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Horrific experience hard to process


It's been an emotional roller-coaster of a week for Gresham residents Ralph McAfee and Kyle Kersey.

The two were in the Boston Marathon finisher's area on Monday, April 15, when police say terrorists detonated two bombs at the finish line, killing three and injuring approximately 170 others, including several who lost limbs.by: COURTESY: RALPH MCAFEE - Ralph McAfee was one of four Gresham residents who ran in the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, when terrorists detonated two bombs at the finish line. This photo of McAfee and his wife LeeAnne shows them at the finish line moments before the explosions.

The two Gresham survivors vacillate between anger, grief and moments of what if — what if Kersey had run a little slower and finished at his goal time of 4 hours and 10 minutes, which is precisely when the bombs exploded?

They returned home in a surreal sense of shock and watched — as many of us did — the investigation unfold as the FBI released video images of the two bombing suspects, identified as brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, of Cambridge.

As agents hunted down the younger brother on Friday, after a crime spree in which the brothers killed a police officer at MIT, carjacked a man who they later released and squared off with police in an intense shootout that left the older brother dead.

As the entire city of Boston and its surrounding areas became an enormous ghost town while residents remained locked in their homes while police tried to find the younger brother, who was still on the loose.

Shortly after calling off the lock-down and clearing residents to leave their homes, police captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, Pa. He'd been hiding in a boat buttoned up for winter storage in a backyard. He remains in serious condition at a Boston hospital, where he is reportedly communicating through writing notes, as a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the neck makes it impossible for him to talk.

McAfee, a Reynolds High School math teacher, listened to the news on his way to work Friday morning. Overcome with emotion, he explained to the secretary who schedules substitute teachers that he needed to go home. “I thought it was important in the healing process that I watch, and keep track in as real time as possible, when authorities find, apprehend and/or kill the second suspect,” he said.

He and Kersey then spent the weekend trying to process their emotions along with the latest updates on the investigation. “There is no formula for working your way through things like this,” Kersey said Sunday afternoon. “Every one of us will deal with it differently.”

Close call

Kersey and McAfee were in the same pace group for the Boston Marathon, but they took different approaches to the race. McAfee finished the course in 3 hours and 35 minutes, while Kersey intentionally ran at a slower pace. “I wanted to just enjoy it,” he said.

His aim was to finish in 4 hours and 10 minutes.

So while McAfee was milling around the finishing area doing the usual post-race routine — getting water, eating a banana, changing into warmer dry clothes and meeting his wife LeeAnne at the family-meeting area — Kersey was still running his final miles.

But after sandbagging for much of the race, Kersey had a lot of energy left for those last two miles, so he finished hard, clocking in at 4 hours even.

After getting some fluid, food and his finisher's metal, Kersey found himself in a tightly packed crowd of thousands of other race finishers about a block to a block-and-a-half up from the finish line. McAfee was farther up, about two blocks from the finish line, at the meeting area where family and friends connect with runners after the race.

Then an enormous boom stunned the crowd. The time on the race clock read 4 hours, 9 minutes and 43 seconds — just moments off the time Kersey had intended to finish by.

Those around Kersey thought the sound was a cannon or fireworks. The Boston Marathon takes place on Patriot's Day, a Massachusetts state holiday commemorating the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War.

But over near McAfee, everyone started looking around saying,

"That was a bomb."

Then the blast's shockwave rippled through the crowd, removing any doubt that it was an explosion.

“I could feel it, that's what turned me around,” Kersey said. He saw a huge cloud of smoke as high as the buildings. “It all kind of dawned on us what just happened. I just thought, 'Not again,'” he said, referring to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

He saw blurs of movement as people dashed from the smoke. More people began running away from the scene as marathon volunteers and police officers ran toward it.

Then the second blast hit one block away from the first blast 12 seconds later.

“That's what woke us up,” Kersey said. People suddenly realized that not only could a bomb be anywhere, but with everyone packed so close in just a four-block area, they were all sitting ducks.

Unspeakable images

Exactly what he saw after that, Kersey can't bring himself to talk about. “Being there is a lot different than seeing it on the news,” he said. “I saw quite a bit, and that was enough for me. If I had slowed down, I probably would have caught the brunt of it.”

Days after the bombings, Kersey still had the smell of gunpowder in his nose and the taste of smoke in the back of his throat. He finds solace being home and watching the hummingbirds in his backyard.

Unlike Kersey, who saw the worst of it, McAfee calls himself a fringe player. He didn't see the carnage. But it truly was a war zone, McAfee said. After the bombs exploded, one question came to mind: What is safe? He settled on Boston Common, a nearby park that happened to be where police and marathon officials rerouted runners to. “It was simply scarier than hell for about an hour,” McAfee said. “It was just surreal.”

Both are traumatized by what they experienced.

By the thought of the families with maimed or killed loved ones, like the parents of the 8-year-old boy who died, or the 6-year-old girl who lost her leg. It's the thought of the horrific images witnessed by children who had lined the route hoping for a high-five from a runner.

“That's what's hard for me, is just seeing all the families,” Kersey said. “These evil people tried to hurt little babies and children … and us.”

McAfee found a sense of relief and closure from watching the surviving suspect be captured. But he too is haunted by a profound sense of gratitude.

“Not everyone got to go home to the ones they love,” he said. “And for such a senseless act. An accident is one thing. A malicious act of terror is quite another.”

Despite experiencing the worst of humanity, McAfee is not jaded.

As he stood on Boylston Street in Boston, surrounded by sirens of every sort and emergency responders of all kinds, “It became so crystal clear that most people in our society are good,” he said. “People have good hearts. People mean well. People care about other people. Through all the stresses of life, and the business that we experience, sometimes this realization is clouded.”

In that moment, he sent out a text.

“Most people are good. Most."