Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

April 16, 2013

Eyewitness to blood, smoke and panic at Boston Marathon

Jill Harmacinski
CNHI News Service

Editor's note: Near simultaneous explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line yesterday killed 3 people and wounded scores more. Reporter Jill Harmacinski was there to help cover the race for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. The following is her first-person account of what happened.

BOSTON, Mass. -- We were looking for our friends, first-time marathon runners Christian Breen and John Brien, when we jarred by the first loud boom. Then we heard the second boom and saw white smoke mushrooming over the Boston Marathon finish line.

It sounded like cannons or guns going off. I went toward the explosion, as my friend, Lisa Driscoll, stepped back. We were 65 feet away - at the most - when two bombs went off at 2:50 p.m. yesterday at the marathon finish line. We had media passes and were inside the crowd-control fencing, standing right on Boylston Street.

Runners who had made it past the finish line turned around to see what was happening. Volunteers, security, police and paramedics all started running toward the smoke.

Medics started running out of a nearby medical tent with wheelchairs. Those people are trained to hydrate runners and massage exhausted muscles - not pick up dismembered bodies, Lisa later noted.

A medic pushing a wheelchair was sprinting away from the explosion site. In the wheelchair was a bloody runner who had half his leg missing.

Two other women covered in blood were also quickly pushed into the medical tent. A blood-covered man on a gurney was loaded into an ambulance.Another runner, a man wearing only black shorts, came calmly down Boylston Street. He was covered in blood splatter. People kept asking him if he was OK, but he just kept running.

Cruisers, ambulances and firetrucks started racing into the area. A runner ran up to police, saying he was trained in "mass casualty" incidents and telling them he knew what to do.

A sense of panic started creeping through the crowd. People were trying to call family and friends, but there was no cell phone service. Marathon workers were trying to calm people and keep the crowd behind the portable metal fences.

We kept taking pictures and video, tweeting as much as we could. Warning texts and tweets started pouring in from police and firefighters we knew telling us to "beware of a secondary explosion" and "stay clear of trash cans." And finally, a grim note from a great source: "Get the hell out of Boston now."

We had parked at the Boston Common garage, and slowly we started moving that way. Our cell phone batteries were dead. People were bewildered and confused. A man was desperately trying to reach a loved one on his cell phone. He kept yelling "Julia, Julia, Julia!" But nobody was on the other end.

We stood for a minute on Newbury Street, trying to figure out if we should stay or go. And we worried about our friends, Christian and John. We had followed them through the race through text alerts provided by the Boston Athletic Association. We didn't think they'd made it to the finish line yet. And we prayed we were right.

On Newbury Street, a woman, wrapped in a silver marathon blanket, sat in a wheelchair crying. She'd finished the marathon and made it away from the explosion. She wanted to call her mother. But her cell phone was dead, and she couldn't remember her mom's cell phone number. A marathon medic stood by her side, telling her she was going to help her find her family.

As we stepped onto the Common, a stranger came up next to us. He told us he was so happy we were OK.

"I was standing right behind you two on Boylston Street," he said. We all smiled.

We were almost to the car when Lisa remembered a marathon security guard whose name badge said "Joanna."

About 30 minutes before the explosion, we had tried to move up Boylston Street and get closer to the actual finish line. We had stood right at the finish line once before, several years ago, when my sister Joan ran the marathon. But this time Joanna, the security guard, stopped us and pushed us back. "No press past this point." she said.

"She probably saved our life," Lisa said.

Back at the car, when we were able to recharge our phone, we were flooded with messages. We never got to see our friends finish the race yesterday, but thanks to Facebook, we knew fairly quickly they were OK.

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Jill Harmacinski is a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. Follow her on Twitter at @EagleTribJill.