Champaign runners witnessed chaos firsthand
BOSTON — Pat Mills and Danny Lichtblau saw chaos.
Julie Mills and Eileen Lichtblau never saw the finish line.
The four Champaign people saw firsthand what most people in East Central Illinois only saw on television: smoke, confusion, panic and compassion.
The two couples who traveled together to New England for the Boston Marathon said experiencing Monday's explosions was something they'll never forget.
Pat, Julie and Eileen were entered in the race, and Danny was working as a volunteer.
"I was one of the guys who picked up the trash between the athlete's village and the starting line," Danny Lichtblau said.
Once his volunteer duties were completed, Danny Lichtblau headed for the finish line, where he planned on cheering his three companions.
Pat, Julie and Eileen started the race together, but Pat, who is faster, pulled ahead after about 1 kilometer and stayed ahead of the two women for the rest of the race.
"After I went through the finish line, got my finisher medal and got some food, I went to the bus where they kept Julie's gear," he said. "My gear was in her bag."
Pat Mills was reunited with Danny Lichtblau at the bus, which was a few blocks away from the course.
"We were still standing there when we saw the first explosion," Pat Mills said. "I saw a lot of white smoke expanding on the Cambridge side of the course. The smoke appeared to rise about 10 stories above the crowd. All I could say was, 'Wow!'"
"I heard a loud boom, and I saw smoke," Lichtblau said.
Pat Mills said he originally thought there was a problem with an electrical board or a transformer until a second explosion went off what seemed like 10 to 15 seconds later.
"The second explosion was a little smaller, but when it happened, all the runners started running away from it as fast as they could," Mills said. "We knew right then something wasn't right."
"There was a wave of people coming at us," Lichtblau said. "People were pushing backward and forward."
"There was chaos," Mills said. "It took awhile before the first ambulances showed up."
While this was happening, Julie Mills and Eileen Lichtblau were still running together on the course, hoping to earn their own finisher medals.
"Julie and I qualified together for Boston last year at the Illinois Marathon, and Julie was encouraging me all the way, even after the hills were killing me," Eileen Lichtblau said. "She's a good coach."
The two women had reached the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue, only six-tenths of a mile from the marathon finish line, when they saw the ribbon of runners ahead of them suddenly grounding to a halt.
"We were just getting ready to make the final turn when we came upon a wall of people," Julie Mills said. "Everybody stopped, and nobody had an idea what was going on."
"At first we thought one of the runners had collapsed," Eileen Lichtblau said. "Julie and I didn't carry cellphones, so we didn't know what was going on."
Soon more marathoners came along, piling up behind the two Champaign women.
"People starting pushing," Eileen Lichtblau said. "And many of the runners were sore and shivering."
When the women heard about the explosions, both of them began to worry about their husbands, knowing they were ahead near the finish.
"I was absolutely worried about Pat," Julie Mills said.
"Family members and kids were crying and sobbing," Eileen Lichtblau said. "It was very emotional for all of us."
Then the most amazing thing happened after the course was closed. Spectators and people along the route started giving items to the stranded runners.
"Some people brought water and bananas and other food," Julie Mills said. "Some people brought garbage bags that people could put around their bodies to stay warm. Some people even gave the runners their winter coats.
"And all the while the spectators stood from their stairs and continued cheering for us."
Race officials soon directed the runners off the course to the buses that contained the runners' gear.
"I remember walking past the area of the finish line and thinking about not getting a medal," Julie Mills said.
After about an hour and 20 minutes, the two couples were reunited at the bus, and they hugged one another for a good long time.
"All that mattered to me was that Julie was safe," Pat Mills said.
The three runners said Monday's explosions won't keep them from running Boston again.
"In the United States we all inherently feel safe," Julie Mills said. "We probably are fooling ourselves because very few places are truly safe. But it doesn't mean we can't stop doing running."
"People come from all over the world to run the Boston Marathon," Pat Mills said. "My plan is to come out here once a decade."