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Several Harford residents experience Boston Marathon's tragic end first-hand

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Kevin Hennessey of Bel Air started running four years ago, just so he could qualify for the Boston Marathon. Monday's race was his first.

"It's the only race you have to qualify for. It's very prestigious," he said Tuesday. "It's probably as close to something like the Olympics the average person can do."

His family, wife, Candice, and their daughters, Olivia, 11, Abigail, 9, and Phoebe, 6, made the trip to Boston to cheer him on and Hennessey, 40, finished in 3:03:49, a record time for him.

But the achievement is somewhat bittersweet given the explosions that rocked the city about an hour after he finished, killing three people and injuring more than 180 others. Two bombs were detonated on the street near the finish of the race and are being investigated as a possible act of terrorism.

"I'm definitely proud of myself for finishing. I set a new record for myself, so I'm definitely excited and will definitely be back next year," Hennessey said. "But I'm probably less excited than I would have been if this hadn't happened. I'm still excited and proud, but this just took the air out of the balloon."

Fortunately, no one was hurt among those with Harford County ties among the 17 runners who started the marathon and the scores of well-wishers who traveled to Boston to watch them, many of them close by when the bombs went off.

Like Hennessey, several of those who could be contacted had stories to tell about the chaos and fear that took over at what has traditionally been a celebration of athleticism and personal triumph.

'What was that?'

"It's really tragic, and I can't imagine why anybody would ever want to do something like this," said Mary Hastler of Bel Air, the director of the Harford County Public Library, who traveled to Boston to watch her daughter compete in the 26-mile race.

Hastler and her husband, Mark, as well as the boyfriend and friends of her daughter Samantha, 29, were sitting along Hereford Street in Boston Monday. She spoke to The Aegis by telephone while traveling back to Harford County Tuesday.

Their cameras were ready and waiting for Samantha to come down the street with her team and make a left turn onto Boylston Street for the final run to the finish line.

"You want to capture that moment when all the runners make that last right turn on Hereford, and it's just a really big moment and the crowd's there cheering them on," Hastler said.

Samantha, a 2001 graduate of The John Carroll School in Bel Air and a resident of Boston, had told her family and friends just where to be, so she could greet them with a quick hug and take pictures.

She was running with a team to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was her first Boston Marathon.

Hastler said each runner had a chip in their shoe which would show observers exactly where they were on the course. She was tracking Samantha with a smartphone app, which showed her daughter was about three minutes from the finish line when the explosions went off.

"We heard the explosion, and we looked at each other and said, 'What was that?' " she said.

Hastler said Boston police officers stationed along the race course quickly reacted, and soon told spectators bombs had gone off.

The Hastlers gathered their belongings – some in the party returned to Samantha's nearby brownstone and others, including her father and boyfriend, went looking for her.

They located her within a few minutes, crying but unharmed and with her team.

"It's just really sad; it's just really tragic and I have never been so happy to see her in my life," Hastler recalled. "It was the longest few minutes until we found her."

'Very loud' explosions

John Buck of Bel Air was running on his own. He finished his first Boston Marathon with a time of 3:43:36 and was in the changing tent near the finish line when the explosions happened.

"They were very loud," said Buck, reached at his home Tuesday.

Buck said others in the changing tent initially thought the explosions were "some sort of celebratory cannon," but as a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers he recognized the sound of a bomb blast immediately.

"I was never in the military, but I do know what explosions sound like," he said.

Buck had gone to Boston with a group of 10 people, including his wife, daughters, sisters, and extended family.

He said some of his relatives saw the smoke and emergency responders rushing toward the scene.

The group met a restaurant owned by friends, and as news reports came in, "the seriousness of it started sinking into people at that point."

"It was a family event, to be disrupted like this, I felt so fortunate that no one in my immediate family was injured," he said.

Buck ran in the New York City Marathon in 2011, but does not plan to run the Boston Marathon again, because of the very hilly course.

"I don't think this would deter me from running in other marathons or big events," he said of the explosions. "I guess it would be something in the back of your mind, but I would definitely run in other marathons."

Frustration, anger

Alex Kammerer, a 2009 graduate of C. Milton Wright High in Bel Air, who is slated to wrap up his undergraduate career at Ohio State University in two weeks, finished the marathon in 2:55:39, the quickest time of any local participant, and was already at a friend's house relaxing when the bombs detonated more than an hour later.

"My friend lives between Boston College and Boston University, so I was three or four miles from the finish when it happened," Kammerer said on Tuesday afternoon as he walked between classes back at O.S.U. "We didn't know anything had happened until we started getting texts from people who were asking us if we were okay. That's when we figured it out. My first thoughts, first emotions, were just of being numb that something so terrible would happen. As my thoughts developed a little, that turned into frustration, anger, that someone would do that during an event like the Boston Marathon, in such a happy, positive environment."

Monday's marathon was just the second in which Kammerer has competed. He qualified for the Boston Marathon by finishing the 2012 Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon with a time of 3:04:39. Kammerer said he was sparked by the huge numbers of fans that came out for Monday's race.

"It was, without a doubt, the most motivational environment I've ever been in," Kammerer said. "It's electric. You're almost unaware of how tired you are, because your adrenaline is going the whole time. There's just walls and walls of people, and they're shouting the entire time. It's not even a sporting event, really. It's more of a celebration. That's whey this is so sad, because spectators are definitely going to be scared to come out and watch after what happened."

Despite being shocked and saddened by the bombings, Kammerer said they will not affect his decision to run in other marathons.

"Absolutely not," he said. "If that happens, then they win, whoever did this."

'Lowest of the low'

"I feel horrible for people who didn't get to finish. I know what I did to get there, to do that and not be able to finish, that's definitely a hard feeling," Hennessey said.

Fortunately for him and his family, they were already on their way back to their hotel when bombs went off.

"We left the area 20 minutes before it happened. We heard the sound in the cab. We thought it was a car or train accident," he said.

When they got back to their hotel, which was between Miles 23 and 24, they stood on the street cheering for the runners still on the course. Soon, however, everyone was told to clear the streets and go inside.

It wasn't until he and his family got up to their room and turned on the television they found out what happened.

Hennessey called those who set off the bombs the "lowest of the low."

"They took a great event, did it at the average time, 4 hours, they did it when they knew people be down there [at the finish]. I think they're cowards and they're horrible," he said.

'This isn't real life'

Erin Schisler of Bel Air doesn't feel any of the pride and achievement she should have felt after finishing one of the best-known and toughest races in the world.

It was her first Boston Marathon, and Schisler was elated that she had qualified for it. She finished in 3:57:15.

"It was going to be one of the most exciting weekends of my life, except from getting married," she said from the Boston airport Tuesday afternoon.

"You really can't feel pride in your own achievement when people had to lose their life during that," Schisler said. "There are truly no words to describe how it feels. The feeling of sense of pride and achievement are not among the feelings I have right now."

The 29-year-old teacher mentor at Hall's Cross Roads Elementary in Aberdeen and Homestead-Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air had a rough run, and was being treated by medics at the end of the race. The medics, she said, wanted to her to go the medical tent, but she didn't, because she hadn't gotten her medal yet.

Schisler recovered enough to get herself back to her hotel, which is where she was heading to meet her family. But when she tried to call and text, she couldn't get through.

Her husband, Tom, her dad, Pat Cahill, and her brother, Ryan Cahill, of Reston, Va., finally found her and got her back to their hotel so she could rest, without telling her there had just been an explosion at the finish line.

She got in the elevator with some other runners and one asked if they had heard what happened. When Schisler heard, all she could think was "My mom's out there."

"I got back to my room, dropped my stuff on the floor and tried calling," she said. "I thought, I was just there, this isn't real life."

It took 45 minutes to find out her mom, Pam Cahill, was OK.

"It was the most scariest event of my life," she said.

Her husband, dad and brother heard the first explosions from their spot on the course, then looked up the street and saw the second one. Her mom had just crossed the area not too long before, but was around the corner when the blasts went off.

"I just feel absolutely terrible for the families and victims. You hear stories of runners whose entire family was impacted. These people came out to cheer us on and literally the entire race they were best spectators," she said. "For someone to come in and take away that trust and unity is absolutely shocking. I feel sad, like they robbed Boston of one of its finest events."

The worst feeling, she said, was not feeling safe.

"It's a feeling you don't really experience. We didn't know if we were safe where we were, if we should be in the city or out of city. Then public transportation shut down. We didn't know what to do, do we venture out? We didn't know where to go, what to do. We didn't know how to feel safe," Schisler said. "That feeling was very temporary, but for the time it lasted, it felt like a lifetime."

Aegis running correspondent Bill Blewett also contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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