Dad, daughter at marathon breathe sigh of relief, vow to return

4/26/2013
BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Twelve years ago, my husband called me with a terse imperative: Turn on the TV. Planes were flying into the Twin Towers in New York.

Last week, minutes after bombs exploded in Boston, my husband called. Turn on the TV. I felt a familiar dread.

There was fear in his voice. His brother was there. Chris is a 61-year-old runner from Seattle. He had just bested his time from last year’s Boston Marathon.

Crossing the finish line ahead of schedule may have saved his life. His 27-year-old daughter, Courtney, tracked her father’s progress from the sidelines.

Afterward, Courtney, an intensive-care nurse, waited for him in an area set aside for families. By midafternoon the section had quickly filled. It was across the street from the second of two explosions that blasted smoke and shrapnel into throngs of spectators.

She heard the thundering noise, amplified through the downtown canyon of skyscrapers. She saw black, reflective glass in nearby buildings shake.

There was chaos. People were screaming, struggling to find loved ones. “There were children crying, parents looking for parents,” Courtney said.

Cell phone services were overwhelmed. Chris and Courtney were safe. But their eyewitness account of the surreal event was frightening.

When Chris finished the grueling, 26.2-mile race, he was rushed through a series of medical stations where runners went to recuperate and replenish. After retrieving his gear, stored on school buses lined up on both sides of the street, he turned toward the finish line.

A fellow runner, pulling on sweats, leaned against him. It happened about a city block and a half from where he stood. “It was far enough away that I couldn’t see every individual but I could see the area in general,” Chris said.

“I heard this massive boom and I knew right away what it was,” he said. “It wasn’t fireworks or something like that. Someone said maybe it’s a celebratory cannon going off. But it was so loud, I knew, oh no.

“My first thought was about Courtney,” Chris said. “I hoped against hope that she had moved out of that area, because after the explosion all you could see was smoke coming up. Then the second one went off.

“At that point no one had any doubt,” he said. “Something was really, really wrong here.”

Disorientated runners, physically and mentally exhausted, looked at each other in a daze, Chris said. “The runners weren’t panicked, but they were very anxious. We felt pretty vulnerable trapped between the buses,” he said. “Here’s two [bombs], and when is the third one gonna go off?

“Sirens were screaming,” he said. “One cop car, after undercover cop car, after ambulance. It was a continuous howl. Police were waving emergency vehicles through the intersection and directing us to go this way [and to] stay out of the road.”

As Chris reached for his phone, Courtney called.

“I could see her, but she couldn’t see me, ” he said. Maneuvering around barricades and police perimeters, and cutting through buildings, they hurried to their hotel.

“Nobody looked anyone in the eye,” Chris said. “They were just moving as fast as they could. If you connected with someone they’d just shake their head like, ‘This can’t be happening.’

“By the time we got up the next morning,” Chris said, “there were National Guards with automatic weapons in front of our hotel. Everything was cordoned off.”

Father and daughter walked to the crime scene.

Courtney had survived the worst through a random stroke of fate. “It hit me,” she said, “why me over the 8-year-old? The other girl who died was right around my age, so why her and not me?

“I had this immediate feeling of humbleness and gratefulness,” Courtney said. “My dad and I are going back, no hesitation. That’s how we show that Boston is going to stand and Americans are going to stand. They’re not going to give up to terrorism. We’d feel as though this story wasn’t complete if we didn’t return and run and support everyone who came together in the face of tragedy.”

It was a life-changing experience the pair won’t forget. But they look forward to next year. “We love Boston,” Courtney concluded. “There’s no place like it for marathons.”

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com