When I heard the boom and saw the rising cloud of smoke and debris from where I stood, about halfway down Boylston Street, I assumed it was an accident. “Probably a transformer blew,” a man next to me said, as though he knew about such things.
Down the street, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon five years ago, crowds of people were injured, dispersing, collapsing. But the wave of panic hadn’t yet made it up the street. That’s what I remember: There was an explosion, and everyone was calm. We didn’t know that our safety had been shattered.
Runners, unable to finish, started backtracking, their hands over their mouths.
The second bomb went off. The sirens. The police. I tried calling my mother, but she didn’t answer. A huge crowd pushed us back down the sidewalk along the marathon course, and we moved with the human tide. I started taking pictures on my cell phone. I started getting texts.
“Sending thoughts from everyone here to you and your family,” wrote one kind coworker before I was even sure what had happened. I got a call from the newsroom at the Bangor Daily News, but the connection cut out as cellular networks buckled under the weight of tens of thousands of people trying to find their loved ones.
One of the last things I said into my phone was, “I need to find my mom.”
The first bomb went off with 4:09:43 on the finish clock. My mother, then 59, had been on pace to finish at 4:09.
My beautiful mother, Joanie Rhoda, had trained through the dark, freezing Maine winter. It was her dream to run Boston one last time. The day was supposed to be one to cherish, for both of us. You see, a long time ago, we had done this race together. She ran six miles of the 1984 Boston Marathon when she was eight months pregnant with me.
To us, the marathon signified vitality and life.
My father, Paul Rhoda, my now-husband, Matt Stone, and I didn’t know where to go. Had my mother passed by us on the home stretch without us seeing her? If she was back farther on the course, how would we find her? The police decided our next steps for us, forcing us back, away from the scene.
I don’t remember feeling panic. We were absorbed by the moment, moving through the streets of Boston. Only later would I fully understand how lucky we were.
Somehow we got to the Philip G. Bowker Overpass, at about the 25.5-mile mark of the marathon, and below us were thousands of runners. If she was anywhere, if she was alive, she would be here, we figured. We kept moving, searching. A sense of the enormity of the task before us began to settle within me. There were so many people.
Matt and I were holding hands, I realized, when his clasped hand began shaking mine. There she was. We sometimes joke about Matt’s less-than-perfect eyesight. And yet he was the one to find my mother.
Today I think about the seemingly random decisions and acts of chance that saved our lives.
For instance I had originally wanted to wait at the finish line, but my father insisted we hang back, and I, miraculously, listened. My mother was supposed to be right there when the bombs went off but had slowed her pace due to a foot problem. Then, when she was forced to stop running, she had tried to stay warm in an apartment entryway but came out just in time for Matt to see her standing on a street corner.
Later, we began walking out of the city, since public transit had shut down and our car was parked 10 miles away. My father carried my mother, whose muscles had tightened after stopping so suddenly. Meanwhile, Matt’s father, Jerry Stone, drove from Westford, Massachusetts, to rescue us. He spotted us on the Boston University Bridge, and pulled a U-turn so we could jump in, safe at last.
Only then could I start to process what had happened or, rather, didn’t happen to our family.
“You could call it fate or coincidence, but I think it was more than that,” my mother said when we talked about it recently. “I believe we were being protected by a higher power.”
After the bombings, some neighbors gave her a small peony plant as a goodwill gesture, she said. She stationed it by the front stoop and called it her Boston peony. It’s huge now, reminding her “that life goes on even after something so horrendous,” she said.
And it does. She returned to Boston in August 2013 with one of my brothers, Adam Rhoda, to run the last mile or so of the course, determined to finish what she had started. It was her ninth marathon. Yet the toll of the bombings lingers.
Last weekend, on April 7, we saw the documentary “Boston: The Marathon” at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport. Throughout the movie she told me the names of famous runners she recognized from running with them decades ago. Depicted in their heyday, running with all their might, they seemed to have so much life ahead of them. How fast time goes, their images reminded us. How easy it is to forget what we have. She held my 4-month-old son, kissing his perfect head, tears streaming down her face.
Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News.