By Dustin Luca
---- — Runner 22756 — Chongris Circle resident Dennis Johnson — was less than a half-mile from finishing his second Boston Marathon Monday when all the runners around him slowly stopped in motion, under police orders.
As confusion swept Johnson, a scene of “pandemonium” was unfolding at the finish line where his wife, Cheryl Johnson, and their 15-year-old daughter, Lizzie, were awaiting his arrival.
Exploding bombs shot plumes of smoke into the sky on either side of Cheryl and Lizzie Johnson, rocketing the cheering crowds surrounding them into a state of chaos.
In the thick of it all, Andover father Paul Kelley, who has worked security for the marathon for 25 years, was running through the sea of people in search of his 18-year-old daughter, Samantha, and her friend, who only moments earlier were volunteer guards standing directly in front of the site of the first exploding bomb.
Further down the road, the Yepez family of Andover was caught in the second bomb blast, which had gone off just a few feet behind them. All around them, debris from the explosion was provided miserable company to the human carnage that had resulted in a matter of seconds. (See related story, facing page.)
Of the more than 23,000 who stepped off hours earlier in the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, only about 17,000 crossed the finish line before two bombs stopped the race in its tracks — killing at least three people, including an 8-year-old boy, in the process and injuring more than 170 others.
Suddenly, dozens of Andover residents running, watching or working the race found themselves unwilling witnesses to tragedy.
“We were right before the finish line,” Cheryl Johnson said. “It was just one boom. I craned my neck to the direction and you saw this huge, billowing, white-grayish cloud just going up, and you didn’t know whether it was coming from underground or aboveground.”
The sound of the explosion “is the least of the worries,” she said. “You see the smoke and say, That wasn’t supposed to happen.’”
Samantha Kelley and her friend, Rachel Huntley, both 18-year-old seniors at Andover High School, were standing on the street against the railing just a few feet in front of the first bomb that exploded. The force of the blast knocked Samantha off her feet, she said.
“I remember hearing something so extremely loud that my hearing completely ... it just went out,” she said. “I fell to the ground and went numb, and I didn’t know what happened.”
Then, some 500 feet down Boylston Street, the second bomb went off.
“Another one went up and then ... pandemonium,” Cheryl Johnson said. “People were pushing through the barriers, jumping over them and running away from the finish line. Then, police jumped in and directed everybody down the side streets.”
Johnson said as she and her daughter moved away from the marathon path, unaware of her husband’s whereabouts, she felt safe — “safe as we could be. Who knew where the next explosion was coming from?”
Not far from the explosions, Lincoln Street resident Lisa Doucett watched the smoke clouds rising from the finish line — a threshold she had just crossed minutes earlier.
At first, she wasn’t sure what was happening. She didn’t have any of her belongings yet. But other runners around her started getting text messages and calls on their cell phones from people watching the events unfolding on TV.
“News travels fast,” she said. “It was pretty immediate.”
Samantha Kelly was among those calling family from the scene. Once she was back on her feet and had regained her hearing, she called her mother, Lori, as she frantically searched for her father.
“She was screaming into the phone, ‘Mom! Oh my God, a bomb went off!’” Lori Kelly said. “It was really hard to contain myself. But I said, ‘Samantha, find everybody and run.’ She was screaming, ‘I can’t find Dad! I can’t find Uncle Michael!’”
Paul Kelley wasn’t far from his daughter. But in the commotion, she was gone.
“I came around the corner and saw where (the bomb) was and knew that’s exactly where Samantha was,” he said. “I freaked out and started running down there. When I got there, she wasn’t there. I couldn’t find her.”
Clark Road resident Bill Pennington, a 22-year Boston Marathon runner who has spearheaded the Feaster Five and Run For The Troops 5K in Andover for years, was at mile marker 25 when word of the explosions started to spread.
“We were getting very little information from the police. We asked them what was going on,” he said. “We were under the impression it was bombs from trash cans.”
As the runners were led down a different path off the main course, the popular rumor was that a prank had occurred a mile down the road, Pennington said. But something seemed off, he recalled.
“Commonsense told you it was pretty serious because of the police presence and helicopters,” he said. “It was obvious it was more than a prank or firecracker.”
Meanwhile, a half-mile from the finish line, Dennis Johnson was still standing in a crowd of runners, stopped in motion for about 20 to 30 minutes before being moved to another location. Cell reception was gone and answers were scarce.
Then, many of the runners were taken to buses to collect their belongings. By that time, he and his wife had exchanged text messages and he learned of their ordeal at the finish line.
Even if he couldn’t see his wife and daughter, he was relieved that they were OK, he said.
Johnson was led to the Sheraton Hotel three or four streets away from the finish line, where he joined other runners in reuniting with their families.
“The bottom line for our family was they were safe, and I was safe,” Dennis Johnson said. “The news was reporting two fatalities (at the time), I think 89, 98 people hospitalized or at the hospital. ... It could have happened to any of the family members. Fortunately, it didn’t.”
Eventually, Paul Kelley was reunited with Samantha and her friend, too. A family friend found the two young women wandering the scene and sent text messages to the appropriate parties.
“It was horrifying to say the least. As a father, I was terrified. I couldn’t find her,” Paul Kelley said of his daughter.
Samantha said the sight of her father broke her out of her state of shock and brought her back down to Earth.
“When I saw my dad walking toward me, it was one of those things you thought you’d never feel. It felt like I was in a movie,” she said. “I just ran to him and started bawling my eyes out. That’s when it hit me.”
Samantha Kelley and Huntley weren’t seriously harmed, but were later checked out at Lawrence General Hospital as a precaution. The worst Kelley had was an ear concussion, a side effect expected to go away in time, her father said.
Back in Andover a few hours after the race, Doucett searched her mind for a motive, something to explain why the bombs went off in the first place.
“Why?,” she said. “If there was any targeting toward other nations represented here for the race, that was an hour or more earlier. It just seemed senseless.
“I can’t imagine a motive other than there was a lot of people in one place.”
Tom Poland, manager of the Greater Boston Running Co. store in downtown Andover, said although all the people associated with the store who ran Monday’s marathon made it out OK, Monday’s events are “terrible circumstances” for the running community.
“Boston is a high-energy event, and the whole state really gets behind it,” Poland said. “For something like this to happen on such a terrific, beautiful day is terrible news.”
Dennis Johnson said he’s not yet ruling out the possibility of running Boston again next year.
“My initial feeling is that I would perhaps not do it again next year. Some of that is the shock of the events, and when you’re putting on an event that large, it’s a target,” he said. “It’s hard to tell.”
The same goes for Paul Kelley, who isn’t sure if this year will be his last as a security detail for the race.
“I’ve rarely thought about it. I’d be surprised if they have volunteers for that section of the race next year anyway,” he said.
“A year from now, I’d probably say, yeah, I’ll do it again. But standing there will be a little strange.”