Penn Relays examining safety in wake of Boston bombings

A young Boston Bruins fan raises his arms to be checked on the way into TD Garden prior to a Bruins NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres in Boston, Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in the aftermath of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
A young Boston Bruins fan raises his arms to be checked on the way into TD Garden prior to a Bruins NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres in Boston, Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in the aftermath of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) (Elise Amendola)
Posted: April 19, 2013

The bomb blasts during the Boston Marathon shook up and saddened Americans across the country but the sorrow was particularly felt in the running community, a tight-knit family that enjoys competing and forming friendships that last a lifetime.

"To me, it's a sanctuary of sorts," Villanova track and field coach Marcus O'Sullivan, a former world-class runner and Olympian, said Wednesday. "People go there because it's time to come together in a joyous moment and a joyous time. So when something like this happens, it really is very tragic."

The tragedy in Boston has put officials at Penn on high alert with the Penn Relays, the nation's oldest and largest track meet, ready to start next Thursday for the 119th time. The carnival features 20,000 athletes from grade school to elite professionals and draws more than 100,000 people to Franklin Field, including 40,000 to 45,000 on Saturday, the last day.

The university issued a statement that called security "a high priority at the Penn Relays."

"It is something we take seriously," the statement said. "Given the situation in Boston, additional security measures will be undertaken during this year's games. We are not, however, going to discuss the specific details around security activities."

Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays, did not want to elaborate on the statement but said high-level talks involving various agencies were under way. He said officials hoped to have word by early next week on any new restrictions to be implemented.

"Life changed after 9/11, and [the Boston tragedy] will be, if not a change, a reawakening," Johnson said at a Penn Relays news conference. "But things will certainly be tighter than they were the last few years."

The Penn Relays prohibits a number of items from being brought into the stadium but one that may get closer scrutiny is large backpacks. Most runners carry their running gear and shoes in a backpack that they leave in the paddock area, in the southwest corner of Franklin Field, and pick them up after their race.

The paddock area is manned by security guards but is open to South 33d Street, where traffic goes by freely during the competition. The part of Franklin Field that runs along South Street has a fence separating the stadium from the road.

"You can't get in without [guards] going through your backpack," said Gina Procaccio, Villanova's women's track and field coach. "So it's pretty safe in the area. But the streets . . . it's something to think about. After 9/11 it was something that was really on your mind. Then it kind of faded a bit, but now it's come back again."

The Penn Relays is one of the many high-profile activities scheduled for the Philadelphia area in the coming months. Another is the U.S. Open, which will be held at Merion Golf Club beginning June 10 with practice rounds and then moving on with four rounds of championship play starting June 13.

Joe Goode, managing director of communications for the U.S. Golf Association, said Wednesday that the group was "reviewing our security measure in partnership with local, state, and federal authorities."

Goode said the USGA is working with Haverford Township police, Pennsylvania State Police, the FBI, and the Office of Homeland Security to go over security plans "to determine if any additional measures are necessary."

"That's the prudent thing to do given what happened in Boston," Goode said.

Johnson, O'Sullivan, and Procaccio said they heard from people who were in Boston and escaped injury.

Johnson discovered on the Internet that the first responder to reach 78-year-old Bill Iffrig, who was seen on video falling to the street as soon as one bomb blast went off, was Tommy Meagher. Meagher, who worked at the Boston Marathon finish line, is a Penn Relays starter.


Contact Joe Juliano at jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @joejulesinq.

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