Marathon Monday, 2013

A (birth)day to remember


I start the day, Marathon Monday, also my birthday, with the idea of documenting it in photographs. My cousin is running, so my family and I plan to be at the finish line beginning at 2 p.m. to see her finish around 3 p.m.

Around 11 a.m., I begin my journey up Beacon Street in Brookline, part of the Marathon route, into the city. I watch wheelchair runners zip by as spectators line the street, clapping, cheering, ringing cowbells. I can’t stop smiling (or taking photos). The air smells of hamburgers and hotdogs; music pours from the apartment buildings. People hang from windows in some places. It is a real spring day – 50s and sunny — a blessing for runners and spectators alike. Families and frat boys are celebrating. Outdoors, walking, I feel energized by the excitement. I can’t ask for a better day off.

With Boston’s landmark Citgo sign in Kenmore Square in sight by about 11:45 a.m., I begin to see the women’s elite runners pass. I am proud and in awe. Of Bostonians for cheering on and supporting the (mostly) strangers who glide by. Of being able to witness such a historic and celebrated event. Of the mental and emotional strength these runners have to get through such a feat. Not long after, the men’s elite runners begin whizzing by, with three frontrunners neck and neck (and neck). Weirdly, I feel connected to these people and just want to clap. Photo opportunities at every site. This is a day I will never forget.

After a lovely lunch break, I am back on the Marathon route at 1:50 p.m. I try to make my way down Boylston Street but realize quickly that the crowds are too thick. I need another plan if I want to make it to the finish line to meet my family at a reasonable time. I backtrack and cut down parallel Newbury Street and see that I can’t get very far. I ask a police officer for his advice; he tells me to head back to Mass. Ave., where I will be able to cross the course and take a shortcut to where I want to be. Who says Bostonians aren’t friendly?

At 2:06 p.m., I am walking the park at Commonwealth Ave., feeling smug for avoiding the foot traffic and confident I’ll get to my family soon. I get a text from my mom that she is waiting at the intersection of Boylston and Dartmouth streets. I keep walking in that direction. A few minutes later, a voice mail that she and my aunt have moved to Boylston and Fairfield. I am not far at all. I get there. Another text that they are just a block away at Boylston and Exeter. The shifts make sense to me. I heard earlier on the radio that there are 1 million people watching the marathon today; of course finding a decent spot is going to be tough.

I find my mom and aunt, all smiles, and continue snapping photos – of the high, colorful flags we are standing under and just behind. Of the people in the tall building across the street, watching from their windows. Of my mom and my aunt, who are glowing. Of the stands of spectators in front of the Boston Public Library, where other family members are viewing the race. And of the runners I catch through rare glimpses into the street. A tall woman behind me nearly uses my head as a tripod, and I can’t help but laugh before growing annoyed. We are tracking my cousin with my aunt’s phone, and at about 2:45 p.m., we realize that she is going to cross in about half an hour. My mom and aunt hold small pom poms. I have a bright orange miniature megaphone. I talk to my brother on the phone; he and his girlfriend are a few streets away and walking to meet us. An announcer is calling out names as people cross the finish line, less than a block away.

At 2:50 p.m., what sounds like a cannon blast tears into the air fewer than 50 yards to our left. We see a cloud of smoke fill the sky. I focus on the steeple of beautiful Old South Church, barely visible behind the smoke, a landmark I pass every day on my way to work. My immediate thought: A cannon must be part of the festivities but something went wrong. Seconds later, we hear and see a second explosion fewer than 50 yards to our right. We are confused but realize we need to leave. Where are my cousin and brother?

Strangely, there is a runners lull at this point. My aunt pushes over a small metal barrier, as nearby police officers instruct us, so we can move out onto the course to cross the street. I am sick to my stomach thinking of my brother, my cousin, my father who is working several cities away and will probably hear news of this soon and panic, knowing that his family is at the finish line. I grab my mother and hold my aunt’s back as we move to the other side of the street. Are more bombs going to go off? Will I see my brother again? These are the thoughts that cross my mind.

On the other side of the street, we find my uncle and other family members who were in the stands and wait on Exeter, out of the road. A helicopter is overhead. Police cars and ambulances begin to speed by. I take out my phone to call my brother, and he is already calling me. He doesn’t know what is happening but heard the explosion. I tell him as calmly as I can to turn around and not head downtown, to go far away from Boylston Street. He says okay. I text my dad immediately after. “Dad we’re okay I’d [if] you hear anything. Leaving Boston.” We are not leaving Boston (we don’t know what we are doing), but we are trying to figure out a plan, and I want him to know we are okay. I send another while I still have service: “Something happened downtown. We’re okay.” A minute later, I receive his text: “What.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll call you later.”

I continue to (near frantically) text friends and family who know I’m near the finish line, as we wait and try to find out what’s next. We make a plan: My aunt, uncle and two other family members decide to wait downtown, out of what later is called the crime scene area, until they find my cousin. The rest of us head to Tufts Medical Center for safety. I call my brother to tell him. He says he tried getting on the train but service has been suspended. He will meet us at the hospital.

The walk away from the scene is bizarre and surreal. Some people are crying. Some are motionless. There are lots of little kids. Some runners are walking in the opposite direction, smiling and wrapped in foil blankets, completely unaware of what has happened. I can’t find any news about the explosions on my phone. No one is reporting yet. We keep walking.

When we get to Tufts at 3:25 p.m., my brother and his girlfriend are waiting for us. I have never felt so relieved in my life. We recuperate, make calls, drink the ginger ale someone brings us. I use a computer to try to find out more.

“Two dead and many injured at Boston Marathon.”

We later learn that my aunt and uncle have found my cousin, who was stopped and diverted around mile 25. Everyone is safe. I return home with my family.

The rest of the afternoon and evening is spent watching what we witnessed earlier, deemed a terrorist attack, unfold again and again on television behind news tickers with emergency numbers and tip lines, eye witness accounts and news anchor commentary. Calls, texts, messages from friends and family. I am drained and on edge and extremely grateful. I am proud of Boston, for its immediate response, the kindness of strangers, its banding together. This is a day I will never forget.

These things should not happen, but they do. Tonight (and I hope tomorrow and the next day), I am focusing on the luck we were blessed with today and the amazing people who cared for those in a time of great need.