Lori Riley, The Courant's running writer, is a veteran of many Boston Marathons. Here is her personal account of what happened on Monday: We had just finished up the press conferences Monday and I was sitting down to write my story about the 117th Boston Marathon. My friend Glenn Jordan of the Portland Press-Herald was sitting next to me, writing his story about Joan Benoit Samuelson running an age group world best time in the marathon. Ho-hum. Another Patriots Day. Kenyans and Ethiopians win the marathon. The Americans finish fourth.
Then everything changed.
Except we didn't know it at first. I heard a loud boom from outside. It shook the Copley Plaza hotel where the press center is. It sounded a little like thunder, the way loud thunder can shake the building you're in. Then we heard another boom, less pronounced.
Glenn said, "What was that?" I said, "I don't know." Thunder, maybe? He checked his phone for the weather because there are no windows in the press room and we couldn't see outside. He said he was going out to see what was going on. He didn't get very far before a BAA official came into the room, yelling that there were two bombs at the finish line and that the hotel was in lockdown.
It didn't register at first. Bombs? At the marathon? What?
Of course, then I went outside. It was a chaotic scene, police converging from all points of the city, sirens wailing, people milling about, frightened. The hotel is about a block and a half away from the finish, around a corner and behind the big white medical tent which takes up an entire block. So we couldn't see the finish line from where we were.
I went back in. Nobody knew what was going on. Cel service was jammed. Runners who had recently finished were standing in the elegant lobby wearing space blankets and trying to reach loved ones and friends who were supposed to meet them, who were still out on the course. One runner, Mike McMahan from Minnesota, stood by the door of the hotel. It was his first Boston, 22nd marathon. He had just finished the race and was waiting for his wife. He told me he had been on a plane on 9-11 that had been diverted back to Minnesota. I told him he was lucky and we shared a grim laugh, because maybe he wasn't, being involved in these two horrific events.
He had just finished the marathon in 3 hours, 44 minutes, received his medal and his blanket and was getting his bag out of the bus when he heard and saw the explosion.
“I finished probably 10-15 minutes later, it went off,” McMahan said. “I saw it. I was about a football field away. I was getting my bag from the busses about 100 yards away. I was looking back. It was on the right side of the street. It went off. First it was a plume of smoke. A gray-white plume of smoke. Then about 10 seconds later, the second one went off. I saw flames. They looked very close to each other.”
McMahan said his wife was at the 25 ½ mile mark when the explosion occurred and managed to grab someone’s cel phone and call him to tell him she was OK. Now he was waiting.
The reports finally went up on the TV. It was mind-numbing. The fiery explosions. The carnage. The talk of blood and lost limbs. Then reports came up that there were other unexploded bombs, one in a hotel in Copley Square. And we were in total lockdown at that point. We couldn't even go outside. Police guarded the doors.
Slowly, word came in that friends and runners had gotten out of the city and made it home. They were safe. Are you safe? they kept asking. I wasn't sure. I just kept working, calling people, listening to their stories.
Some friends from high school, Terri Hildreth and Paula Mercier, were there to watch a friend finish the marathon. We had met earlier in the morning near the flags from the different countries, where the first explosion would take place later that day. Terri told me they were between Israel and Ireland and that's how I found them. Sitting behind the flags on the sidewalk, they cheered when their friend finished then left the area.
"We were right there," Terri said on her way home to Milford, N.H. "It was so crazy. We had just hooked up with Nancy and were walking away when we heard the explosions. The T wouldn’t take my card. We grabbed a cab and got out of there."
Jo Marchetti of Newington had completed 25 ½ miles when she came to a tunnel on the course and the race abruptly came to a halt.
“I was amongst the first runners they stopped,” said Marchetti, 70, who expected to finish in approximately 4:20. “I was thinking, ‘How could they be stopping us? How bizarre.’ Then we started hearing sirens and sirens and sirens. We heard there were explosions. I totally broke down. My daughter and my partner Nelson Wyman were at the finish line. My niece was ahead of me [on the course].
“I was in the most agonizing mental anguish.”
Marchetti borrowed somebody’s phone to call her daughter but then when cel phone service was shut down, she couldn’t tell her where she was or where to meet her.
She was bussed to the Boston Commons where eventually she found out that her daughter, niece and partner were OK.
Charlie Olbrias of Willimantic was timing the race at the 30K mark, about 8 miles out of Boston. He didn't hear the explosion but a police officer came over and told him to pack up his equipment, that there was an explosion at the finish line.
“I’m still in shock,” Olbrias said from his home. “I’m at the 30K, everything’s normal, I’m sitting there, watching runners go by.
“[When he heard] my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, did I just lose a friend?’ My second was I was timing the 5K the day before. I was right where that explosion was.”
Olbrias, who is the co-owner of The Last Mile timing company, was told to move the timing mat onto the grass by the side of the road and divert runners off the street and tell them the race was over.
“I called in to my people and everybody was OK and they told me, ‘Don’t shut it down. We want you to track as many people as possible,’ ” Olbrias said. “So they’re coming and I had to tell them, ‘We need you to go across [the mat] but the race is over.’
“One woman from Canada broke into tears. My daughter is at the finish line, she said.”
Her daughter was OK. Olbrias ended up driving three runners who were stranded to one of the train stations.
“I’m angry,” he said. “I’m sad. Why would someone even do this? I love the Boston Marathon. I’ve run it twice, timed it three times. It means something to me, this race. It’s something you feel safe with. To have this tragic event happen, it’s horrible. At a running race? Could you imagine not being safe at a road race?"
Shannon McHale of Simsbury, an Olympic marathon trials qualifier last year, had just completed the marathon with her husband David and was back at the Westin when she heard the explosions.
“We felt the hotel shake,” McHale said via a Facebook message Monday afternoon. “We’re in lockdown. It’s chaos outside our window. So scary.”
The question is where do we go from here? I saw police with bomb-sniffing dogs earlier that morning right near the finish line. There is a certain amount of security checking that can be done. But it's not like a basketball arena. How do you secure an entire 26.2-mile marathon course with all those people for 6, 8, 10 hours? Do you have to secure the whole course or just the start/finish areas?
"That would be a great question to ask people who are in the security business," Hartford Marathon director Beth Shluger said. "Probably nobody is after Mile 6 or 8 or 14 of the marathon, you don't have the mass of people there. The mass of people is at the finish line or starting line. Those are more contained."
So do you cordon off the entire section of Boylston Street where the marathon finishes and do security checks?
And Shluger brought up a good point...what's the London Marathon going to do this weekend? It's a good bet security will be very amped up there.