BOSTON — Two bombs exploded on packed streets Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, something a Mainer who witnessed the explosions described as “surreal” and “like a movie.”
Casey Pola, a graduate of Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham who now works on and lives near Boylston Street, where the first bomb went off, said she watched what happened from a friend’s apartment about a half a block away from the explosion.
At ground level, marathon runners Josh Cutler, of South Portland, and Falmouth resident Philip Pierce, said confusion and rumors abounded as the course was closed. Neither was able to finish the race. Another runner, Portland resident Zachary Heiden, was about a half a mile from the finish line when the race just “stopped,” he said.
Pola said she and her friends watched from a fifth-floor apartment window as smoke filled the streets and people screamed.
“It was like a movie. Everyone was running and screaming and getting away from the area. … We could tell something was wrong. We could see Copley Square where the medic tents are, and medics and police started running toward the explosions,” Pola said. “We turned on the news and it took 10 minutes before we knew what was going on. Some people were running with wheelchairs and stretchers. People were missing limbs.”
Authorities said three people were killed, while the number reported injured grew to at least 170 by midday Tuesday. News reports indicate an unidentified Falmouth teenager was injured in the explosions.
Initial reports that police defused other explosive devices also found in the area were denied Tuesday morning by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. He said there were only two explosive devices.
The two blasts near the finish line of the marathon exploded within 20 seconds of each other, about 100 yards apart. It was unknown who was behind the bombings.
Pierce estimated he was a mile from the finish, in a cluster of about 500 runners when they were told the course was closed. He slipped through the barricades and reached the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Hereford Street.
“I was bound and determined to finish, but the police stopped me,” Pierce said Tuesday.
Cutler on Tuesday said he was about three miles from the finish line when the explosions occurred.
“No one knew, the crowd was still active and cheering,” he said.
He was halted around Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue, and realized something was wrong.
“The news spread with kind of dubious accuracy, but it was clear something terrible had happened,” he said.
Turned away from the finish, Pierce said he tried to reach Copley Square on side streets, but had no luck. His pre-race routine of leaving at 4 a.m. allowed him to find a parking near Boston Common, where the runners’ bags were offloaded from buses.
Pierce knew things were bad, but did not grasp the severity until he was leaving Boston around 4 p.m.
“All I saw was tons of ambulances and lots of policemen,” he said. “I didn’t realize how serious it was until I got home.”
Cutler also returned to Maine on Monday, after meeting relatives near Beacon Hill. He said he re-entered the marathon to raise money for an organization promoting athletics and academic programs to keep students in school.
“This whole thing makes running kind of secondary,” he said. “I feel sad and angry for people killed and injured and the whole city of Boston.”
Heiden was hoping to finish the marathon in about 4 hours 20 minutes. Had he been on that pace, he probably would have crossed the finish line about the time the bombs exploded nearby.
But the course’s notorious “Heartbreak Hill” slowed him down “considerably,” he said – and may have saved him from injury.
Instead, Heiden and a friend spent about an hour in the congested streets. Boston residents brought out water, oranges and other supplies.
“We had come out of Kenmore (Square), and then got to this point where was just a mass of people. There was no way to get through … but word was getting passed back that the race was over.”
Pola, a public relations professional who works at Cone Communications on Boylston Street, close to where the bombs exploded, said she and her friends initially stayed in the apartment as another loud boom went off. This time it was just a Fire Department water cannon.
Although they didn’t speak to police, a neighbor relayed to them that no one was being ordered to leave, but if they did, they couldn’t return for 24 hours because the area was blocked off. Pola and her friends stayed in the apartment, while they packed their belongings and waited as military-style police searched the area.
“It’s kind of eerie. When we left, everything was completely shut down,” she said. “(The whole area) is essentially a crime scene right now. People are walking around in disbelief.”
Earlier in the day, Pola said they had walked up and down Boylston Street several times before coming back to the apartment.
“We’re still in shock,” she said. “It’s literally like seeing a scene in a movie. It’s so surreal, so surreal.”
As they left the apartment, Pola said police had lined up all the trash cans from the city in a nearby park, searching for other bombs.
The Patriots Day marathon is one of the most prestigious races in the world, drawing about 23,000 competitive and recreational runners from around the globe. It’s one of Boston’s premier celebrations.
Now it will be remembered for something else.
“You see this stuff on TV, but it’s not suppose to happen in Boston,” Pola said. “Watching the replays on the news it doesn’t look like the same place you know.”
Pierce, who missed two races in the last 30 years because of pneumonia and a foot injury, plans on running next year.
“Oh absolutely,” he said. “It’s the only race I do every year.”