Region runners react to blasts at iconic race's finish

2013-04-15T21:45:00Z 2013-04-17T00:12:06Z Region runners react to blasts at iconic race's finishPaul Jankowski and Paul Oren Times Correspondents

There were about 20 runners from Northwest Indiana competing Monday in the 117th Boston Marathon overshadowed by a terrorist attack.

On Monday night, many of them — and their families — were sharing their stories with The Times.

'It was like a war zone'

George Nietert, 60, of Valparaiso, ran the race for the fifth time. The veteran runner, who coaches the Opportunity Enterprises team that competes each year in the Chicago Marathon, said it happened about 40 minutes after he finished.

"We were at the changing tent three blocks down from the finish. We were in there and it was just, 'Boom! Boom!'" Nietert said Monday night.

"Right away, it was like a war zone. Police, fire department, medical. It was just nasty."

Nietert's son, Arrick, made the trip to Boston from Arizona to run. Arrick's wife and 11-month-old daughter were spectators.

The four had to take an alternate route to a subway to make their way to their hotel about five miles away. They watched coverage of the aftermath on television.

"I would assume that probably the people who got killed were innocent bystanders," Nietert said. "I don't think they were runners."

'Patriots Day celebrates our freedom'

Another Valparaiso resident, 45-year-old Mike Pontrelli, finished the race in about 3.5 hours.

At the time of the explosion, he was relaxing at the Bull and Fitch Pub, better known as the "Cheers" bar, with Jeff Mescal, of Hebron.

Mescal led local finishers with a time of 2 hours, 47 minutes, 27 seconds. They received a text message from Jose Elizondo, of Merrillville, who ran a 2:57:25 and was hanging out with his family.

"The bar is two or three blocks away from the finish line, and we didn't hear anything," Pontrelli said. "We got a text from Jose that said two explosions went off. Then it was probably 10 or 15 minutes when we started seeing it on TV.

"They turned off the music in the bar and everyone was watching TV."

Pontrelli quickly forgot how sore he was from running the race. He's run Boston four times, and said he will return next year.

"This sickens me," he said. "This is Patriot's Day, and people in Boston take this day very seriously.

"Patriots Day celebrates our freedom, and they violated it. I will be here next year. If you let something like this or any other terrorist scare you away, you are bound to the terrorists. We have to go on with our lives, and you can't let something like this scare you. I'll run it in memory of the folks who perished. Next year, it's for a reason."

In Hebron, Bonnie Mescal had kept track of her husband, Jeff. He finished about 30 minutes before the explosions happened.

“I’m just happy that he called me beforehand,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that, I would be going quite crazy.”


'We thought it was a joke'

Katie Loosvelt walked into the lobby of the Park Plaza hotel in Boston and couldn’t believe what she was seeing on the television monitors.

It was just a half-hour earlier that the Valparaiso women’s basketball assistant coach crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon, and now Loosvelt was seeing the first video images of the two bomb explosions that brought the annual celebration to a tragic halt.

“We walked in the lobby and everyone was gathered around watching the news,” Loosvelt said. “We thought it was a joke. We were just there and now we were seeing this play out on television. We just came from there.”

Loosvelt finished the race in 3:37.55, roughly 34 minutes before the first bomb exploded. Loosvelt estimates it took more than 20 minutes to work through the crowd to pick up food and her medal before she returned to Park Plaza with her friend Erin Miller.

There was a joyous atmosphere on the streets until the pair walked in the lobby to meet up with their families and saw the destruction on television.

“You couldn’t really hear anything from where we were at,” Loosvelt said. “It was loud enough with people celebrating the end of the race. Then the mood changed from excitement to somber.”

Loosvelt immediately began helping people who were displaced by the abrupt finish of the race.

“We just tried to help out as many people as we could,” Loosvelt said. “There were 5,700 people who were stopped before the finish. They didn’t know where to finish or how to find their families.”

Loosvelt was participating in the Boston Marathon for the first time Monday. In what should’ve been an evening of celebration, Loosvelt was left reflecting on the tragedy.

“This makes me question humanity,” Loosvelt said. “This is supposed to be an event that people come together and to have this tragic moment, unfortunately it’s something we’ll never forget. Boston is a great city and the people will be resilient. You want to think that people will prevail.”

'Too close for comfort'

Chesterton's Brenda Campbell has run about 20 marathons and this was her second Boston. She estimates she was about a block away — and in the finishing chute — when the explosions rocked the area, 20 minutes after she finished. 

"We heard the first explosion and smoke was everywhere," she said.

In the crowd of the chute, Campbell said many people didn't realize what was going on. Some thought it was a celebratory cannon.

"No one ran. No one panicked. ... We had no clue ... except the smoke was really bad," she said.

Not until found her husband and they got out of the chute, where runners pick up food, clothes and awards, did they know something serious was going on.

"People were crying," Campbell said.

Once the seriousness of the explosions was apparent, she began looking for a friend who finished about seven minutes after her.

"We knew she was done. We just didn't know where she was," she said of Tama Pickford, also of Chesterton. 

"She was a little rattled," Campbell said.

In the age of technology, Campbell and her husband, Leroy, ended up receiving help from their daughter — a student at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Jessica Campbell, 20, a 2011 Chesterton High School graduate, said she had spent the day seeing her mother's progress in the race and knew when she finished — and she had stopped paying attention to it after she knew she crossed the finish line.

She was in the newsroom of the Indiana Daily Student when she learned of the explosions. It took her about 20 minutes to reach her father and another half-hour before she was assured her mother was OK.

"It was pretty scary. You would never think something like this would ever happen," Jessica Campbell said. "I knew she was done. But I didn't know where she was. I was hoping she was far enough away."

It became Jessica's job to help Brenda and Leroy Campbell and their friends through Boston.

"I was texting my dad what roads were closed and trains were closed and bridges. I tried to relay any information I could to them," she said.

Brenda Campbell said the bombings wouldn't deter her from running Boston again, but it gave her pause with one of her children getting ready to run the Chicago Marathon in the fall.

"I was not rattled. But then I started thinking, 'I cannot believe I just ran by this bomb.' ... Too close for comfort," she said.


'It was surreal'

Abby Masco, 29, of Burns Harbor, had finished the race and was a block away from the finish line when she heard a loud boom followed by a large cloud of smoke. She said she wasn’t sure what to make of it and initially thought it was similar to the loud cannon that was set off at the beginning of the race.

Then she heard another explosion and saw officers rushing everyone out of the area.

“Then I saw all the smoke right at the finish line; it wasn’t right,” she said. “It was surreal.”

Masco met her husband blocks away from the finish line at an area they previously had designated to meet after the race. They got into the car and drove to their hotel in Cambridge where they spent Monday evening processing what happened.

“It’s still hard to wrap your head around what happened,” she said. “What the heck was that? In the moment it was a weird feeling.”

Monday was the first time she ran in the Boston Marathon, but she previously ran in the Chicago Marathon.

In Lowell, her father Brett Ellis said he initially received a phone call from Masco when she finished the race. Then she called him again asking to see if there was anything online explaining the explosions she just saw.

“It was pretty scary,” he said.

Masco said she didn’t feel like the event was unsafe until the explosions.

“I just think that it’s a one-in-a-million shot. It can happen anywhere,” Masco said. “It’s a random, horrible act.”


'Puts things in perspective'

Misty Chandos, 39, of Cedar Lake, said she finished the race about 30 minutes before the explosions went off. She was on the 35th floor in a nearby hotel room when she heard emergency vehicles and looked out to the chaotic scene unfolding near the finish line.

She recalled seeing people being carried out on stretchers, water being knocked over and officers swarming the area.

“It was way too close for comfort,” she said. “Days like this really puts things in perspective.”

Chandos was able to ride the train to check into another hotel 30 miles outside the city. She spent the evening fielding phone calls, more than 100 text messages and Facebook messages from people wanting to know if she was OK.

She works at Fleet Feet in Schererville and has been running for about 12 years. She said the marathon was organized and felt like it was secure before the explosions.

Chandos said she was still processing what happened, but didn't think it would stop her from running again.

— Times Staff Writer Elvia Malagon and Times Assistant Night Editor Scott Lawson contributed to this report.

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