By Samantha Mellman
BU News Service
The temporary bridge that spans Boylston Street above the Boston Marathon finish line and the metal stands in front of the Boston Public Library were erected just days ago. For many, it is still hard to believe that it has been a full year down the road since the city was shaken to a halt. Yet, the people of Boston have not yielded. Windows are decorated along the restaurants and shops of Boylston Street with signs that say, “We are Boston.”
The months leading up to the 2014 marathon have been a time of recovery, reflection and remembrance of those who were injured and lost. As a look back to the 2013 Boston Marathon, these are the personal stories of Boston University graduates: runner Azeem Khan and spectator Montserrat Bravo.
Back in 2012, Azeem Khan thought to himself that 2013 might be his last year living in Boston and his last opportunity to run in the marathon. Khan, at 25 years old, had spent six years of his life at B.U., earning a B.A. in biology in 2010 and an M.A. in medical sciences in 2012. He began training in December of 2012 for the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Since it was to be his first-ever marathon, he knew well in advance that he would not be able to qualify for the race, so instead he ran for the charity American Liver Foundation. He set a goal of $4,500 in donations and met it before race day.
Khan had a small group of supporters to cheer him on. Montserrat Bravo (CAS’13) lived in the same dormitory as Khan, at 81 Bay State Rd., during her junior year of college and his second year as a graduate student. Bravo and her friends woke up early on marathon day to try to get close to the finish line to watch Khan finish the race.
“We were excited and really wanted to be there for him,” said Bravo.
Khan created a Facebook page as a time capsule for friends and family to get updates on his training and fundraising up to the marathon. He decided that for race day he wanted to have his cellphone on him to allow anyone to call or text him words of encouragement.
“While I was running the race, I received twenty to thirty phone calls,” said Khan. “When I got to Mile-Twenty-Three near Coolidge Corner, my phone started buzzing off the hook.”
Around then, Bravo and her friends were near the corner of Boylston and Exeter streets trying to get closer to the finish line, but the sidewalks were crowded with onlookers, and a security guard told them that they couldn’t go into the VIP area. Moments later, the first bomb exploded near the finish line.
“At first, I just thought something in a kitchen had exploded, since there are many restaurants there. My other friend thought it had been fireworks,” said Bravo. “Then we heard the second explosion, and we saw the smoke and heard people screaming.”
Bravo said all she could think about was 9/11. She and her group of friends began speed-walking back toward Kenmore Square.
Meanwhile, Khan was nearing the end of his marathon. “I started getting text messages and then phone calls from friends hysterical asking, ‘Are you okay, are you okay?’ and ‘Please don’t go to the finish line’,” said Khan. “I had no idea what anyone was talking about, because everyone around me throughout the entire race had been completely fine.”
Khan said he might have been one of the first runners at his location to learn about the mayhem that was unfolding on Boylston Street. Within 10 to 12 minutes of hearing the news, he said, the entire mood began to change. By Mile 24, as he approached Kenmore Square, the police and military quarantined the area and told the runners that the race was over.
The rest of Khan’s belongings were waiting for him in a bag at the finish line, including his cell phone charger. At Mile 24, before cell phone services were cut off but while Khan still had Internet connection, he sent a Facebook post saying he was okay. He immediately went searching for his brother Ahmad, who was supposed to be waiting for him at the finish line.
“Runners were on the sidewalk crying and trying to console each other because they couldn’t reach their families who were waiting for them at the finish line,” said Khan.
As he walked through the crowd, people brought their radios and televisions to the sidewalks to see what was happening in Copley Square. Khan was able to reunite with his brother, and they went straight to a friend’s house the rest of the day.
“It was one of the most interesting days of my life,” said Khan. “The only thing I thought that was kind of dumb, was that I was angry I didn’t finish. I raised forty-five hundred dollars for this charity, I trained for months and months, I was two miles away from finishing the race, and I didn’t get to finish.”
Khan was emotionally shocked, and he took time off from work the rest of the week. While spending time with friends they all tried to wrap their heads around what had occurred.
After Khan received word during the race about the explosions, he said, he thought about why it had happened.
“Most Muslims around the world were praying that the attacker wasn’t a Muslim guy,” said Khan. “Everyone did automatically assume that it was, and when the media found out they were, it was like, ‘We knew it’.”
Khan received phone calls and Facebook messages from radio and television shows to appear as the voice of a Muslim who had run the race. He had no idea how they got his contact information and was being bombarded by different media in the following weeks. He wrote a commentary for Huffington Post from the perspective of a Pakistani Muslim on his thoughts, ranging from running the marathon to living through the city’s lockdown.
Khan plans to return to the Boston Marathon this year — not as a runner, but to support his friend who ran with him last year. Khan said he ran the first 17 miles of the 2013 race with him, but his friend was slowing him down by one to two minutes each mile. Khan didn’t want to leave him behind, so he slowed his pace and stayed with his friend.
“Around Mile-Seventeen he said, ‘I need to take a full-on break. You should go on ahead without me’,” recalled Khan. “At the end of the race and after everything that happened, I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ If you add up all the time he slowed me down for the amount of miles he slowed me down, I would’ve been at the finish line or much closer or just crossed it.”