"Are you OK?" I asked when I finally reached my relative, holed away in a city largely shut down. Like everyone else in Boston last night, he was reeling from the devastation and the chaos of the two evil-spewing bombs that killed 3 people so far (one only 8 years old) and injured more than 144, leaving countless spectators with mangled legs and feet, after preparing for what was to be one of the greatest events of their lives.
"It's just surreal," said Martyn Shorten, who is my step-uncle technically and attended the marathon for his work as a managing partner at BioMechanica, which applies biomechanical research to sports products. "Just think about the fact that every single one of those people in the marathon has a story that brought them there. And now, they all have the same story of tragedy."
Martyn, who is based in Portland, Oregon, was actually planning to leave the day before, but decided to stay to capture high-speed video of the marathon for a project he was working on.
"I've been coming to the Boston Marathon for four years, and this is the most celebratory days the city has," Martyn said. "If you've never been, it's unlike any other marathon in the country. The love and the excitement and the enthusiasm. This is Patriot's Day. Everyone in the city has the day off. It is pure celebration and happiness and accomplishment, even for the person who comes in last. Strangers talk to one another and cheer each other on. The marathon community is a very close-knit, friendly one. There are really very few people doing this to actually try to 'win' the race, but the rest of the people are here trying to achieve their goals and just make themselves better, push themselves harder."
People setting out to achieve their goals. That was the phrase that struck me. That was the phrase that gave me shivers.
"I just don't even understand how people found out what was going on," I said. "The news is pure chaos. Did someone call you? Did you see it on social media? How did you even find out what was happening? That this wasn't a lightning strike?"
"We knew right after," he said somberly. "Word traveled quickly that a bomb had gone off, and immediately the runners were diverted. There were tears and screams, but the policemen were extraordinary, truly heroic in keeping everything calm and controlled."
I imagined a nightmarish game of Telephone traveling down the marathon line.
"I can't tell you how surreal this all feels," he repeated. "What was one of the happiest moods a city can be in is now just one of shellshock horror."
"I can't even begin to fathom. Did you call your family right away? What exactly did you do when you found out?" I asked.
"I had a few friends down at the finish line so I called them to make sure they were okay, and then I called my family to assure them I was all right," he said. "It took a while to reach my friends down near the end, but thankfully they were unhurt. But before I could actually reach my friends, I called home, and that's when I finally found myself breaking down on the telephone."
"I'm so sorry," I said, as my TV flickered images in the background as I typed as he spoke. "The photos are just devastating. I'm reeling, and I'm all the way in New York. I can't imagine actually being there."
"It's hard to believe I am," he said. "I don't think I'll ever forget what I saw -- and I hardly saw anything. But the sobbing and the screaming and the terror were enough to make your blood run cold."
My blood ran cold as I was talking to him. In the background on my TV, the bomb going off kept playing on repeat on MSNBC.
The runner fell down. The bomb exploded. Again and again and again.
"You know someone reminded me today of this old Mr. Rogers story," Martyn said, as the TV showed the police and emergency personnel descending on the scene. "It was so striking to me, as the events turned into a multi-casualty trauma situation. I thought of it, as everyone began to help one another, quite heroically. The quote was about the importance of making sure to concentrate on the helpers in a disaster situation."
When I found the full quote he was referring to on Google, that's about when I started to break down.
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers -- so many caring people in this world." -- Mr. Rogers
"It's comforting for me to hear from someone who is there," I said. "To talk to someone. But, I mean...do you think you'll ever go back for another marathon?"
I asked this, but then immediately wished I could take the words back.
I already knew the answer.
"I absolutely will," he said. "Without a doubt. This Boston Marathon has survived a hundred years and two World Wars, and this cannot break us. This is a great city. A strong city."
"It's a community," I said of the runners he described and the thousands there to cheer them on. "It sounds like a community of people all fighting for their goals. To make a better life. To make themselves better people."
"Exactly," he said. "These are people who are resilient. They are running on behalf of loved ones. They are running for charity. The last leg of the marathon was in honor of the children killed in Newtown. They love one another even when they don't know one another. These are people determined -- unlike any other group of people you will ever meet in your life. Runners do not stop. They do not give up."
And neither does Boston.