunara contributed equally to this work.