TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
It was going to be one of those nice achievements where the parents feel as good as the son who accomplished the feat. John Henry was running the Boston Marathon.
Who knew that at the end of the fabled race that he and his wife and son would be dancing with the devils. The Boston Marathon will now be remembered as the bloody marathon.
They survived, intact, except for memories of the bloody marathon they will carry forever. It was 2.50 p..m. on April 16 when life changed for them and for Boston.
I gave his background on Jan. 18 in a blog titled Marathon of a Vanished Life. My son was celebrating his 51st birthday by running with the Leukemia team in memory of my mother who died from the disease 21 years before he was born.
So there he was, tired, in the final stretch, with the finish line almost in sight, where his wife Marie and son John Henry Francis, 22, waited loyally, to hug him and congratulate him on his best time as an experienced runner, and then take him to the hotel where he would ache and decompress like a deep sea diver.
Marie describes the picture which was taken by my grandson seconds before the blast, one of his pictures given to the FBI. She has her back turned, left of the centre under the South African flag, a red bag over her shoulder, checking the official clock.
Off to her right, there are the three yellow balloons, significant in the investigation because videos showed they are being carried just ahead of the terrorists.
This is what she wrote a day later, at times flashing back to the middle of the agony: "The first blast occurred about six flags down from where I am standing. I was extremely lucky as I was about to move there. My son was about 20 feet away, having just taken this shot.
"Then.... I hear a cannon blast and everything starts changing.The power of the blast knocked me to the ground. The smell was of gun powder . The smoke was engulfing the crowd.
"It took a couple of seconds before I could get up. I was disoriented and confused. I looked to my left, everyone was running away, looked to my right, and saw carnage and blood. Blood was everywhere. What sticks to my mind are the bloody foot prints leading away. I have no injury, except for the ringing in my ear and a sore scalp from the explosion blast. I can't understand why I cannot hear my own screaming. I am screaming my son's name over and over.
"He was running in circles, trying to locate me, because he could not see me. Once we found each other, he turned back to help the victims, some of whom were in pieces. The cops were screaming for us to leave ASAP as there might be other bombs. They were as forceful as if they were on adrenaline. Then they started tearing up the barrier trying to get to the victims.'
"My son took charge, manhandling me away, I was screaming my husband's name in hysterics, thinking I would see a crater in the road from the blast. I knew he was moments away from the finish line and in real danger. We tried phoning him several time, but the cell lines were overloaded. We finally found out he was okay through an iPhone app called 'life 360'.
"My son told his dad to stop running and to meet us at the hotel. Took us 30 minutes to walk to our hotel. John joined us within 15 minutes. Was beyond relief to see him."
Marie phoned to tell me they were okay while the smoke still drifted. I knew nothing of the bombing but I could tell from her voice that it was really bad.
Then my grandson took to the Internet to write "me and family ok in boston."
The next day, John Henry and Marie went to the finish line that the bombers and police had prevented him from crossing. And he got his medal.
They didn't know yet just how close it really had been for Marie. Luckily my grandson wasn't hunting for a better vantage point to get a good picture of dad because he would have gone into the area of death and destruction.
My son Brett, a programming expert who can dazzle with what he can coax out of computers, co-ordinated scene pictures from every source with what my grandson had taken. He calculates there were just three people between Marie and the hail of amateur but deadly shrapnel that sliced through the crowd just to her right like battle axes.
These Downings don't believe in premonition but the flight from Orange County in California had been the kind you want to forget - a roller coaster ride so rough, the flight was aborted like a bird with a damaged wing and they spent much of a day in Washington instead.
After all the training and planning and fund raising, the bloody marathon almost seemed a happy routine just over four hours into the race. The special digital clock that Marie was checking was about to read 4.09.49. All around her in the picture the expectant crowd craned to see "their runners," their loved ones. As Marie wrote later: "The victims are in this crowd, their lives about to change within seconds. Why?"