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MIT Boston Marathon Runner: 'If I had an Angel Looking Over Me at the Marathon, I Now Had One on Each Shoulder After Escaping the Shootout'

03/05/2013 12:11 BST | Updated 02/07/2013 10:12 BST
AP

Elia Harmatz ran the Boston marathon for fun. As the 23-year-old explains, 'I knew that I wasn't going to beat the Kenyans, but I was doing it for the experience'. Not that this was ever meant to involve escaping death by a matter of minutes. Twice in one week. Elia not only eluded the fatal marathon bombings which left four dead and hundreds seriously injured, but, being a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), came within a whisker of the campus shootout that left one security guard dead.

Under normal circumstances, the eldest of three children would be back home in Philadelphia, degree already complete. However, his position as a neuro-science senior adds another term to the traditional eight semester programme. In a bid to make the best of his final few months, Elia decided to get involved. Rather than enter the race through official means, he made use of one of its unique features - the ability to join as a "bandit" at certain stages - without the need for registration.

'It was my first marathon, and my training was not ideal', Elia admits. 'To be completely honest, the most I'd ever run before was probably about six or seven miles, total. During the race I ran around seventeen to eighteen miles.'

'Strangely, there was no point during the race where I was hurting. It was so well supported and such a united event, I was spurred on. Groups of choir kids sang for us, and the route goes through the college towns, so all the college students come to greet you and give you high fives along the way. The crowd got me through.'

Nowhere was that more evident than when Elia reached the final bend and headed into the home straight. For the last half a mile, stadium seating meant 'the crowd got bigger, louder, willing us to make it to the finish line; I couldn't hear anything but the roar of the crowd when I crossed the line.'

Three minutes later, the screams changed from adulation to agony, horror and death.

Elia was 50 feet away when the bomb that shook America back to 9/11 detonated. As he leant against the left leg of the finishing post, the muscle pain and exhaustion began to hit, 'a lot of the people there were still dazed, and I became a little light headed.' Suddenly, there was a boom; 'it sounded like lightning when it strikes really close, the whole earth seemed to shake', he recalls. For a few seconds, time stood still. Then, as flames and smoke spat out from behind the finishing post, realisation hit; 'although my view was obscured from the casualties, I knew instinctively people had been badly injured, or worse - the screams sounded so desperate and desolate.'

This was quickly followed by the boom of the second explosion, 'at that point people started running. The fear truly gripped me when I realised the barricades between the runners and spectators were locked. I remember yelling to anyone that would listen, "You've got to open the fences people are trying to get out of here", but it was useless. When I realised that no one was going to come and help us get out, I hopped the fence with a few other runners. That is definitely the most scared I've ever been in my entire life.'

Elia began working on auto-pilot, literally running for his life. The thought process was subconscious yet equally all pervasive: survival. 'Charged with adrenaline, I instantly forgot how far I'd run and made my way as quickly as possible to Charles River, which separates Cambridge from Boston. I had my hesitations about crossing the bridge. Initially, I thought the events could be a terrible accident, but the second bomb and anarchy in response made me more certain it was an act of terror. What if more devices had been planted on the bridge? Eventually, I decided to risk it, alongside the throng of people from the marathon who had caught up with me.'

Even at that early stage, there were signs of the community pulling together, 'pedestrians recognised I was one of the runners because I still had my aluminium coat on from when I finished the race - they pushed us to keep a good pace and get away from the site, some even handed out food and water.' Limping heavily, Elia automatically headed where he thought he would find safety, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

'I made it to the student centre and tried to contact my family, as well as my friend who had been on his way to come and watch me race. I didn't understand at first why I couldn't send any messages, but later realised the heavy phone usage had jammed the networks.'

'There were so many rumours and inconsistences flying around, and with tiredness consuming me I decided to take a shower, hoping that when I returned there would be more information.'

'When I went back to the student centre, I caught President Obama's address to the nation. Only then did I begin to realise how many people it must have affected, and start to comprehend the scale of the incident.'

No tears were shed, but an overwhelming feeling of numbness hit. 'I had tried to rationalise it but once I knew it was intentional that changed my whole perspective. I realised how very, very, very lucky I was that I didn't cross the finish line three minutes later. That is all that separated me from being one of the victims.' At that point Elia's phone buzzed, signalling messages had got through. It did not stop for another 50 text messages and 20 voicemails, including one from a very relieved mother.

Over the next few days, Elia slowly began to believe that maybe, just maybe, it was over. His mood turned to reflection. 'The hardest part for me was knowing that people had been killed, injured and lost legs. It's really painful to think that those innocent people, who were cheering me on, were either killed or seriously wounded.' To intensify matters, the media reported how some runners had turned back to help the casualties, despite the dangers. 'I've thought about this', Elia admits, 'one of the other survivors I've spoken to since fought in Afghanistan and knew immediately what it was. He'd been in the army, and knew how to deal with it. But I was just a normal person, I had no idea what had happened at the time - my thought was just to get out there and save my life. I do not feel guilt for a natural reaction.'

Thursday provided a chance to find closure, with Elia receiving an award at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, for outstanding academic and research excellence. As he stepped up, his mother looked on and emotions ran high. It was the first time she had seen him since the bombing. After the ceremony finished, he chatted with his mother and some friends outside the department; discussing the roller-coaster of emotions the week had bought. Although his mother was keen to leave, Elia insisted there was one more thing he needed to do. 'I wanted to cash the prize cheque - a couple of hundred dollars - to help with my final months at Massachusetts. The last few days had made me realise, even more than before, that I should live every day as my last.' At that moment, less than half a mile away, MIT security guard Sean Collier was shot and killed on the campus by suspected Boston bombers, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Collier, himself 26, had been working at MIT for less than a year.

'As I got in the car and we headed off, scores of sirens flew passed: fire trucks, police cars, everything. When we got to my apartment, which is only ten minutes away in Cambridge Port, I turned on the news, and realised I'd been at that exact location 30 minutes before. When the message went out that we were in lockdown, I felt a lot safer in my apartment.

'If I had an angel looking over me at the marathon, I felt I now had one on each shoulder. In other words it's safe to be right next to me, but not a hundred feet away.'

Elia speaks of an 'alleviation of fear' at the news of Dzhokhar's dramatic arrest 24 hours later. 'I just hope the main response is that authorities take more security measures to ensure tragedies like this do not happen again. Being a very liberal Democrat, I do worry that society could scapegoat minorities, but I really hope this will not be the case.'

In response to the attacks, Elia is defiant, 'what happened to Sean Collier and the people who were struck by the bomb is terrible, and these incidents have affected the lives of many people. However, I believe the American communities are strong, and its members will work together to help each other through this.

Of course we will never forget what happened, but we will not live our lives in fear.'

Elia is looking to lead by example, 'I'm definitely not going to let it inhibit me; I'd love to run the Boston marathon next year.' America, and the world must follow suit.