April 17, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Two friends honoring courage display theirs

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

BOSTON — People do different things when life explodes right before their eyes. Some freeze. Some scream. Some look for a place to hide. Still others run for their lives.

click image to enlarge

An emergency responder and volunteers, including Carlos Arredondo in the cowboy hat, push Jeff Bauman Jr. in a wheelchair after he was wounded in an explosion near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

The Associated Press

FOR MORE COVERAGE, visit our special section on the Boston bombings.

John Mixon and Carlos Arredondo did none of those things Monday. As one bomb, and then another, turned the finish line of the Boston Marathon into a nightmare rivaling any war zone, these two friends ran directly into the carnage.

“There was blood everywhere ... and limbs ... and bodies,” recalled Mixon, a Wells resident who founded the annual Maine Run for the Fallen to honor soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It was just horrible.”

Arredondo, himself the father of a fallen Marine with Maine ties, nodded helplessly – his eyes vacant, his mind stuck on replay, his sweatshirt and hands still covered with the dried blood of a man he’d never met.

“I had two ladies next to me, right next to each other, totally passed out,” Arredondo said haltingly in his thick Spanish accent. “And then the next thing I know, I’m standing in a big puddle of blood ... and this young lady is asking me for help ... and this man is trying to stand up ... and he had no legs ... and that’s when pretty much I went to help him.”

You’ve probably seen Arredondo in a photo or a video by now, the guy in the cowboy hat tending to the wounded mere seconds after the world’s oldest annual marathon became forever linked to a still-unexplained act of terrorism.

And there, off to the side, is Mixon, in his red baseball cap and black Run for the Fallen sweatshirt, frantically working alongside a pair of National Guardsmen to clear away the wooden and steel barricades separating scores of victims from the earliest of the first responders.

“I can’t believe it. In America? In Boston? It’s unbelievable this can happen,” said Arredondo.

As he spoke, he still clutched a small, bloodstained U.S. flag that he’d planned to bestow on one of the many soldiers who ran the 26.2-mile course in full combat camouflage with 40-pound rucksacks on their backs.

Arredondo, a native of Costa Rica who’s now an American citizen, lives in nearby Roslindale, Mass.

To this day, his world revolves around his late son, Lance Cpl. Alexander Arredondo, who was 20 when he died from enemy gunfire in Najaf, Iraq, in 2004.

It was, for the senior Arredondo, a moment that forever changed his life: The day the Marines came to notify him of his son’s death – he lived in Florida at the time, while Alex’s mother lived in Bangor – Arredondo broke out the windows of the Marines’ van, splashed gasoline on himself and the inside of the vehicle, then lit a fire with a propane torch.

Burned over a quarter of his body, Arredondo was not charged in the incident – police and military officials said they made the decision “out of compassion” for his loss.

After his recovery, he became a peace activist along with his wife, Melida, installing a mock casket in the back of his pickup truck as a traveling memorial to Alex. (During a 2007 anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., a right-wing group attacked Arredondo and beat him to the ground before a group of Iraq veterans came to his rescue.)

In December of 2011, tragedy struck again: Arredondo’s other son, 24-year-old Brian Luis, committed suicide.

“I’m here for both of my sons,” Arredondo said Monday, pointing to the two buttons, each depicting a lost son, attached to his bloody sweatshirt.

Mixon, a Vietnam veteran who became close with Arredondo after founding the Maine Run for the Fallen in 2008, could only shake his head and marvel at his friend’s courage and perseverance.

“Look at all the tragedy this guy’s been through all his life,” Mixon said. “I’m surprised he can get up every day and put one foot in front of the other – never mind race to help other people.”

Moments before the first explosion, Mixon moved from his seat in the finish-line grandstand down to the front row to toss a bag of clothing to one of five runners from his organization who ran in the marathon. Arredondo was just behind him.

Then, just after the race clock passed the four-hour mark, it happened.

“The fire ... and the noise,” recalled Arredondo. “Then the smoke.”

While others around him stood paralyzed, Arredondo sprinted across Boylston Street and clambered over the barriers of snow fencing and metal scaffolding. Seconds later, Mixon shook himself out of his shock and followed.

“My intention was to help the people who are alive on the other side,” said Arredondo. “I know by being a member of the (American) Red Cross that this was serious. And when I don’t see anybody standing up and I see everybody on the floor, it was important to me to be on the other side as soon as I can because people can bleed off and die. So my first reaction was to jump on the other side, praying there wasn’t another bomb, and work on it.”

That’s when he came upon the man with no legs.

“I rip a T-shirt and I start putting two pieces in each leg to stop the bleeding,” he said. “And I concentrate on him, asking him his name and telling him he was going to be OK, to keep talking to me. I said, ‘My name is Carlos! I’m from Boston! What’s your name? Where you from?”

The man, ashen-faced and barely conscious, stared back at his rescuer in silence.

“He was barely awake,” said Arredondo.

Mixon, meanwhile, tried mightily to open a passageway through the barricades. But even after two National Guardsmen joined him, he said, the interlocked scaffolding barely budged.

“So we just decided to rip it up and pull it all over so people could just trample over it and get in there,” Mixon said.

Almost miraculously, wheelchairs began arriving from the nearby first-aid tent. Arredondo helped load the man with no legs into one, pulling hard on a makeshift tourniquet he’d fashioned from the T-shirt.
Mixon, the barrier now behind him, helped load another victim onto a wheelchair.

Minutes later, as police and emergency medical technicians flooded into the area, it was over. Mixon asked a policeman how he might still help – the officer told him the best thing he could do was evacuate the area.

So here they sat in a nearby apartment shared by Mixon’s daughter, Erica, and her Emerson College roommates – six blocks and only a few hours removed from the worst thing either man had ever beheld.

Arredondo quietly headed for the bathroom – at last – to scrub the blood from his hands. Mixon, transfixed by a video of the attack playing on his daughter’s laptop, mused that the more it all sank in, the less it surprised him.

“To be honest, I’ve been expecting something like this for awhile,” Mixon said. “Every time I’ve been in crowded places where there’s no security, I’m like, ‘You know, we’re letting our guard down.’ And what bigger stage than the Boston Marathon?”

Yet the questions remained: Exactly who commandeered that stage? And for what twisted reason?

Not far away, forensic investigators already were hard at work looking for pieces to that puzzle. Like the rest of us, all Mixon and Arredondo can do is wait for the tips, the clues and the gumshoe detective work that will attempt, once again, to explain the unexplainable.

But as darkness fell on this city Monday – the quiet still shattered every minute or two by the sound of police cruisers, their lights flashing and sirens blaring, tearing up and down the empty boulevards – the two men propelled into this mayhem by the fallout of war had no difficulty discerning the tragic irony of it all.

“We’re down here honoring these guys who stood up against terrorism,” said Mixon. “And here it happens right in front of us.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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