14:50: "Bombs here. I am safe."
14:53: "Bombs at finish I think."
"I am in a hotel a block away."
"Heard it, can see EMS"
14:54: "I have no idea what you're talking about... Terrorism? Stay the hell away."
That SMS thread between me and my wife begins a few seconds after the second explosion. It will sound crazy, but I've watched every episode of Myth Busters, and I was pretty sure what we'd just heard was a pair of bombs, not exploding gas tanks, transformers, or other flammables. The blasts were quick, loud, and had the nasty sound of high speed.
I hadn't been so sure, a few seconds before, when I brilliantly stated the obvious to fellow Fool Matt Koppenheffer, who was standing near the window, 10 feet closer to the finish line and the blast. "That's an explosion," I said as he turned from the 9th-floor view, a second after the blast, looking spooked and confused. I don't doubt I looked exactly the same. The next explosion sounded more muted, but two like that, I didn't figure for any kind of unfortunate coincidence. Someone, I thought, was trying to kill runners and spectators.
By then, we could see a light plume of white smoke rising from the finish line at Boylston Street. At that point, I knew, no matter what, that everyone would assume this was a bombing, and I figured the mobile circuits would all be jammed within a minute. And thus began the mad modern percussion of thumbs on smartphone displays, as we both sought information and tried to reassure our families and friends that we were OK, that this thing they hadn't yet heard about hadn't hurt us, at least not yet. They'd know nothing of the news for another 10-15 minutes. I only know in retrospect how scary those texts must have been.
The author before the 2013 Boston Marathon.
We couldn't see much of the scene, but what was visible was strange and scary. Runners continued loping slowly through the smoke toward the finish line and the site of the first explosion, even as people were being dragged away, police and other first responders were rushing to the scene. It looked horrible. I couldn't figure out why runners were still heading toward the finish -- I didn't know then that the second bomb had been to their rear, and forward, away from it, even into the stink and chaos ahead, would have made the most sense to anyone down there in the middle of the street. With chest-high barricades on both sides, there were no other options.
Then, I began to wonder how horrible things had gotten.
I can't apologize for the macabre thought process, it's just what happened next inside my head: "Let's see, not much smoke here, building didn't really shake, we're no more than a block away. Probably a small bomb, killed a few people, didn't destroy the whole area... I hope that's it. I hope it didn't kill anyone, but I hope even more it didn't kill all those people at the finish..."
The brain snapped back to the room. Matt had worked his phone for more information. His mother was still out on the course, but through the technology of runner tracking, we knew she was at least six miles away. He was making a few calls to explain things and pre-reassure the soon-to-be-informed family and friends that he was OK. We waited a bit more and watched. At some point, Matt looked at me and said, "Dude, if you hadn't come over here to take a shower, I'd be standing right out there. So thanks for taking a shower."
Matt has a strikingly earnest face. From anyone else, a smartass like me, it would have seemed flip. I could see he was serious. He meant it. I felt like crying right there. But my brain started spinning alternate realities again.
Luck. Blind luck. I was scheduled on a 7 p.m. flight, and since the Boston Marathon starts so late, my hotel room wouldn't be available to me to wash off 26 miles worth of sweat and dirt and spilled Gatorade. I had no choice but to try and mooch a shower, and Matt had kindly agreed to let me show up at his hotel room after the race to use theirs, since they were staying another night. If we hadn't made that agreement, he would definitely have been there, not just in the vicinity, but likely right across the street from the second blast.
More blind luck: If I hadn't gotten tangled up in the crowds on my way to the hotel, or if I'd showered more quickly, or if I hadn't inadvertently packed my sunscreen in the bottom of my bag, necessitating a few extra minutes of emptying and repacking in order not to trip security at the airport, we'd have gotten out of the room to cheer on finishing runners.
We would both have been down there, right across the street from the second blast, yelling for the four-hour finishers, because that's what marathoners do.
We were only a minute or two away from that reality. I had just dropped my packed bag onto the floor and we were turning to leave when that first blast hit.
My brain spun back to the room. Matt had figured out that they were going to bus runners to Boston Common, so we headed out the door. He wanted to find his mom. I couldn't blame him. But I didn't think we'd get there. We were half a block from the scene of multiple explosions and incredible chaos. I suspected they'd put the hotel on lockdown and tell everyone to get to their rooms, but the lobby was full of shocked, confused, curious, and anxious marathon runners and spectators, and people were walking in and out at will.
"This enclosed crowd would make for a very good target," I thought, sick to my stomach at the observation. We walked out, free to leave, just not to go left, toward the scene. We went right, taking a very circuitous route toward Boston Common. I wanted to avoid traffic. I felt vulnerable every time we walked past a parked minivan or garbage can. I did not want to be in a crowd. After a few minutes of head-in-smartphone navigation and careful car-dodging, we parted ways. Matt headed toward the park and with nothing else to do, and to get out of the way, I just shouldered my pack and started walking to Logan Airport.
I hoped I could walk the whole way. I wanted to run the whole way, wash away the craziness with another dose of endorphins, but I knew enough about the geography to know I needed to get through a tunnel. I didn't figure I could run that leg of the journey. Until then, I was going to do mileage therapy.
I wandered through a city I don't know well. The temperature was just right for a long walk, the sky brilliant, the sun a welcome warmth quite unlike the head-burning heating element we get down here. It was, in short, a perfect day.
There were more sirens than usual. I saw a few women weeping into their phones. A couple of dazed-looking men described having been right there, seeing blood everywhere. I was glad we hadn't been any closer than half a block and nine stories away. I felt guilty for being glad.
Then, I got angry. Someone had tried to kill me. Me and 25,000 others, yes, but still, this was very, very personal, though I didn't have a scratch on me. I had no news other than what I'd seen myself or heard from the sidewalk rumor mill, but I was pretty sure there had to have been deaths. I hoped not, but turned off my phone and walked.
Other than the sirens, the streets were strangely calm. Traffic flowed. The angry honking I'd heard from cars snarled in marathon traffic before the blast was gone. Everyone was orderly. Everyone was helpful. People went out of their way to guide me to the nearest transit stops, to share what they knew about transit status. I have no doubt that if I'd asked, I'd have been given a ride, a meal, a room for the night. I've since read that this is exactly how Boston responded to the thousands of stranded runners. After seeing how Boston treats runners during the good times, I am not surprised.
After a few miles, I stopped at the last-chance station and hopped a bus to the airport, where security was strangely normal, my flight was barely delayed, and I was soon home as if nothing had happened. I got dozens of well wishes on Facebook and by text, friends from high school whom I've not seen for decades, glad to know that I wasn't dead or hurt. I was glad, too, and although we were really nowhere near danger, I feel a strange mixture of guilt and gladness, plus a sick, incomprehensible curiosity about what it would have been like to have been even closer. How would it have felt? What would I have done?
What the hell is wrong with people?
I would love for this to be written better, but my guts are still in a knot. I've stopped crying or coming near tears every few minutes thinking of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who lost his life because he came to cheer the runners finishing the world's most prestigious marathon. Maybe I spoke too soon. It's tough to type this, to look at the picture of that beloved little boy, and not spin other gruesome alternate realities, like this one:
That could very easily have been my little girl, three-and-a-half, who loves to stand and cheer for me with a phrase that's one of the first she learned to utter, "Go daddy, Go!" She's yelled that to me at numerous marathons, especially here at Marine Corps Marathon, and I am more proud than ever that I've never failed to veer off course, stop and give her and my wife a kiss -- finish time be damned -- every time I see them on route.
At least I know I'm doing one thing right.
I would love for this account to have a greater, more eloquent point, but here's the best I can do.
I have seen major-league pundits already predict the Boston Marathon will never recover.
It will recover, because this is more than just the world's greatest marathon, it's part of the essence of America.
I've run 36 marathons now, and in most cities, the marathon is considered a charming nuisance.
Not the Boston Marathon. Up there, they're fiercely proud of this marathon. Unbelievable stretches of the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boylston Street are packed four and five spectators deep, everyone screaming their heads off in pride for what you're doing, for pride in what they're doing for you. Grilling, drinking, screaming, kissing runners (thank you, three Wellesley women), throwing out sports gels and bottles of water bought with personal funds, high-fiving, hugging stinking strangers... You have to have been there, but it's an awe-inspiring expression of American unity and community and -- oh yeah, I'll get this mushy -- love for our fellow citizens. That, to me, reinforces the essence of Patriot's Day.
No, the stakes for marathoners aren't as high as the stakes for the irregular American forces who headed out to challenge the British and throw off the chains of the world's then-superpower. But in the absence of great causes to unify us, we embrace others, however sweaty and arbitrary, like running 26.2 miles as quickly as you can. Why? I think, because we want to be good to each other, we need to be good to each other, at least once a year. I am a cynic. Many people will be surprised to read those words from me. But I believe them, all the more strongly after yesterday.
Shortly after I finished the Boston Marathon, I figured one was enough. (I like a more laid-back atmosphere.) But after this cowardly attack, my mind is set on returning as many times as I can. That tiny, personal defiance isn't much, but it's the sum total of little bits of defiance like this, writ large over an entire population, that guarantee this act of terrorism will fail utterly in its attempt to ruin Boston's great day and the world's greatest marathon.
I'm going back to Boston.
I'll see you there.