From Neil Swidey:
Kelly Beckett , 39, of Milton, and her sister Kristen Souza, 36, of North Attleboro, were running in honor of their mother, who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in August. Beckett had run before, but this was Souza’s first time. They had just reached Mile 20 when they were told by race officials to stop and turn out. The race was over.
They reversed direction, walking nearly a mile back into Newton Centre. “I can’t believe we’re walking backwards,” Souza said as they walked along Centre Street. Before turning off Commonwealth Avenue, they had passed a medical tent and grabbed BAA mylar blankets to wrap themselves in. “Grab one before they’re all gone,” Beckett told her sister, who had been training for her first marathon since October.
“Our family had finish line passes,” Beckett said. “Luckily, they were on their way and hadn’t made it there yet.” Souza’s phone had already died, but fortunately Beckett’s still had juice.
“It’s all so overwhelming,” Beckett said. “You assume there’s high security, but the course is so long that I guess it’s impossible to guard against everything.”
The sisters were heading to Starbucks to wait for a ride. They had just $5 between them, and were hoping the baristas would look kindly on them, until their family managed to get there.
A swarm of Newton police officers cordoned off the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Centre Street. The popular race viewing spot that had been three deep with spectators before the marathon had been stopped was now a desolate, windswept area. Captain Marc Gromada, who has worked the marathon for most of his nearly 25 years on the Newton force, was in charge of this year’s race for the department.
“We were told to shut down the race so we took precautions and made alternate routes to get the rest of the runners off the route,” he said.
After that, the precautions continued. “There are a couple of suspicious packages that were left behind,” he said, “and we’re waiting for the bomb unit to show up and check them out.” Gromada said he and police departments all along the route prepare each year for all sorts of emergency contingencies, but usually they involve the unpredictable weather, not deadly bombs. He remained in contact with counterparts from his department as well as Massachusetts Emergency Management and US Homeland Security. But that was wore difficult because he wasn’t able to get through on his cell phone to other cell phone numbers. “I think Homeland Security shut down cell-to-cell calls,” he told one of his officers.
Some runners, Gromada said, were being housed at a shelter at St. Ignatius at Boston College. As awful as the incident was, he said, he took solace that it came when it had. “We were lucky it happened near the end,” he said, “when the groups of remaining runners were pretty thin.”
At that point, sirens blared and a black vehicle pulled up, across the intersection from the running show store with the “We (heart) 26.2” in the window. Out of the vehicle stepped a muscular member of the bomb unit, dressed all in black, and leading a black bomb-sniffing dog to the suspicious package. When that package was deemed safe, the dog was led to another package and then to a port-o-potty.
While this was happening, pedestrians continue to arrive at the intersection, asking for police permission to cross to the other side of Centre Street. One mother shouted from one side for her teenage daughter on the other side of the blockade. Three students from Boston College’s Newton campus pleaded for permission to cross. Eventually, the police relented and let them through. “Thank you so much!” the students gushed.
At 4:38 p.m., after the bomb unit had cleared out, heading to another spot along the route to perform the same task, Gromada signaled for the officers to remove the barricades.
That’s when a pair of runners, also wrapped in mylar blankets and walking backwards from Mile 20, headed down Centre Street. Rachel Irving, a 33-year-old from the North End running her first marathon, said the first sign of trouble had come around Mile 19. That’s when she overheard a runner she didn’t know, talking on his cell phone, saying something about a “bomb at the finish line.” Still, he didn’t seem too concerned, so she kept going with her 31-year-old racing partner, Radhika Bhattacharya.
At Mile 20, they learned the news that the bomb report was true and the race was over. Bhattacharya, who lives two blocks from the finish line, called her mother, who was staying in her apartment. Her mother had been planning to leave the apartment shortly and head to the finish line. That all changed when she heard the two blasts. Her mother was worried until she heard her daughter’s voice on the phone. “Luckily, we’re slow,” Bhattacharya said.