Note: JD Hale, Yankee Publishing Vice-President, is the great nephew of Yankee Magazine’s founder, Robb Sagendorph.
Until last Monday I had not been to the finish of the Boston Marathon since I ran it in 1986.
I was a rookie BAA volunteer in my yellow Adidas jacket along with my friend Bill Goodwin and wife, Cindy Hale. I would not wish our day on anyone but I am glad we were there – and I feel blessed it was with my wife, Cindy and friend, Bill. Being together helped us to do what we did.
The Marathon has always been part of my life – watching it on television with my mom in the 70s, cheering my Bates College roommate for his barely-trained crazy run in 1979, and seeing the Bowdoin College singlet (arch rival school!) on Joan Benoit as she won the women’s division, and Billy Rodgers taking it to Seko for the win for the men.
By the 80s, I was a working man in Boston – and I would rally my colleagues to leave the office down by Faneuil Hall at our “lunch hour” and go up to Mass Ave. (near a T station) and cheer on the runners. I realize now – I was still a New Hampshire guy drawn to the history, the competition, the simplicity and excitement of the event.
Then Yankee Magazine ran a cover story in 1993 entitled, “New England’s Perfect Day”. The writer, Todd Balf, did it all that day from the reenactments to the parades to the Red Sox game to the Marathon. I realized it truly is New England’s “perfect day”. From that day forward, I have always taken the day as vacation with one goal – make the very most of this day. I had become a true Bostonian.
My three kids were young and for fun we would often ride our bikes in the 5 AM darkness (flash lights duct taped to their handle bars) up the Minuteman Bike Path in Lexington, get near the green, ditch the bikes and run to the edge of the reenactment which starts at 6 AM. I always shed a tear at the battle’s conclusion. Every darn year we got wiped out! But we always bounced back quickly with the pancake feast in a different church vestry each year. And, also, found solace in hearing we did better up in Concord.
Every year, by noon we were in the hills of Newton at the Marathon, just up a bit from the fire station where the runners turn on Commonwealth Avenue and need a lot of support. We would set up our mini-water station with the kids. They loved handing out the water or getting “fives”. As the years passed our runner friends and runners we hosted from around the country knew right where to find us. It was a party.
Then the last few years leading up to this year – we have had Patriot’s Day Red Sox tickets. The kids are older now – and so it was the perfect way to see a game and see the Marathon in Kenmore Square – have a fun day in the city as a family. In February of this year I was excited to learn I had been accepted as a volunteer (98% of the volunteers are veterans). The three of us all got in and we were assigned to the finish in front of the VIP Tent where the wheel chair division, elite runners, BAA running club and sponsored runners (Adidas, John Hancock and others) are funneled through to after crossing the finish line. We would be working for Bill’s friend and BAA volunteer captain, Paul Clark.
We were positioned in Copley Square between the Trinity Church and the Public Library. The finish line medical tent was right next to us.
Shortly before 2:50 pm on Monday — we had been hugging runners with a “congratulations!” and warming BAA Boston Marathon blanket for about two hours. We had been working on other tasks since 9 am. I asked a volunteer to take my place for a break and I walked up to the actual finish line to get a closer look at runners at that amazing moment of victory, relief, celebration, and extreme exhaustion. My own memories of that moment in 1986 are very fuzzy – but seeing the runners, crossing the line, victorious, no matter the time — brought me right back. I was refreshed and ready for a lot more runners as we figured there were still over 10,000 still to come.
I saw Bill and Cindy as I returned and grabbed a handful of blankets and turned towards the oncoming runners. I think everyone knows what happened next. It happened right in front of us. We were aghast.
The blast was so loud. It sent smoke and debris skyward. (We learned later that bomb debris had flown right over our heads).
We were stunned. And so too were the runners coming at us. We were very busy helping them.
The runners were in shock. They had no idea what had happened. They were dazed, shivering uncontrollably, needing our blankets, and could barely talk. We reassured them. We hugged them. Many were very emotional – so we did all we could to take care of them – not knowing at all what many of them had witnessed.
At that point, being optimists, we thought a transformer had blown. But I think that was just talk to reassure ourselves and the runners – as we had heard the second blast further down Boylston Street – and could see another plume of smoke.
Everything started to change rapidly at this point. The runners stopped coming. We heard it was a “pipe bomb”. The sounds of sirens all around us – coming from every direction – was deafening. We could not communicate except with hand motions. Copley Square was the epicenter for ambulances.
Cindy and Bill headed up towards the smoke and the finish to see if they could help.
Both of them ended up removing the tables, water and food set for over 27,000 runners that day down the middle of Boylston Street. Bill said they were just flipping tables right over on to the sides of the street dumping everything as quick as they could – so that emergency vehicles could get through.
Throughout these minutes – we could all see the hundreds of police, fire and first responder professionals running into that smoke – and have our thanks to this day. The sirens just kept coming and coming. It was crazy.
I headed in several directions to find runners with the blankets. The first place I went was the rear of the medical tent as I could see this was a staging area of ambulances picking up victims coming out of the medical tent and on their way to the hospital. There were fences there – but I was able to hand off needed blankets to family members, first aid volunteers (white jackets) and some freezing runners too (a sea breeze had kicked up). It was the hardest, most difficult scene I have ever witnessed.
I kept returning with arm fulls of BAA blankets.
At this point I believe about 40 minutes had passed and a BAA official gathered all of the volunteers near that VIP tent and told us that our area was now a crime scene and we needed to leave Copley Square and head down to Berkley street — find runners and help distribute blankets and help anyway we could.
We did that till 6 pm. None of the emotions of the moment and what was going on had sunk in with any of us. We were just working our tails off. (We were very emotional along with our country –the next day, however).
All the runners we saw were cold. They were dazed in so many ways. And all we had was three simple things – a warming blanket, a hug and words that all of us volunteers hoped were helpful. We were wrapping them up tight, often wrapping their legs too, giving more hugs, giving words of assistance, some were very confused, didn’t speak English, didn’t know where to go, where to find their personal belongings and so on. It was windy, the sirens continued – the day was getting late. It was getting colder, too.
It is at this point – it did start to hit us that there was an outside world. That we had friends and family members that figured or knew we were down here at the finish. Cindy checked her text messages – and reassured as many as she could – that we were fine. But then our daughter in college – wrote “PLEASE GET OUT OF BOSTON”. We had no information, no news reports, but we figured there must be more threats. Word started to filter in – that that was the case. So we gave out our last blankets. And headed to the South End to get Cindy’s car (I had taken the train in earlier).
I heard later of taxi cab drivers giving free rides to runners, strangers taking runners into their apartments, and others doing amazingly kind things to help these athletes get through this ordeal. It was not perfect – but it was heartfelt.
We took one of the volunteers from Cumberland, RI home to my house to use the bathroom and I gave her a ride out to her car in Wellesley (half way point of the Marathon) as she had parked out of the city and took the “T” (transit) in early that morning. I never knew her till this day, but I will also never forget her. Despite the tough situation, she kept a smile on her face and kept us all up as we helped the runners. I hope to see her again someday. I know she got married on my favorite boat, “The Mount” Washington up on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
I also will never forget the blast, the smoke, the sirens, the sounds, the faces of the runners, the injured, the tears – and of course, the true heroes, the first responder professionals doing their jobs – and running into the smoke.
Our prayers and healing thoughts go out to the victims of this terrorist act.
I know it is cliché at this point – but I cannot wait to work at next year’s Marathon – we are BostonStrong.
Donations to help victims of the attack can be made to The One Fund.