Columbia runner experienced chaos at the Boston finish line

Monday, April 15, 2013 | 11:15 p.m. CDT; updated 1:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 16, 2013

COLUMBIA — Bill Washington passed trash can after trash can along the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon route. Plastic bins surrounded by cylindrical sets of metal bars lined the course from its starting point in Hopkinton to the final stretch in downtown Boston.

Washington, a Columbia resident, ran for four hours, three minutes and 21 seconds, his eyes fixed ahead toward the finish line of what would be the ninth marathon of his 66-year-old life. Even after breaking the plane, his focus was straight ahead to where water, Gatorade and a blanket awaited his exhausted and triumphant body. 

But 300 yards was all it took for Washington to snap back in the direction from which he had come. His body vibrated as the ground shook under him. Then, a massive wave of sound gave way to an instantaneous silence. Fragments of one of the last garbage cans he had passed flew through the air, just barely visible through a plume of gray, black smoke. 

Washington watched as the shrapnel settled and listened as the silence gave way to shocked screaming. His first instinct was to run in the direction of the blast, back toward the finish line and contrary to most of his fellow bystanders. Aware that someone had set off an explosive device — a Navy veteran can tell a bomb blast from something more benign — he was overcome by a feeling of intense anger, soon followed by the somber realization that there must surely be casualties. 

Within moments, he reversed course again, just before emergency personnel began instructing the rest of the crowd to do the same.

"I realized that if this is a terrorist attack, a frequent modus operandi of these people is to draw people to the scene and then detonate a second explosion," Washington said. 

Washington was one of 15 runners who listed themselves as from Columbia. There were 207 registered runners from Missouri.

Two miles back along the marathon route, Columbia resident Sean Kennelly was back at his hotel with his wife and parents. Thirty-six years younger than Washington, Kennelly had finished about a half hour prior to the attack. After turning on the television to the news of the bombing, the family's pride in Kennelly's performance turned to sadness.

“Up until the point that happened, it had been a great day," Kennelly said. "It was perfect weather for running. I met the time goal that I wanted. We were basically getting ready to probably go out and celebrate until that happened."

Back at the finish line, Washington finally hydrated and then moved toward the family meeting area, where he expected to find his wife and a group of friends. They weren't there. He tried calling his wife before realizing cell service was unavailable.

Text messaging was the only viable means of communication in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Washington texted his wife, Frances, and his daughter, Katherine Flanner, who got the news 45 minutes after her father finished.

An hour and a half passed before Washington found his wife and friends. Instead of waiting at the finish line, they had been stuck on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's Green Line, a light rail train held up by the explosions. Washington finally met them at a rail station. They walked to another station, took a train to their car and drove out of Boston to Saugus, a town 12 miles north.

Even after witnessing Monday's devastation, Washington said he wouldn't hesitate to participate in next year's Boston Marathon. It's the oldest traditional marathon in the world, he said, and a "destination race" where runners from around the world come together with the common goal of crossing the finish line.

"It’s not gonna stop me from running marathons or something," he said. "But it does point out how difficult it is for an event like that to be adequately protected.”

Andrew Wagaman and Philip Joens contributed to this story.

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