Panic, fear and the unknown: My experience in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings

It is an incredibly horrible day here in Massachusetts. Two bombs went off within seconds of one another near the finish line of the Boston Marathon today. I was in the city during the event.  As a journalist, I feel obligated to chronicle my experience while it’s still fresh.

This particular day is Marathon Monday – an annual event when thousands of runners make the 26.2 mile trek from Hopkinton to Boston in what is possibly the most famous marathon in the world. It is also a holiday unique to my state called Patriots Day, so the state’s children have the day off of school. Many adults have the day off of work.

My son and I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park this morning. The game was packed. It was a great game. The temperatures were a bit chilly, but the sun was bright, the sky clear and the Red Sox won.

After the game was over a bit past two o’clock, my son and I headed to a train station near Fenway called Yawkey Station. Yawkey has intermittent service. I was not expecting the commuter train we took to the city from my suburban home to drop us at Yawkey this morning, because the stop was not on the schedule. I had planned to go to South Station, one of two large train hubs in the city, and was going to catch another train to Fenway. But the conductor told all who boarded this morning that we would stop there because it was a game day.  So my son and I headed back to Yawkey Station immediately after the game to see if there would be a special “game day” pick up as well. After we learned there was not, we decided to walk up to Back Bay station to catch the next train out. I also figured we would walk along the finish-line area of the marathon and I would share the experience with my son of watching people run in after just achieving a major life accomplishment.

We walked out of the Kenmore Square area onto Beacon Street where the runners were going by. My son and I stopped to talk with people cheering along the edge. I asked one man how much farther up the finish line was from there and he said it was about another ¾ mile. The runners were very near the end and the finish line very close.

We cheered for a bit and then started heading further east up toward Copley Square and Back Bay Station.  I started noticing people crying, clearly very emotionally distraught. I also heard several people, frantic, speaking to a police officer about locating runners. Having never actually been in Boston proper itself for the marathon before, I chalked it up to typical, near-the-finish-line stuff for the area.

Then my phone rang. It showed it was my husband. I tried to pick it up and heard nothing. I began to try and call him back. I tried twice and nothing went through.

In the middle of this, a man ran up to me, panicked and frantic.

“Can you make a phone call for me?”

“I would, but it’s not working. The phone seems not to connect,” I told him.

He said nothing in response to me and immediately ran off. I figured this was more end of marathon stuff.

I text my husband. “Phone won’t go through. What’s up?”

“Stay away from the marathon. Two bomb blast,” he texted back.

“Oh my god! Where? That’s where we are,” I told him.

“Marathon Sports blown up,” he wrote back.

At that point, the chaos began. Everyone around me had begun to be aware of what was happening with their own smartphones. The news was coming in. Also, more people who had been up where the explosions took place had begun to make it to the area where we were standing and spreading the word.

“Let’s go back this way,” I said to my son, and grabbed his hand, trying to hurry him back toward Fenway.

I began to realize the panic and fear in the crowd around me. It may have been that way for several minutes already, but not knowing what was going on, I didn’t realize the situation I was in until just then. The numbers thickened around us as people were pushed westward, away from the blasts, and the crowd got scary. No one was out of control or uncivil, but the thickness and general chaos began to concern me.

I can’t say “I’ve never been more scared in my life,” because I was not. Frankly, I’ve felt more panicked over the last few years in the brief moments when one of my children has gone out of sight for too long. Instead, the emotions I experienced were more of what I’d describe as desperation and confusion.

Within minutes of finding out what was going on, we were fighting the crowds to get away from Copley, and roads were being closed off all around me. The very road we used to get where we were was already closed/shut down.  A huge crowd of people suddenly came at me from that direction, telling me, and many others around me, to turn back because we could not go that way to Kenmore.

“Why?” I asked.

No one was sure.

I saw a police officer fielding questions from concerned people. Many obviously desperate to find loved ones and runners.

“Unfortunately you can’t go back up that way now,” he indicated about Copley. “It is just very messed up in that area now. Do not head up there.”

I began to have visions of being trapped in the middle of some street with an agitated crowd for hours. Earlier in the day, a food vendor at Fenway had offered me a free bottle of water and I had politely declined because I didn’t want to carry it around in my backpack. It was an absurd memory that ran over and over again in my mind as I began to wonder if saying no would be a decision I’d soon regret if I found myself, with my young son, stuck in the middle of the city.

Eventually, I followed some people into a smaller, almost alley-like road behind some buildings, and we found an alternative way into Kenmore Square.

My next instinct was to hide. I wanted to get out of the chaos.  I have both covered and read about many crime scenes and tragedies over the years. One thing that always sticks out at me is the injuries and deaths that have occurred in history simply from crowd panic and unruliness. That was all I could think about. I wanted to remove myself, and my son, from it as soon as possible.

We headed back to the Yawkey train platform, for lack of anywhere else to go. I figured at the very least we would pray the trains were still running and stand there and wait for a train for as long as it took. I had no idea how long that would be. There were many people already standing there, including many who had just run in the marathon, with the same panicked faces and hope to flee the city quickly.

At that point, my iPhone became my lifeline. I kept in touch with my husband about any train updates. I spoke to friends on Facebook and via text who offered information where they could. And then we waited and waited and waited.

During the time we waited, the number of people on the platform went from about 50 to in the hundreds. People with all kinds of stories about where they had been, what they had seen, what they were hearing.

During our wait, details developed. At one point I heard there were more explosions around the city and in neighboring Cambridge – reports that turned out to be untrue. I stood there with a real taste of fear rising in my throat as I wondered if Kenmore, one of the most popular and busy sections of the city on this day, would be the next target. Over all, it was the fear of the unknown and not knowing what was really happening, and when we would be able to leave, that was the worst part of it.

Eventually a train came by. It was headed in to the city. At that point, the wait had been so long, and people so worried, that many contemplated boarding it just to be able to claim a seat – even though the train was going in the wrong direction and was actually headed INTO the city – into the chaos. A conductor, obviously anticipating the panic, came out and explained it would be OK. A train coming to take us out to the suburbs would be coming in about an hour.

And it did come. And, again, fighting thick, scared crowds of people, we got on. I sat down and let out a long breath. Almost immediately I felt the need to throw up, which I assume was just a natural response to intense stress relief.

We got home in a little over an hour. My husband picked us up at the commuter train station and was crying. My 4-year-old daughter was oblivious to the drama and smiled happily at me from the back seat.

“You won’t believe it when you see the images on TV,” my husband said as we drove home.

That’s just my tiny, little slice of the experience on this horribly dark day. Nothing compared to what so many others went through. There were three casualties and close to 200 others injured by the blasts. One death was an 8-year-old boy. My son is an 8-year-old boy and the thought of what the family of that little by who died is going through is too much.

Life is fragile. And it changes, sometimes in the worst ways, when you least expect. It’s cliché, but true.

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5 Responses to Panic, fear and the unknown: My experience in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings

  1. Raquel says:

    I’m so glad you both are ok. That was too close for comfort. Love you guys.

  2. Gretchen Stephan says:

    Joan – this is fabulous work – I really feel as though I was right there with you – very real – so fresh. OMG – I wanted to throw up with you! Thank-you for sharing – sleep now. ❤

  3. j collard says:

    Joan! I’m in D.C. on a family vacation, and keep learning about more people I know where watching or running in the marathon. I am so very, very glad that you are both okay. Thinking about you and your family.

  4. Pingback: Mourning Marathon Monday – Four Before Forty

  5. Pingback: Refusing to result to small talk about big topics | insertsanityhere

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