Above: Rick Del Sesto, Leigh Del Sesto and Julie Oh at the start of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, April 15, 2013. Photo courtesy of Julie Oh
Editor’s Note: I was at the Boston Marathon in 2013, in Wellesley, in a spot I’d been to for several years, to see my sister-in-law, Jenny. I saw her as well as a few other Rhode Islanders, including Julie Oh, whose photo I took. After the bombings, I wrote a couple of stories about East Greenwich runners and spectators caught up in the chaos of that moment. We check back in with some of them here.
It’s been 10 years since the terrible, chaotic end of the 2013 Boston Marathon after two bombs went off in close succession at the finish line at 2:49 p.m. and then-East Greenwich resident Julie Oh was just steps away. Oh, who lives in Southern California now, was hoping to finish with a fast enough time to requalify for the marathon the following year and she was thinking about what a friend had counseled: Take off your glasses and fix your hair, so you look good in the picture they take of you as you complete the marathon.
“I was gunning for that finish line. I was ready to have the best day of my life,” said Oh.
Then she heard a blast. It made her jump a little but her first thought was they were firing off a cannon. After the second explosion, Oh saw runners ahead of her fly off the ground and she knew it was something more sinister. She thought bombs were exploding under manhole covers.
“I don’t know how I was standing, my legs were shaking,” she said in an interview last week. Suddenly, she said, there were lots of police and they were telling people to stop and run the other way.
Oh had traveled up to Boston for the marathon with East Greenwich friends Rick and Leigh Del Sesto, by way of a chartered bus full of Rhode Island runners They had planned to return to Rhode Island on that same bus. Rick was the fastest of the three runners and would finish before the bombs went off; Julie and Leigh had been running together until Leigh’s knees started bothering her and she urged Julie to go on.
Now, all three were separated. Julie’s phone was in her drop bag in a bus somewhere past the finish line.
With no way to reach either Rick or Leigh, much less her husband back in Rhode Island, Oh wandered around for what seemed like hours until she found the bus with her pre-race bag. Only calls weren’t going through. She kept trying until finally someone sitting nearby told her to try texting, that texts were going through.
She was able to reach Rick, who had been blocks past the finish line at the time of the bombings.
Leigh, meanwhile, had been running through the tunnel on Commonwealth, about a quarter mile from the finish, when she heard the first bomb. Were they setting off fireworks, maybe? She made the turn onto Hereford Street and was met by a police officer telling the runners to turn around.
All Leigh could think about was her husband, Rick, who had said he was going to meet her at the finish line.
“I thought he was dead …,” she recalled last week. Roaming Commonwealth Avenue, Leigh asked people if she could borrow a phone but everybody was dazed and no one helped her.
“I was starting to cry, shivering, and I didn’t know where to go,” she said. Finally, a young woman who had been at the Red Sox game took pity on her, took her to a friend’s apartment, and they lent her some clothes.
She made contact with Rick and Julie, who made their way to the apartment. One of the young women then reached out to an ex-boyfriend. Oh and the DelSestos still aren’t sure what part of the government the ex-boyfriend worked in except that when he arrived, he was wearing one of those Secret Service type earpieces and his car had government plates. He got them all in his car and seemed to know which roads were open and which were not. He drove them to Leigh’s mother’s house in Newton, where they waited for Julie’s husband to drive them back home to East Greenwich.
Looking back on the whole experience now, Julie finds the whole thing incredible.
“Who would have ever thought something like that would have happened?” she said. In the days and weeks to follow she said she had some PTSD.
“Two days later, I went to work” – Julie works as a dental hygienist. “Someone burnt toast in the office next door and the smoke alarm went off. I was cleaning someone’s teeth and I just jumped. Any loud noise, any siren, my heart was pitter-pattering again.”
Leigh said even today she jumps when she hears loud sudden noises. “It was so stressful .. and being so helpless, I didn’t know what to do.” Referring to the woman who helped her out, Angie – who provided shelter, clothes and ultimately a ride out of town – Leigh said she was their “guardian angel.”
Julie said the event was tough on her family in ways she didn’t realize until years later.
When cleaning out old documents on her computer, she found her son’s college essay, which she hadn’t seen before.
“He wrote about the day of the bombing and about the possibility of losing a parent,” she said. “One thing he mentioned was when he and his sister saw it on TV, it took several hours for my husband to calm them down, until I called.”
Julie does not know how she would have gotten home if it weren’t for Leigh and Rick.
“I have Lee and Rick to thank for getting me out,” she said. “I get together with them as much as I can. We don’t talk about it much but we’re very close.”
Another East Greenwich runner that day was Mark Schwager, who is president of the Town Council today. Remembering that day was not something he wanted to do.
“It really was not an area I was interested in revisiting – an awful, miserable, painful memory and an incredible moment of terror,” he said last week.
Part of it was, like Leigh thinking about her husband Rick, Mark’s wife, Pat Flanagan was planning to be at the finish line to see him finish.
“I was worried sick about her,” he recalled. He, too, did not have a phone with him. Remarkably, at one point he just sat on the ground, dazed. “I look up and Pat was there in front of me.” Somehow in the absolute chaos of that afternoon, they managed to find each other.
Schwager prefers to remember the 2014 Boston Marathon. Everyone from 2013 was allowed to run the following year and at first he wasn’t sure it would be a positive experience.
“I remember ruminating about it. I thought it would be a difficult experience. I thought it would be everyone reliving the past year and a heavy police presence,” he said. Instead, it was a wonderful day.
“The 2014 race was a celebration of the marathon and Boston…. It wasn’t tense, it wasn’t somber. It was just amazing. It was so memorable in a positive way.”