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Tragedy in Boston hits home

Russell Flemming, Contributor
April 24, 2013
Filed under News, Top Stories

Notes From the 117th Boston Marathon

April 22, 2013 – It’s been seven days since I ran the Boston Marathon.  It’s been a tough week for victims and families after two explosions rocked the finish line.   Many of my friends and relatives knew that I could have been one of those victims.  They were following my progress along the course via their computers and phone apps.  They saw that I was taking the race easy and not running the race for a personal best.

They watched me zigzag up and down the course high-fiving the little kids, stopping to pet dogs, talk with the spectators, listen to the many jazz and rock bands playing along the 26.2-mile course.   They saw me stop and kiss one of the girls at Wellesley College at the 13-mile point, a Boston Marathon-Wellesley College tradition dating back to 1901.

They also saw me stop at a memorial at the 26-mile marker and say a prayer for the 26 victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In the past Boston Marathons, I had never embraced the crowds.   I never stopped to enjoy the music.  My focus had always been to do my personal best.  I already qualified for the 2014 Boston Marathon at the Fox Cities Community Marathon, so I told all my running buddies that my goal would be to finish last and embrace the race.

At the 26 Mile Memorial for the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was only 200 meters from the end of the race.  I could see the finish line.  Blue and yellow Boston Marathon flags were flapping in the wind.  I could hear the cheering crowd as runners ahead of me crossed the finish line, pumping their arms in the air.   I took several steps in their direction, and I still didn’t want the race to end.  I was having way too much fun.  I looked at my watch, and it read 2:13.  I had no one waiting for me at the finish line.

A friend of mine who I had coached and ran with on the Pacific All Army 10-miler-team back in 2004-05 was somewhere back on Hereford Avenue.  He was having a tough day.  He came up lame in the first half of the race and was now limping to the finish line.

I decided to run back, find him and finish the race with him. The beer-fed crowd was laughing at me as I ran against the current of runners heading to the finish line and shouted, “You’re going the wrong way.”  I was back on Hereford Avenue when I heard two explosions.  The first explosion hit at 2:15 p.m. The sound reverberated off the tall buildings.  I couldn’t tell where the explosions had come from.

My knees buckled slightly, and I thought I was back in Iraq, where we were taught to hit the ground when we heard an explosion.   I looked at the crowd and their heads had shifted away from the marathoners. They too were looking skyward, trying to figure out where the blasts had originated.   Next, as I continued against the flow of the runners, I saw people in the crowd reaching for their ringing cell phones.

A dark, curly haired young man wearing a faded Boston College t-shirt, holding a beer mug in his right hand and his cell phone in his left, shouted at me, “Two explosions at the finish line.”

The cheering stopped and an eerie silence fell over the crowd.  I turned back around and started to make my way back on Boylston.  A cop waving his hand shouted, “Race canceled. Turn around.”   Barriers started popping up across the racecourse, blocking access to the finish line. I shouted to the cop, “I’m EMT qualified,” and he waved me through.  I continued to the next barrier and another cop stopped me, and again I shouted, “I’m EMT qualified.”  He leaned into his mic, spoke and then nodded, “They got plenty of medical.  Help me stop and turn around the oncoming runners.  The finish line is closed.”

The rest of the day was a blur.  In less than 20 minutes, those injured were triaged and quickly transported to local hospitals by ambulances. The entire downtown area was in the process of being cordoned off by the police, the FBI and Homeland Security.  Heavily armored vehicles took over the streets. Cops cleared the streets.  Men wearing flack jackets carrying machine guns emptied out the downtown area.

The metro system was closed down to search for more explosives.

After an hour, we were safely diverted through neighborhoods around the finish line to be reunited with our loved ones at the Family Meeting Area.  On the way, families in the brownstones came out in droves and offered us food, water and their cell phones so we could text our loved ones we were OK.  We picked up our yellow drop bags containing our personal belongings and were directed to leave the area immediately.

I was nine miles away my South Boston hotel, and I started walking back.  The streets were empty.  No cars.  Businesses locked down tight.  When I was about halfway home, a car sped by me, made a U-turn and picked me up.  It was a taxi.  The driver with a Haitian accented asked, “Mister, are you OK?”

“Yes,” I replied, happy to get a lift, and thanked him for picking me up.  I asked if he was from Haiti, and he laughed, nodded and pointed to his taxi driver’s license on the dashboard.

I told him I helped back in 2010 with the Haitian relief efforts, and he said he and his family came to Boston in 2010 after the earthquake had devastated the island. We were quiet the rest of the way to the hotel. When he dropped me off, I reached for my wallet.  He said, “No charge.  I’m off duty, and been picking up runners all evening, helping them get back to their hotels.  Are you coming back next year?”

I said, “Yes.”  He smiled, gave me the thumbs up sign and drove away.

This is Boston.  People in Boston don’t back down.  Neither do marathoners.  The police, the medical, the volunteers, the spectators and all the people did an outstanding job responding to the two explosions.  Even the taxi drivers did their part in helping the runners and their families.

My heart goes out to all the victims and their families. I will be back next year for the 118th running off the Boston Marathon.  I have a finish line I need to cross.