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Too close to tragedy


Veterinarians who raced in Boston Marathon ask "what if?"

Her husband was at the finish line to see her complete her first Boston. Blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, Phyllis Sill, DVM, of Beloit, Wis., crossed into the finishing chute and then continued on to be wrapped in a mylar blanket by volunteers. "He saw me finish the race but I didn't see him," Sill says of her husband, Brad.

It was just before 3 p.m. on April 15. Not seeing her husband, Sill went to collect her personal effects. "I was making my way over to the bus and I heard the first explosion," Sill says.

Runners participate in the 2013 Boston Marathon before two bombs injured hundreds and killed three.

Since it was Patriots Day, she thought the noise was part of the festivities. "Most of us thought it was a cannon going off," Sill says. "And then another went off. We saw the smoke go up in the sky."

Dave Stevenson, DVM, of Abingdon, Md., finished about 10 minutes slower than he had hoped. "I was recovering from an injury. I hadn't run in three months," he says. Still, he finished the marathon—his 36th—with a time of 3:14:00. It had been a great day.

"I was on the shuttle back to the hotel," he says. "The driver said it just came through that something happened at the finish line. We didn't know what was going on. You think, 'I was just running there an hour ago,'" he says. "Everything was fine."

The news didn't get to Texas veterinarian Ward Conover, DVM, until he and his family turned on the television in their hotel room. Two bombs had exploded near the finish line. Nearly 300 people were injured; three—Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Martin Richard—were killed.

Like Stevenson, Conover finished about an hour ahead of the bombings. When he reached the finish line he looked around for his family, expecting to see his wife, Dianne, his children, Erica, Garrett and Kaleb, his niece and his sister-in-law smiling and cheering in the same location that later became a crime scene. "I looked right there in that area," Conover says.

Instead they opted to rejoin him in the family meeting area, and they lingered to enjoy the day before returning to the hotel. "We left a few minutes before the bombs went off," he says.


Dale Ottosen, DVM, of Auburn, N.Y., had just made it into the finishing chute, conquering his third Boston Marathon. "I had a horrible race and finished an hour slower than I expected," Ottosen says. He was approximately 150 feet away when the first bomb detonated.

"I was standing there feeling sorry for myself and then there were people bleeding and dying on the sidewalk," Ottosen says. "Suddenly a silly foot race doesn't matter."

It was a scene of panic and tension as family and friends tried to find each other. It took Ottosen 45 minutes to find his increasingly worried family. They finally reunited in the family meeting area, everyone unhurt.

Dr. Ward Conover, shown here with his family, finished the marathon and left the area before the bombs went off. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. WARD CONOVER)

In the meantime, Sill was still searching for her husband. "I got my phone and got my gear, turned my phone on and saw that he had tried to call," she says. She clung to one thought: Everything must be OK.

Before long, no one could make or receive cell phone calls. "It was getting later and later," Sill says. She had no idea where Brad was or how to find him—or if he was hurt. "I was starting to get really nervous."

Sill isn't sure how much time she spent searching, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, overcome with helplessness and exhaustion, she collapsed to the ground. She lay under a sign in the family meeting area, powerless to cope with the horrifying reality around her.

Dr. Dave Stevenson before the start of the race. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. DAVE STEVENSON)

And that's where he found her. "I felt him grab me and pull me off the ground," she says.

Brad had seen the bomb go off right before his eyes. "He had just been there," Sill says, still choking back emotion. "Just minutes before, he moved to the other side of the street." Brad saw a woman he now believes to be Krystle Campbell thrown into the air by the blast.

He ran from the scene in search of his wife. They hadn't named a place to meet after the race. As he fought his way through the crowd, he was glad the wall of people shielded him from the sight of carnage from the blast. He tried to call his wife. No answer.

He found a volunteer who took him to a computer to verify that she had in fact made it through the finishing chute. Cell phones were useless. Since they had no predetermined meeting spot, the volunteer told Brad to go to the family meeting area.

"He brought him over to the family area and that's where he found me," Sill says. Tears overwhelm her still at the memory—not of seeing her husband but feeling him grab her and pull her up from the ground where she waited. "I didn't know where else to go," she told him. They held each other and cried.

The big city of Boston suddenly felt small. Streets were blocked off. Security was everywhere. People were asked to stay in their homes, their hotels. All Stevenson could do was watch the news from his hotel room. "You kind of felt helpless just watching, not knowing what to do," he says. "I wish I could've been there to help people out. Not being able to get back to that area, it was hard."

Sill and her husband walked for blocks past cordoned-off streets trying to get to back to their hotel, all the while trying to get a call out to let family know they were safe. Their three children had been following her progress throughout the marathon at school with the AT&T Athlete Alert mobile app. They knew she had finished near the time of the bombing. "It was terrifying for them," Sill says. After 40 minutes of not knowing, a call went through to her brother-in-law, relieving their family's worst fears. Sill says they thanked God their family had not come with them.

"Very few runners were hurt," Conover says, "but their family members and friends were because they were there to watch them."

While the physical injuries sustained by the blast victims were severe, the guilt experienced by runners who brought family and friends along is also terrible. "Emotional scars go deep," Conover says. "That's where a lot of my prayers have been."

In the days after the race, Stevenson found it hard to keep his mind from going back to Boston. "You wonder why you weren't directly affected by it and others were," he says. "What determined why you were lucky and others weren't so lucky? You look back and wonder 'what if?' It's hard to think about. You start getting emotional and angry about it."

Ottosen has dealt with similar emotions. "The hardest part was one minute you're struggling up the street—people cheering you on—and then literally three minutes later some of them are badly injured," he says. "You feel angry, you feel sad, but in the end it makes you determined to go back next year. That's the best thing I can do."

Conover and Stevenson agree. They want to run the Boston next year. "These kinds of things are going to be in our world, but it can't deter us from doing the things that fulfill us in our life, whether it's running or walking your cat," Ottosen says.

Sill doesn't know if she'll return. She prequalified for next year's marathon, but she's undecided. "You don't want to be overrun by fear," she says, but right now, the "what-if"s linger.

"It could've been so easy to run a 4:10 instead of a 3:53," Sill says. She could have slowed down, to let her pace slip. But she knew her children were tracking her. Safe at school, they followed her every step. "They knew I wanted to come in before 3:55," she says. "That's extremely motivating."

When the plane touched down in Wisconsin less than 24 hours after she crossed the finish line, Sill broke down. "That's when I lost it. That's when it all sunk in," she says. All that had happened—how close they had been. How important the decision to leave their kids at home had become. Home and safe, she cried. "It was a perfect day just turned into a nightmare—it really was."

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