The Day the Marathon Stopped: Tragedy in Boston’s Back Bay

The explosions occurred just as the crowds were at their peak — and the attack seemed aimed at the spectators who had come to cheer the runners

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Unclaimed finish line bags are viewed near the scene of a twin bombing at the Boston Marathon, on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Mass.

As the sun set in Boston on Monday, April 15, the marathon clocks along the race route still ticked off the time for runners who were long gone and who would never finish the race. Boylston Street in the city’s Back Bay remained sealed off, the immediate area around the two blasts deemed a crime scene. Runners packed area hotels — especially the hotel bars — swapping stories, hugging, many crying. There were no rowing teams out on the Charles River. A couple of geese pecked on the pitch of a soccer field that was usually full of practicing teams at dusk. Dozens of emergency vehicles lined Storrow Drive’s grassy embankment, sentries over the crawling traffic, snarled by the city’s lockdowns.

Hours earlier, Cindy Hill, 52, a pediatrician from Philadelphia, had run the marathon of her life. She’d just crossed the finish line with a personal-best time of just over 3½ hours. She turned, exhausted, and threw her arms around her husband Mike Schlitt, who’d been running with her. Seconds later, just behind them, a bomb went off. “It was a joyous occasion,” says Schlitt, also 52, “that was absolutely wiped out.”

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At first, the couple from Haddonfield, N.J., and everyone around them, just stood and stared, dumbfounded. Smoke billowed out, and the quiet, they say, was eerie. Then, the dozens of sports doctors and emergency medical technicians, who’d been stationed at the finish line to help runners in distress, bolted toward the epicenter of the explosion.

Shaken, Hill and Schlitt began to walk away when a second bomb went off down the block. Minutes later, thousands of panicked runners began sprinting toward them. “That was the first moment I was really scared,” says Hill. “It was terrifying.”

The runners had been told by police to run for their lives. And even though they were crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles (42.2 km), they took those shouts seriously. “People were running in all directions. It was chaos,” says Lisa Thomas, 49, who works at a running store in Jacksonville, Fla. Thomas had finished the race a few minutes before Hill and Schlitt and was about 100 feet (30 m) away from the first explosion. “You knew right away it was a bomb. There was no doubt.”

When they’d gotten a few blocks away, the runners stopped for a breather. Hill and Schlitt were frantically trying to call their daughter, who’d run the race with them. Thomas was looking for her teammates and trying to reassure her children back in Florida by phone that she was fine. Then, the authorities said they had found other unexploded devices and once again told the crowds to run out of the area. “Suddenly, there are more people just teeming toward us, running,” Schlitt says.

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The Boston Marathon is the oldest continuously run marathon in the world. This year it drew more than 26,000 runners from more than 60 countries. The bombs went off just at the peak average finishing time, when the crowds would be thickest. Unlike many other races, the Boston crowds stay and grow during the day rather than wane after the elite runners finish. The race is so revered it is run on a beloved Massachusetts holiday: Patriots’ Day. “It’s an amazing race to run,” says Terry Delaney, who traveled to Boston with Hill and Schlitt. “It’s the only time in our lives where we get to feel like rock stars. People 20-deep are cheering you on like it’s their job and they get paid to do it. It’s an incredible marathon.” The bombs that tore through the crowds on Monday appeared to be aimed more at the crowds than the runners. The blasts came from the sides of the course, among those gathered to cheer the runners on. Indeed, it was easier for the runners to get to safety. They had a cleared route down which to bolt — the street itself.

At the medical tent, Skye Johnson, 37, a mother of three and one of Thomas’ friends from Jacksonville, was being treated for exhaustion. “All of a sudden all these bloodied people start coming in,” Johnson says. “It was scary. One girl was put next to me. I told her, ‘You’re bleeding,’ and she said, ‘No, it’s not mine.’ She was sobbing about how she’d seen legs blown off.”

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Relatives who had come to cheer their loved ones on were panic-stricken for information. Helene Delaney was in the lobby of her hotel, the Sheraton Boston, a block away from the finish line, when hundreds of people came pouring in. She had come to Boston with her husband Terry, Hill, Schlitt and a dozen other runners and their families. After she was told bombs were going off, Delaney tried to run toward the finish line in search of her husband but couldn’t push her way through the crowd. She risked getting trampled. “It was agony,” says Delaney, who was eventually reunited with her husband. He had finished the race so quickly he was at a nearby bar with some teammates when the explosions occurred. “I almost think it was worse for them, for the family members, not knowing,” he says.

Hill and Schlitt found their daughter. “But there are people for whom this hasn’t ended so well,” says Hill, playing with her marathon medal. “I wasn’t sure if I should wear this. At first I hid it. It seems silly to be proud of finishing this race when there are families out there who’ve lost someone.”

Sandy Xanos, 61, was on mile 26, just rounding the corner to Boylston Street for the final sprint to the finish line when the first bomb went off. This was going to be the Bellingham, Mass., native’s 32nd Boston Marathon. Xanos ran in 2011 in between her fifth and sixth chemotherapy treatments for cancer, giving her medal to her doctors. “I’m lucky,” says Xanos. “If I’d been a little faster, who knows what would’ve happened.” She adds, “I don’t mind not finishing. If I could, I’d give my medal to those who’ve lost loved ones today. Today’s about them.”

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