April 17, 2013

'It was all innocent people, just defenseless'

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Glenn Jordan gjordan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BOSTON – John Mixon of Ogunquit was standing on the bleachers at the Boston Marathon finish line, looking for one of the Mainers running on behalf of a fallen soldier, when an explosion ripped open the storefront across the street.

click image to enlarge

A medical responder and Carlos Arredondo, in cowboy hat, run an injured man past the finish line following an explosion at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the race, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts.

The Associated Press

FOR MORE INFORMATION, visit our special section covering the Boston bombings.

"It knocked me right out of the bleachers," Mixon said, his voice still quivering two and a half hours later. "It was definitely a bomb. You could smell the explosives."

Mixon and Carlos Arredondo, the father of one of those fallen soldiers, charged across the street to help the spectators who had lined up behind a snow fence four and five deep to watch the finish.

What they encountered was worse than anything Mixon, a Vietnam veteran, had seen overseas.

"When we got over there, it was just a pile of bodies – people with legs missing," Mixon said Monday evening. "It was absolutely like a war scene. This was worse, because it was all innocent people, just defenseless. They were just lying in a pile, gunpowder all over them, burnt."

Scores of Mainers, maybe more, were within a couple of blocks of the explosions that shattered the celebration of endurance and achievement. Some were among the more than 200 Maine runners scheduled to participate in the Patriots Day tradition. Others were volunteers or spectators.

There were five runners for Race for the Fallen Maine, five marathoners running on behalf of Maine soldiers who had died overseas, including Alexander Arredondo of Bangor.

One was nearing the finish line, and that had brought Mixon to the front of the bleachers. Arredondo was handing one of his handful of small flags to a National Guardsman who had just completed the race.

The blast was followed by moments of confused silence, then screams.

The two friends crossed the street and Mixon started ripping away the snow fence and scaffolding to get at the victims. Arredondo vaulted it and tried using his clothes and towels to stanch the victims' bleeding but they were hurt too badly.

Both men helped get one of the spectators, missing both legs, into a wheelchair that race medical staff had brought.

"I kept talking to him. I kept saying, 'Stay with me, stay with me,' " Arredondo said.

Lisa Lavonte and Angela Coulombe of Saco were volunteering near the finish line when the blast hit.

"Up in the sky all of (a) sudden there was a big plume of dark smoke," Lavonte said. "I said to my friend, ...'Oh, my God. I think that was a bomb.' This is at about the four-hour mark. All the elite runners had already gone through."

Within a minute, the second blast had hit.

"People weren't quite sure what was going on. Then a siren went off. ... At that stage, almost a kind of panic set in," Coulombe said.

Then the friends saw rescue workers rushing forward. They returned with a man in a wheelchair. He had lost one leg from the knee down, and on the other side, his foot was severed at the ankle.

"He seemed like he was in total shock, holding his head like he was thinking," Lavonte said. "He was all bloody. His eyes were open and he was staring into the palm of his hand."

He was rushed into the medical tent for treatment.

Organizers initially told the volunteers to disperse, but then called them back to clear pallets of water and Gatorade from the street, Lavonte said. The road had been shut down for the race, but had to be cleared so emergency vehicles could get through, she said.

"It was really chaos," she said.

Bryan Gattis, a runner from Falmouth, Maine, who now lives in Cambridge, Mass., finished about 15 minutes before the first explosion.

"I was a block up and a block over when the explosion happened. It was just a massive explosion followed five seconds later by a smaller one," he said. "People around me were just in a total standstill and then there was like waves of people running onto the street we were on."

"It was pretty terrifying. I think people knew immediately it was some sort of violent act," Gattis said.

"There was a mad dash to the Esplanade. ... They were frantic," he said. "People were screaming."

People in Maine scrambled to contact loved ones. Those near the race tried to get word out that they were OK. But the cellular telephone networks were overwhelmed and many people couldn't get a signal, adding to the anxiety.

Louis Luchini of Ellsworth said he was worried about his friends who ran in the marathon Monday. About seven runners from Hancock County were in the race, and he was unable to reach two of them on their cellphones.

"I'm just nervous for the people I know who are down there and can't get a hold of them," said Luchini, a Democratic state representative who won the 5-mile road race Sunday in Portland. "It's terrible. It's just an historic race. It's really sad to see something like this happen at such a great event. To me, as a runner, it's mind-blowing anybody would do this."

Sheri Piers of Falmouth is normally the most optimistic of people, yet shortly before the start of Monday's 117th running of the Boston Marathon, Piers looked around at the mass of humanity crowding the town green in Hopkinton and frowned.

"This is bizarre," Piers said. "I was thinking about the 500,000 spectators and I was like, 'What a place, if someone wanted to do something rotten,' and I never think like that."

Piers, 41, completed her run without incident and won $5,000 for finishing second among female masters. Many in the field of more than 23,000 who started the race were diverted from the finish area on Boylston Street or turned away in nearby Newton.

The two powerful explosions in quick succession near the finish line of the marathon resulted in at least three deaths and more than 140 injured.

The tragic events unfolded nearly five hours after the first large wave of 24,662 runners left Hopkinton for the world's most famous marathon, not long after news from a bottom-of-the-ninth Red Sox victory in nearby Fenway Park added to what had been a festive atmosphere.

Authorities reported finding two more devices that were not detonated, as well as a fire at the JFK Library that does not appear to be connected.

"I'm as baffled and confused and upset as anyone," said Freeport's Joan Benoit Samuelson, who had run to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her 1983 victory in Boston that resulted in a world record time.

Seated on a couch in the lobby of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, which was under lockdown for several hours after the blasts, Samuelson put an arm around her son Anders and another around her daughter Abby as husband Scott stood nearby.

"Thank God my family is all here," she said.

Samuelson was coming out of the shower in her hotel room when what sounded like thunder reverberated from two blocks away. Her initial thought was a blown electrical transformer. She soon learned otherwise.

Bridget Thomas of Standish, a student at Boston College, jumped into the race at Mile 21 to run alongside her friend.

Within a mile, runners were passing the word there had been an explosion.

"We made it to about Mile 25. They had it all barricaded off," she said. "They told us all to go home."

"The friend I was running with, her parents were at the finish line, so it was real hectic for a while," she said. They finally were able to get a cellphone signal and connect.

Back at the BC campus, police with dogs circulated through the school. Students huddled around television sets watching the news.

Zachary Heiden, 39, of Portland had run past Kenmore Square and was about a mile from the finish line when the runners in front of him began to slow down and bunch up.

At first, he thought, the runners had been slowed by the large crowds of people watching the race. But then word was passed to him from the runners in front that there had been an explosion near the finish line.

He said all the runners stopped and stayed put in "lockdown" mode for about an hour. They then walked about a mile to climb on buses that took them away from the city center.

Mike McMahan, 41, of Maple Grove, Minn., was gathering his gear from a bus after the race, his 20th marathon but first time in Boston, when he heard the first explosion.

"It was before the arch of the finish," he said. "The first was a plume of smoke, gray-white. Then probably 10 seconds later came the second one. I saw flames coming from the second one."

As he spoke from inside the Copley Plaza Hotel, his wife, Krista, was still on the course. They made contact when she borrowed a cellphone, and told him she had been diverted at Mile 25½.

"I'm not sure how she's going to get here," he said. "I'll feel better when she's here."

McMahan said he had flashbacks from Sept. 11, 2001, when he and his wife were on a flight to Detroit and news of the terrorist attacks prompted authorities to order the plane turned around and sent back to Minneapolis.

"It's craziness," he said.

Kim Marcotte of Falmouth, Maine, had come to cheer on Piers and Marcotte's sister.

"She saw it happen," Piers said. "They tried to get back to their car and get back to their hotel, but it was (locked down, meaning people weren't being allowed in or out)."

At 5:30, Piers made contact with Marcotte, who had not been allowed back into her hotel.

"She's still walking on the street with luggage," Piers reported at 6 p.m. Monday. "No one will let them in her hotel, where her kids are. Her kids are inside with her father."

Piers, who had worried earlier about the large concentration of people near the starting line, said: "I haven't thought (such dark thoughts) since 9/11. That's not the way my mind thinks, but it certainly did today."

Mixon and Arredondo sat in Mixon's daughter's apartment Monday night, trying to come to grips with what had just happened.

Arredondo's sweatshirt was smeared with blood. So, too, were the cluster of flags he had somehow held onto as they retreated from the finish line.

Mixon said it had been a horrific experience.

"I'm in shock. We're both still in shock."

Staff Writers Tom Bell and Bill Nemitz contributed to this report.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@mainetoday.com

 

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