Area survivors of Boston marathon bombing go back to race

Runner Johanna Hantel (circled) at the moment the first bomb exploded (upper right) at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15. She was knocked off her feet and suffered a brain injury. "I just remember orange," she says.
Runner Johanna Hantel (circled) at the moment the first bomb exploded (upper right) at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15. She was knocked off her feet and suffered a brain injury. "I just remember orange," she says.
Posted: April 21, 2014

BOSTON - Among the runners and survivors of last year's bombing who are flooding back here for Monday's Boston Marathon, a few themes emerge:

An insistence on returning.

Johanna Hantel, who lives in Malvern, was knocked off her feet by the blast 10 yards from the finish on April 15. Her hand, hurt in the fall, didn't heal until December, and she still struggles with a brain injury. But she never doubted running in Boston again.

"These terrorists can't defeat us and won't defeat us," she said.

A genuine anxiety.

Many wonder whether the fear and emotion will come flooding back.

Last week, for the first time, Lynn Crisci of Boston returned to the outdoor cafe table where she was sitting when the bomb went off yards away. She wept all the way over from her apartment, anticipating it would be awful. It wasn't. No shrapnel raining down. Just the world passing by on a beautiful spring night, a few people puzzled by her tears.

An expectation of release and joy.

People are ready to put the past behind and reclaim the glory of America's most historic race.

"I think it's going to be a ball," said Jim Flanagan, 76, of Haddonfield, who will be running Boston a 23d time. "The runners are going to be so psyched and the crowd is going to be off the wall."

The eyes of the world are focused here this weekend as 36,000 runners participate in the 118th annual Boston Marathon, the first since the bombing.

Reminders of the attack that took the lives of three people and the limbs of 16 are everywhere. More than 200 prayer canvases from all over the country - covered with thousands of well wishes - are unfurled on Boston Common.

The Dear Boston collection - a sampling of the most powerful memorial displays after the bombing - is at the Boston Public Library by the finish line. And scores of survivors, including Johanna Hantel, will take the field Sunday at Fenway Park to be honored by the Red Sox.

The race theme this year, on banners around the city, is "We Run Together." Many take that literally.

"Doesn't matter what [finishing] time we have," said Mike Schlitt, a Haddon Heights pediatrician running with his wife and daughter (all of them raced last year). "I think it's just being there together, to exorcise the demons and at the same time be there for all of us."

Northeastern University created a project, Our Marathon, gathering a digital archive - social media, photos and stories shared by people near and far. The idea is that the bombings and subsequent manhunt for the suspects - locking down an entire city - were a shared experience locally and even internationally. The motto of the archive is "No Story Too Small."

Johanna Hantel The FBI has her shoes

Johanna Hantel, 54, of Malvern, a clinical researcher, has run 65 to 80 marathons. Last year, she ran Boston for the 13th time.

She had turned the corner from Hereford Street onto Boylston, 26 miles down with two-tenths to go.

"I was in tunnel vision and counting the stoplights, just to get to the finish," she said. "I just wanted it to be done. I wasn't paying attention to anything. I don't really remember the sound. I remember seeing an orange burst. I just remember orange."

Television footage shows her covering her ears. Then she's on the ground. It is unclear whether she falls from the blast or is knocked to the ground in the chaos. Then she is seen in photographs literally sitting on the finish line, dazed.

"It's very strange," she said. "I don't remember a lot of it. When I see it on TV, I feel like everybody else watching it on TV. The only way I realize that I was there is because I see myself."

She doesn't remember getting up. "But I do remember standing there at the finish line, looking at my hand. My fingers were going 90 degrees the wrong way. A medical person in a white jacket, he put his hand on my shoulder. I thought he was comforting me, walking me to the med tent. He took my hand and yanked my fingers back in. I went through the ceiling. I remember him saying, 'Don't worry, I'm an orthopedist.' Little bits and pieces like that I remember."

She bought new shoes at the expo before the marathon and wore them for the race, usually a no-no.

"I remember going past Fenway near the end, thinking they were very great shoes," she said. "The FBI has them now. They were all blood-splattered and bomb-blast-splattered."

Hantel went back to work after a couple of days. She could tell right away she was different. Always very organized, unpacked in 20 minutes, she left her suitcase sitting for two weeks.

She didn't sleep well for months. She became irritable. Short on patience before the blast, she was now impossibly short. She couldn't concentrate and still can't.

She eventually went to a neurologist and was diagnosed, she said, with blast-induced traumatic brain injury. "Sound waves can have as much force on your brain and do as much damage as a 50 m.p.h. car crash," she said. "I didn't know any of that."

Survivors in the Boston area had endless events and support groups to help them cope. Hantel is single, and really had only a couple of good friends to lean on. Last month, she had the date of the attack tattooed on her wrist. "I don't ever want to forget," she said.

She went back to Boston on Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the bombing, for a memorial service attended by survivors, first responders, even Vice President Biden. She found that cathartic. She returns this weekend to run.

"I'm hoping for me, [the first 26 miles] will be like every other year," she said. "That's what I'm hoping. I don't know what it's going to be like running that last two-tenths. But there was no way I wasn't going back to run."

Amy Garofalo A double survivor

Amy Garofalo, 48, of Middletown, Conn., was diagnosed with cancer in April 2011. In April 2012, she went to Boston for a bone-marrow transplant. The day before surgery, going through one last "deadly dose of chemo," she watched the Boston Marathon on television in bed at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

A year later, after a successful transplant, she and her husband, Mike, decided: What better place to celebrate the anniversary than Boston, watching the marathon. They took their sons, 16 and 13.

The blast at Forum, a restaurant on Boylston, knocked her unconscious. As she came to seconds later, she had the wherewithal to sense that something terrible had happened, and that she was being picked up and evacuated.

Her first thought was, "I'm not going anywhere without my sons." She realized her older son was holding her in his arms.

Before going to the hospital himself, her husband took ice to those who had lost limbs. He needed staples in his head to stop the bleeding. "What bothers me," he said a year later, "is I didn't do more to help."

His wife has started running, and she has trained for Saturday's 5K. She plans to be back at the restaurant Monday.

"I was at the Boston Marathon last year because I survived cancer," she said. "I'm going back this year because I survived evil."

Her sons will not go. Her younger son, still traumatized by noise and crowds, sleeps with earplugs by his bed in case of thunderstorms. Her husband will be with her, but, he admits, "I'll be looking over my shoulder a lot."

Howard Palamarchuk Not a routine medical tent

For 29 years, Howard Palamarchuk, 61, an associate professor at Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine, has led a team of students to work the medical tent at the finish line.

The bombs went off after the four-hour mark, just as his students were getting busy treating the masses for blisters, cramps, and routine marathon issues. They heard the first blast.

"You look at each other," Palamarchuk recalled. " 'What was that?' First impression, probably a propane tank. Second blast. Then you hear the screaming. Outside you could sense the commotion. And inside the tent: fear. One of my students looked at me, dead in the eye, and said, 'Should we leave?' I had to think for a minute. I said, 'No. Just sit tight.' "

Soon, they were helping to remove shrapnel and bandaging wounds, perhaps the most intense hour of their lives. Afterward, the sight of one student's sleeve covered in blood was confirmation they had risen to the challenge.

He made all the students get counseling, though he never did himself.

In his mind, he revisits the scene virtually every day. "I can tell you what it sounded like, what it smelled like, what it looked like at that moment, even the color of the sky, a beautiful blue. I kind of daydream. I look away and I'll suddenly see the tent."

He will return with 10 students, including two from last year. "I don't know how I'm going to react when I see all this again," he said. "I have anxiety, some trepidation." But he can't wait.

Lynn Crisci, Doug Julian Watching then, running now

Lynn Crisci, 37, and boyfriend Doug Julian, 46, were sitting at a table outside the Charlesmark Hotel, literally across from the finish line. The table umbrella protected them from the raining glass and shrapnel. They suffered their worst physical injuries trying to flee; she popped a disc in her back, and he wrenched a shoulder.

She still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and swears her dog, Lil Stinker, a Maltese in her lap during the explosion, does also - barking at people now, and at loud noises, and when left alone.

Crisci and Julian have become close to other survivors, including those who lost limbs, and they plan to run the marathon. She's been training; he hasn't because of a stress fracture in his foot. He insists the crowd and the emotion will carry him to the finish.

Mike Schlitt, Cindy Hill Wanting to do more

Physician Mike Schlitt, 55, and his wife, Cindy Hill, 52, also a pediatrician, finished five minutes ahead of the blast, but had stopped to recover 20 yards past the finish line.

Authorities quickly herded all runners through the chute away from the scene for their own safety.

Meghan Schlitt, 24, a medical student at Jefferson, finished 20 minutes earlier and had moments of terror until she was able to reach her parents by phone.

"I think that afterward," said Mike Schlitt, "we thought we were OK, but really we weren't. We all had a little bit of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was very sad for a while." He felt guilt that he wasn't hurt and others were - feelings that went away after a few months but that have resurfaced this week.

He also wishes - in retrospect - that somehow he could have defied authorities and pushed his way back onto the course to help treat bombing victims.

"I might not have been in any great shape," he said, "but I'd like to think I could have helped."

Meghan Schlitt has decided in her own small way to give the marathon more meaning. She has raised $6,000 in pledges for the nonprofit Back on My Feet.

"I wanted to do something because I was lucky," she said. "Give back to someone else."


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639 @michaelvitez

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