BOSTON - It could have been me.
It's a fact that will never be lost on me - that instead of scrambling to cover the chaos in Copley Square, I could have easily been one of the victims.
Not just because a half-hour before the bombs went off, I was standing in the very spot that would soon be stained with blood. But also because I've crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon as a runner; because I've spent many years watching the race as a Boston University student and alum; and because I grew up with the race in my backyard in Boston's western suburbs.
I've probably spent 20 Marathon Mondays rooting on friends and family, just as 8-year-old Martin Richard was doing before he died.
I think every Bostonian was Martin Richard on some Marathon Monday growing up, and that's what makes news of the tragedy so hard. It's not just an attack on one of the most historic, international, and successful sporting events in America; it's an attack on the innocence that permeates 26.2 miles of Massachusetts roads each spring.
This year, I chose to watch my friends run down the race's homestretch. I spent a couple of hours on the North side of Boylston St., until most of them had passed by around 2:15 p.m.
I eventually made my way inside to the Copley Westin, where many of the finishers congregated. It wasn't long before one of the Florida friends with me asked if I "felt that." There was a boom and the building had just shaken, but you don't necessarily give much thought to the occasional boom in a loud city.
Ten seconds later, there was another boom. But I was again dismissive, telling my friend it was probably just a dump truck. But within a minute or two, WBZ-TV was on the hotel TV's, reporting an explosion.
The hotel bar & restaurant - so loud and boisterous moments earlier with runner reunions and celebratory cocktails - fell quiet as patrons strained to hear the televisions.
It was eerily similar to the last major disaster to hit Boston, the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001. While the planes crashed 150 miles away in New York City, two of them originated from Boston's Logan Airport, and most of the passengers on those planes were from Boston.
I was still at Boston University in 2001 and remember the scenes - students frozen in the middle of the hallways, eyes locked on whatever television coverage was available. The primitive wireless infrastructure was no match for demand, rendering cell phones useless. And when you walked out onto the typically-busy Boston streets, there was no traffic - just the occasional siren blaring by.
On Monday, it didn't take long for the chaotic scene to turn a similar kind of surreal. By the time I could grab my coat and head back down to the street, the frantic crowd was already dispersed by fast-acting police officers and marathon volunteers.
I stood on the East steps of the Boston Public Library (the finish line is on its North side) trying to take cell phone video as officers were setting up their initial perimeter. Watch six seconds here. We were all on autopilot.
A pair of young men in Red Sox hats ran past me. When stopped by an officer, one shouted, "We need to give blood! Where can we give blood?"
It was the least of the concerns for the officer trying to get people away from Copley, but when I learned of the amount of blood lost by the victims on Boylston St., I understood the urgency of the men's offer. I also learned that a number of runners, having just completed a grueling 26.2-mile race - likely with various degrees of dehydration and hypothermia - went straight to area hospitals to donate blood as well.
About 15 minutes after the blasts, I found one of my old Boston University classmates, now a reporter with WCBS in New York, who was also jumping from "spectator mode" into "reporter mode." We ducked into the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel as officers were expanding the lockdown zone.
For the next few hours, nobody would leave - or enter - the hotel. With cell phone service seemingly non-existent, frantic family members scrambled through the lobby looking for loved ones. By the time everyone realized what was happening, the hotel had essentially become a refugee camp.
Instead of celebrating their accomplishments with a beer and giant feast, runners congregated in the hotel lobby and restaurant, more interested in tidbits of news than plates of food. The most popular thing behind the bar was not the alcohol, but the television.
And through the hotel windows, the sun shined brightly - a reminder of how gorgeous of a day it should have been outside. But, like on September 11, 2001, it was a beautiful Boston afternoon no one could enjoy.
I was fortunate enough to have wound up in the marathon's media hotel, which allowed me to not just attend media briefings, but also charge my phone and get messages through to the WTSP newsroom.
When I found a landline, I used it to chat with our anchors in our 6 o'clock newscast. I'd later contribute reports for affiliates in Phoenix, Greensboro, N.C., Buffalo, N.Y., and some national radio show out of New Zealand.
Around 6:30 p.m., my BU friend and I were able to leave the hotel for another old classmate's apartment in Boston's North End. The goal was to shower and change into something a little more presentable for reporting than the Sam Adams T-shirt I had been wearing since 8 a.m.
The North End was a few miles away and my feet were already sore from a long run in the morning, but it wasn't a consideration. The subway was shut down, so we took off running.
Boston looked like a military zone with heavily-armed SWAT, ATF, FBI, and National Guard vehicles patrolling every corner.
And while most shops in the area were closed, there was a Dunkin' Donuts on the Boston Common that caught my eye. In the window, a marathoner was weeping with his face in his hands. He too was still wearing the clothes he put on that morning, some 12 hours and 26.2 miles earlier.
By nightfall, I had cleaned myself up and went back to the finish line area. Many runners were returning as well, in search of their checked gear bags. Their cell phones, change of clothes, and post-race nutrition had just been released from lockdown.
I met a couple of runners from Boca Raton, Fla. - Nathan and Fran Nachlas - who were stopped a quarter-mile from the finish. They shared their story of confusion on the race course, as well as gratitude after. Instead of the Mylar blankets, intravenous fluids, and food they were expecting at the finish line, they were left on a chilly Commonwealth Avenue corner to fight off their own dehydration and hypothermia.
Nathan & Fran also spoke of the complete strangers who offered food and water. There was the stranger who literally stripped the shirts off her back to give them dry clothes. And the strangers - many of whom were students - who welcomed runners into their brownstone apartments to provide soup and phones. Five thousand runners, all of whom had been running for more than four hours, were stopped on the course before reaching the finish.
Nathan, Fran, and I shared a few more marathon stories, if for nothing else than to avoid thinking about the tragedy for a while.
But by the time I had made my way to the satellite truck for the 11 p.m. news, it was clear the bombing of this international event was an international news story. There were almost as many nationalities reporting live on the attack as there were nationalities represented in the race. And the next day, there were even more.
The Tuesday after Marathon Monday is typically another day filled with limping runners sharing their stories around Boston's Back Bay. It's a day to enjoy the journey, the city, and whatever dining/shopping you can cram in.
But this Tuesday, it was still eerily quiet in Boston. Boylston Street was still locked down. Newbury Street, with its high-end shops, was open but many storefronts remained closed. The sidewalks were empty. Cabs didn't even bother looking for fares here.
And on the day that marathoners will often return to the finish line to take photos with their medals, they couldn't get closer than two blocks away.
They congregated at the Eastern end of the Boylston St. lockdown, taking photos and leaving T-shirts or flowers at a makeshift memorial.
It's hard to explain to the non-runner how difficult it is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but it's finish line is Mecca for the serious runner. And, at the risk of mixing metaphors, the medal awarded to finishers is the Holy Grail.
Tuesday afternoon, I met Caron Trakman, a San Diego marathoner who placed her finishing medal - the one souvenir most runners will keep until the day they die - at the memorial. The mother of four, who had her nine-year-old by her side Tuesday, said it was her way of honoring Martin Richard and all the others killed or injured the day before.
Trakman had run Boston before and says she'll run it again. She said she's looking forward to running in 2014, where she can run with a "bigger purpose."
When I left Boston Wednesday morning, there was even a different feeling at Logan Airport. There was no heightened security measures that I could see, but Marathon Week at Logan typically means finishers chatting up strangers to share stories of blistered feet, swollen tendons, and finishing times.
On this week, nobody wanted to talk about how they ran and nobody wanted to complain about pain while walking.
The sentiment I'll leave Boston with isn't just how first responders rose to the occasion on Monday, but also how marvelous marathon officials worked.
The Boston Athletic Association has been putting on this event for 117 years and its professionalism in organizing the race was only surpassed by its crisis response. Most of its maneuvers were behind the scenes, but on a day where one thing went terribly wrong, the BAA made sure everything else went right.
The reason this tragedy has hit both New Englanders and the international running community so hard is the same reason fans and runners will return to Boston: because the 117-year-old institution is so close to our hearts.
And, we all know it could have been any one of us.
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