19 April 2013

Boston Part Two: The Horror

[Ed. Note:  I penned this entry last night, intending to upload it tonight to allow a little time between postings.  The events of the last twenty-four hours, begun before this was written yet entirely unknown to me at the time, have just now thankfully concluded with the apprehension of the second suspect.  I like the rest of our nation and the world send thanks that cannot be put into words for the brave and heroic response by our law enforcement teams as well as the citizens of the resilient communities involved.  I send prayers to the families of yet more victims.  And I send hope that this is, indeed, the right conclusion; that this horrible chapter of history is truly ready to close.  With that, here is my story of Monday’s events.]

Any other year I wouldn’t have experienced Monday’s events the same way.

A decade ago, I would have been nowhere near Boston on Patriot’s Day.  But that changed when I returned to the sport, pursued the race I’d never accomplished as a youth, and found enough aptitude to qualify for Boston, beginning a seven-year run of the storied event.  In the first years of my involvement, I would have been on the bus to Hopkinton already, having finished and with little left to keep me in the city.  But that changed when one of those great friends you meet in the running community invited me to his club’s after-party at a hotel a few blocks southeast of the finish.  The last several years I would have been in that hotel a few blocks southeast, out of the line of sight of the unimaginable activities unfolding on Boylston Street.  But that changed when someone somewhere struck a deal to sell that hotel to a new party who took it upscale, so the club moved the party this year to the Marriott Copley, just a block and a half south of the finish.  The Marriott served up a top-floor suite with a sweeping view; the actual finish was obstructed by the Boston Public Library, but bits of Boylston Street leading to the finish and a straight shot down Huntington Avenue to Copley Square, the medical tent, and the finish chute were spread before us like a surreal theatre.  We were spared the horror of the actual scene, but witnessed firsthand most all that transpired around it.  We witnessed ugly history from a block and a half away, thirty-eight floors up.

It could have been a lot worse.  Many witnessed it up close and personal.  You have heard the terrible human toll.  We were very lucky.  Some have told me it was a good thing that I ran fast and therefore was out of harm’s way.  That turned out to be true, but I can’t claim that my fleetness of foot spared me.  It was simply dumb luck, based on the timing of madmen.

After the race of my life, I took my time to savor the moment.  I was in no rush, meandering slowly through the chute, chatting with fellow runners, wandering the family meeting area seeking and finding several friends and club-mates.  Eventually I made my way to the Marriott, the new home of the annual Squannacook River Runners’ after-party.  These folks, who barely know me as they’re not my primary club, have always extended a tremendous welcome and superb hospitality.  It was my pleasure to help them bring home a brick in last December’s Mill Cities Relay, which was of course great fun for me, but also a way to give back to their club in the form of a little pride and enthusiasm.  This year was no different, as I stepped gingerly into the suite; despite wearing Greater Boston red, for that moment I was again a Squannie, and at home amongst their camaraderie.  Let the celebration begin, grab a beer, down the celebratory ibuprofen, and start sharing tales as other Squannie runners started to filter in!

There are different sorts of deafening noises.  Thunder.  Really close thunder.  Fireworks.  National Guard artillery practice, which echoes across the land.  In this case, many interviewed in the media described the sound as being like a cannon.  Some even thought it was indeed some sort of celebratory cannon, though they couldn’t understand why there would be such a thing.  They were exactly right.  Each time I relive this – and it has been many times – the sound is distinctly a cannon.

The shock wave shook the thirty-eight story Marriott.  We leapt to the panoramic windows to see a huge cloud – instantly ten to fifteen stories high – of white smoke rising above the finish area behind the Boston Public Library.  Expletives were emitted around the room.  Bafflement reigned.  Then the second report, this time just out of our range, no smoke visible to us.  Like on 9/11, we now knew it was no accident, yet we didn’t want to believe it.  We tried to theorize what could have caused it other than what we feared, and in our hearts knew, it had been.  Gas?  Unlikely to erupt twice, and no subsequent fire.  Generator trucks?  But they were parked on Exeter Street, directly in our view, and unaffected.  Manhole explosion from an underground transformer, a surprisingly common event over the years in Boston?  Possible for one to link to and cause another, but would have been followed by black, acrid electrical smoke.  There really was no other way to explain away what we’d witnessed.  The irony was not lost on me that 9/11 was also a crystal clear, perfect day, it obscured with massive smoke and fire, ours obscured only with an ephemeral puff, but both with similar gaping holes ripped into our mostly peaceful society.

The big screen televisions were as yet unaware, and would not go live for what seemed at least ten, perhaps fifteen minutes, which surprised us considering the concentration of media in that area covering the race.  We didn’t need television to tell us what was happening.  We could see people fleeing the scene, running for their lives.  We could see runners still approaching the finish, but slowing, uncertain what to do.  We had the clearest view over Copley Square to the finish chute, where runners had been slowly make their way past vast stores of fluids, food, medals, heat sheets, and countless smiling volunteers.  And it was in chaos.  The view below us was surreal, frightening, and entirely deflating.  Not yet knowing – though certainly fearing – that someone had killed people, we already knew that someone had killed – or at least tried to kill – our marathon, our celebration of the human spirit, our joyful unification of people from around the planet, all for good.  The pits of our stomachs roiled.

When the television news started catching up, it only confirmed what we already knew, and only grew more wearying as they in their best effort to report facts as they became available could do little but repeat over and over the few facts that had become available.  Eventually we found the need to mute the sound of repetition we couldn’t hear yet again, at least until new events came about, such as official news conferences ironically being held across the street in the Westin, just below our suite.

The next hour became a frenzy of ascertaining the safety of our Squannie club-mates.  Being only on the edge of this group, I found myself in an odd position of worrying also about my Greater Boston and Highland City club-mates, but being without a phone (I don’t carry mine in the marathon), I was helpless to pursue the status of those companions.  Cell service had been severed to assure that no additional cell-phone-triggered blasts could be detonated, though text messages and data were flowing.  Fortunately, my text message of my safety reached my wife before she’d turned on the news, and just minutes before family, friends, and neighbors began calling her, sparing her the angst that so many experienced that day.

Yet we didn’t know if we were truly safe.  We didn’t know if it was over.  We watched in fascinated horror as ambulances lined Huntington Avenue below us, executing skillfully on the mass casualty drills they’d probably practiced so many times as to be tired of them, which they’d hoped they’d never use.  Sirens screamed as every conceivable kind of emergency vehicle made its way to the scene below us.  And amidst all this, yet another thudding report, shaking our already shaken psyches, making us truly aware of just how tenuous the situation really was.  That latter blast was reported as having come from miles away at the JFK Library, was later tied to an apparently unrelated fire event, but in the midst of media reports – later discounted – of additional devices having been found, we simply didn’t know how big this theatre was, or whether more horror was still to come, or whether our location would be a part of it.

News trickled in of the race being stopped.  News trickled in on the whereabouts of our runners.  And a few of our runners trickled in, having run the gauntlet of instant – and justified – high security at the hotel entrance.  Our closest call had just finished minutes earlier and had elected to go to the medical tent for typical marathon maladies.  He was present front and center as the wounded, the mauled, the dead, were brought in.  What he described has already brought shock and tears as reported by the media and need not be repeated here.

Unlike him, we were spared the view of the human destruction, the real blood.  But one image struck me again and again as I surveyed the scene, and sticks with me now in sickening remembrance.  Straight down Huntington, over the back side of the medical tent where so much trauma and triage was being managed, over Copley Square, to what had been the triumph of big race logistics, the grand finish chute running down Boylston Street lay in ruins.  Hundreds of tables that had lined the center of the street like a giant traffic island, serving runners by the thousands on both sides, had been shoved to the side in wild, uncontrolled haste to allow passage of first responders.  Wreckage lined the curbs and sidewalks, and the stain of thousands of cups of Gatorade that had been spilled instantly onto the street looked like the symbolic blood of a slain marathon.  The streets had calmed, activity was sparse, just the wreckage.  And the stain.

Eventually we verified the safety of our team, or at least the Squannacook team; as I noted, I couldn’t subvert their phones, heavily in use, for this purpose for my other teams.  I was reasonably confident that the Greater Boston team would have finished long before, but I wasn’t at all as certain about the Highland City runners, several of whom were in later waves and certain to be running at a slower pace.  I had to remain confident that the same effort being put forth by the Squannies was likely also being done by the other clubs.

We then faced the problem of what to do next.  The entire area had been cordoned off.  We knew from the media that the Green Line of the MBTA was shut down.  We could see from our vantage point that the buses chartered to take us back to Hopkinton weren’t going anywhere; none had moved, and nobody could approach them in the cordoned area.  We considered bunking down in the suite.  After all, we had enough food to feed ourselves for days on end.  But I’m sure others felt as I did; we simply wanted to be home, with our families, away from the insanity.

We settled on a plan to walk a mile and a half to a Red Line MBTA station.  Yes, it was a long city walk with an overstuffed sack of marathon baggage, but I traditionally take a hike around Hopkinton State Park at the end of the day anyway, and felt up to it, despite a wicked blister (hey, it was only on one foot, look at the bright side, right?).  The walk was almost healing, a band of brothers tossed together under uncontrollable circumstances, watching each others’ backs in our escape from the danger zone.  The Squannies had a couple cars parked at the Alewife station at the end of the Red Line, and after a train ride that lasted well over an hour due to signaling problems that may or may not have had anything to do with the mayhem of the day, through their generosity I was able to escape the city, meeting my wife with a huge sense of relief and joy..  The spirit of brotherhood that glued us together for that journey was truly heartening.  I usually can’t thank them enough just for the hospitality of their party.  This time I can’t thank them enough for a whole lot more.

On my return home, nearing nine in the evening, I was truly amazed at the outpouring that awaited me.  Literally hundreds of emails, text messages, and phone messages and calls, queued up, expressing concern for my safety and for my family.  Despite the huge number that my wife had already answered, it was hours before I could rest, having assured all who worried that all was well.  Over subsequent days, more and more have poured in.  I was, and am, humbled.

For me, the day is over.  For the injured, and the families of those killed, the agony of healing has barely begun, and I pray for them.  For our city and our nation and the world, the path forward is tenuously split:  we are defiant and profess to carry on, but we know that vigilance and security must become a greater part of our lives.  Pondering on the future is a topic for another night.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have friends and others I kind of know who ran Boston this year. Thankfully, they were spared the horror. (Though some were sooo close!) I am thankful you made it through alright. Though, this memory will probably never leave you. My heart breaks for those who died and those who have been injured beyond repair. It has been a surreal week. My oldest son come home, for the first time startled by terrorist violence. He said to me, "This run is something you would do?" All off a sudden my child realized that terrorists stop at nothing, even races his Mom might run. God bless you & all those who were affected by this terror.

  2. Gary, thanks so much for sharing. Having my second Boston Marathon end on Heartbreak Hill, well short of the tragedy and mayhem, still left a paralytic mark on me throughout the week. Your blog entries help with the processing - just wanted you to know. So glad to hear that you and all your friends are safe and well, and that Rocket John had your back, like an excellent tail wind.


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