My Experience at the 2013 Boston Marathon

SeanDohertyI think with everything going on surrounding the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the fact that the Marathon is fast approaching, I wanted to give you my take on what I saw that awful day in 2013. For many people, watching the horror unfold on TV was scary, but actually being there was a surreal nightmare that I sometimes see again in my dreams.

Monday, April 15, 2013 wasn’t a very special day to start. I was an on-air DJ working in Arizona but flew home for my mother’s surprise 50th birthday and was in the middle of making sure all of the details would be set and the party would be amazing. Oddly, I was asked to go into my old Boston station and meet with some old friends for coffee, I figured, why not? That’s when I got the call.

“What are you doing today?” a friend said on the other line

“Not much. Just running errands and I might take my dog to the park.” (Like I said, nothing too exciting.)

“We have an extra seat at a restaurant down by the finish line, you should come!”

“Sounds good! I can be there in a half hour.”

I left for the Boston Marathon finish line.

Certain details about that day are a complete blur but some details are so clear it is like it was yesterday. I don’t remember seeing anything “out of the ordinary.” I don’t remember seeing anything “suspicious.” I do remember that I was wearing a Sox hoodie, a Patriots hat, red and blue New Balance shoes and I was mad because they were new and I spilled coffee on them that morning. I actually thought, “Ugh, my day is ruined because of my new shoes.” I was so stupid. I remember my mimosa was flat and my grilled chicken Caesar salad was taking forever. I remember the restaurant had its windows open in the front and there was lots of excitement by the finish line and the conversation at the table was light and humorous, all of us joking about how we could never run a marathon but we would try if it meant we could just eat carbs for weeks before to prepare.

Then I heard a noise.

To my friends, it was just a noise. We had all been in radio and have been at concerts so someone said it might have been someone overheating a speaker and having it “blow.” A good enough speaker, if short-circuited, could very well cause a loud boom with a vibration. Someone else thought it was a firework and someone else suggested there might have been some sort of military salute at the finish line for the runners. My mind went in a very different direction.

For a backstory, my father has been a terrorist specialist in the military and special response team for my entire life. While some kids have memories of playing catch with their dad, my weekends were often spent doing “drills” about how to survive during various scenarios. My sister and I would act out how we would escape the house during a fire by actually climbing out of our bedroom windows on rope ladders my dad had installed. We would learn what to do if a burglar broke in, and after 9/11 we literally had a van packed with canned goods in the event we would have to flee to what was in my mind, a secret underground bunker somewhere where I would meet Morgan Freeman (he’s always the President in movies that involve underground bunkers). This hyperactive upbringing left me with a constant state of paranoia but it also allowed me a keen awareness of potentially dangerous situations and once I heard that first noise, I knew something was wrong. Before I could even start to gather my thoughts and try to convince myself I was being paranoid, the second explosion went off.

This wasn’t a drill. My dad wasn’t going to tell me I was going to be OK. This was a terrorist attack happening only feet in front of me and I watched the city I love explode and chaos to consume. I really don’t want to go into the details of what I saw. Honestly, there are just certain sights, sounds, and smells that you never knew existed until you are in a situation like that. I remember the screaming; the utter bloodcurdling screaming.

We had to get out.

Now I realize that I’m describing myself as some sort of MacGyver-type hero when I say that I told my friends we need to bolt out the emergency exit into the alley behind the restaurant and make our way to Kenmore Square. Maybe at the time I seemed like I knew what I was doing but in reality, I was scared. I was so scared because like everyone else, I didn’t know what was coming next.

A group of five of us left the restaurant. Some people were walking around dazed, covered in blood. Some people were running as fast as they could. Medics and first responders rushed quickly to help those with life-threatening injuries. Tourists were yelling on cell phones in languages I couldn’t understand, but there was still so much screaming. I tried to convince people not to head towards the Charles River, to follow me or head west because they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere once they hit the water. I remember peering down a street and seeing people jumping into the river to swim across to Cambridge. Some people listened, some didn’t. We walked for a minute onto Boylston Street. The aftermath was only minutes old, yet it looked like some war-torn country from the other side of the world. This couldn’t be Boston. This wasn’t my life. It was, and we had to get out.

We kept walking.

At this point I had what I consider the scariest phone call of my life. My father knew where I was and while we were trying to get through to each other it took a good 20 minutes to finally connect.

“Are you safe?” he asked

“I don’t know,” I replied

“I need to tell you what is about to happen, so listen carefully. This is going to be the last time we talk to each other. In a few minutes all of the cell phone service to the city is going to be shut off to prevent anyone from remotely detonating another bomb. I need you to do this go——–“ The phone shut off. I was surrounded by thousands of other people yet I have never felt more alone.

Once people realized their cell phones were down, another wave of panic ensued. I knew vaguely what I wanted to do. I wanted to walk down Marlborough Street to Kenmore Square and then up Beacon Street to a friend’s house in Brookline. Two strangers approached me as we neared the Citgo sign.

“Please, you need to help us,” they said in what I think was an Eastern European accent of some sort. They couldn’t have been older than 20 and their clothes were covered in blood.

“Are you hurt?” I looked around for someone to help them. I have zero medical training nor do I speak any language besides English and sometimes I’m not even good at that so I really should be the last person to offer help, but I did. They were separated from their tour group after the bombings and had no idea where their hotel was.

“Follow me and we will try and get you some help.” I offered to carry one of their bags. Our pace slowed down. I don’t know why. We were definitely walking with a purpose but as the sounds of the sirens grew distant I remember looking around and watching everyone’s pace just slow down. Like a zombie apocalypse, movie we all seem to have made it out and were just staggering down the streets. Scared, tired, confused, and changed. We saw it happen. We saw the largest attack on American soil since 9/11 and none of us would be the same.

The tourists eventually turned around. Convinced we didn’t know where we were going, they wanted to walk back into the city. I tried to stop them but I couldn’t. To this day I hope they are safe.

I am at this point convinced that my father has had a chip implanted somewhere in my body so he can GPS my location because as we approached my friend’s house in Brookline her landline rang and it was my dad. He explained that I’d have to hang out at my friend’s house for a while until the roads were reopened. We just spent the next few hours just watching the TV. The adrenaline went up and down and one of my friends actually took a nap. I stayed glued to the TV, watching the events we all know unfold.

Eventually I got back to my house around 7 p.m.. It was around then that my phone rang. It was the president of my former radio company. They wanted an interview for a station in Boston. I said, “Of course, I can do an interview.” I wanted to tell people what I saw and give a firsthand report of what actually happened through the eyes of someone who lived it. I honestly thought it was going to be ONE interview, 3-5 minutes tops, and then I could try to get some sleep. I was so wrong. Once stations found out that there was a radio DJ in the company that was there, it became a circus. I felt very obligated to report on the state of Boston as someone who loves the city and could articulate well. For 35 straight hours my sister sat up with me connecting me with 172 radio/TV stations all over the world. When it was nighttime here, it was morning in Australia. The BBC, which broadcasts to the entire United Kingdom was on one cell phone and Sioux Falls, South Dakota was on the other. Why did they want to talk to me? I have been told it’s because I was “calm” and calm during chaos is what everyone needed to hear. The world needed to know facts, not just pure emotion. Everyone wanted to hear my story and while I really wanted to share it and make sure people knew Boston was going to be strong and to bond together, it all caught up to me, and I just fell asleep. Below is an excerpt from an interview I did after hundreds before it. Just listen. I am so tired.

The next few days were a blur. I wanted the nightmare to be over and to just go back to my boring life. I wanted to just take my dog to the park and go get coffee with my friends in town. I wanted to pretend it didn’t happen and nobody died. Nobody was hurt and screaming. Nobody wandered lost and nobody was scared anymore. Sadly, life is real. This was real and we went about our lives and eventually rebuilt everything bigger and better. Never forgetting what happened on April 15, 2013. I’ve rebuilt myself too. This time last year I don’t think I could have written this. It was all still too fresh. And that’s my story. That’s my experience at the Boston Marathon. Thank you for reading.


About Sean Doherty

Sean Doherty is the mid-day host weekdays on 99.9 the Q.
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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