Runners left on course pull together

BOSTON -- Marathon Monday started for Emma Sparta-Burk the same way it did for many Bostonians. She and two friends, Kristina Kwan and Julie Byko, secured a table on the second floor of a Boylston Street restaurant to get a view of the finish line and enjoy a day off.

Then there were two loud pops and a cloud of smoke.

"People were running away because debris was coming into the restaurant," Sparta-Burk said. "They started evacuating and some people ran out the back door.

"We were afraid and didn't know what to do. We didn't want to go outside, not knowing what to expect."

Dazed, the group began walking westward, back to home base at 382 Commonwealth Ave., near Kenmore Square where the holiday matinee Red Sox game had let out after a ninth-inning, walk-off win about an hour earlier.

Soon thereafter, the streets of Boston went into lockdown and marathoners were advised to stop running. Thousands of weary runners began pooling at the intersection of Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues. Local motorists know the underpass, which runs below Route 2A, as a bypass to the streetlight at the busy intersection. Boston Marathon veterans know the tunnel as an indicator of the homestretch.

That's when the group of revelers shifted gears and went into action.

Hordes of runners were stopped short of the finish line, many of whom were caught without any mode of communication. Those who did have cell phones and tried to alert loved ones that they were OK or call for their ride home often weren't able to make connections as the police advised against the use of cell phones for fear they could be used as triggers.

So Sparta-Burk and her friends began offering their phones and computers to strangers. They gathered up a couple of gallon jugs of bottled water and offered drinks to runners, first responders and anybody else who looked as though they could use a swig.

"It's the least we could do," said Sparta-Burk, who has lived in town for about the past decade.

A few paces down, in front of 390 Commonwealth Ave., a family reunion happened. Amy Formica, a native of Pittsburgh and an ultramarathoner, was nearing completion of her first Boston Marathon when she too was stopped near the iconic Citgo sign.

"I felt great, I was a half-mile from the finish, I was churning them out," Formica said. "Then that was it."

For more than an hour, Formica was separated, without any means of communication, from her husband, Mike, and their two sons, Mike and Ryan, who were watching the race farther up the course. Her father also was in attendance near the finish line, after flying in from his home in California. The family was staying in Marlborough, Mass., closer to the race's start in Hopkinton, and had checked out of their hotel room with the intention of flying home Monday night.

"I don't think that's going to happen tonight," Formica said. "I'm just glad we're together."

Scattered about the watering holes on the square, paces from where the Formica family came together, life carried on with a modicum of normalcy. Some who'd spilled out from the baseball game continued their libations, perhaps impervious to what unfolded less than a mile away some time earlier.

At the nearby Commonwealth Hotel, the lobby turned into a holding area, a resting spot for runners. Complete strangers hatched plans to maneuver around the city together -- all with the sole intent of returning home.

Ashley Labrier, a 22-year-old Tufts student from California, was walking back toward downtown with her parents when she recalled where she was when the race was stopped. She described the faces of a couple, who embraced each other on the marathon route, overcome by the news.

"You're fatigued, you're tired, you're not in the best state of mind as it is," Labrier said. "I saw some people completely falling apart."