Marathon tragedy hits home for Evanston runners, Northwestern community

Emergency personnel assist the victims at the scene of a bomb blast during the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts, Monday, April 15, 2013.

Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald/MCT

Emergency personnel assist the victims at the scene of a bomb blast during the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts, Monday, April 15, 2013.

Manuel Rapada and Cat Zakrzewski

Some Evanston residents and members of the Northwestern community were running in the Boston Marathon shortly before deadly explosions went off near the finish line Monday.

Seventeen of the 19 Evanston residents who registered for the race were tracked by the marathon’s website. Most finished before two bombs detonated at about 2 p.m., killing three people and injuring at least 140 more.

Richard Barbera, president of the Northwestern Triathlon Club, finished the race before the back-to-back explosions and said he was eating at a restaurant two blocks away from the finish at the time of the incident. The McCormick senior didn’t hear about it until his girlfriend sent him a text message asking if he was safe.

Evanston resident Kevin Valentine, however, witnessed the blasts just after crossing the finish line.

“I was 10 minutes finished when I saw the smoke go off and heard it,” said Valentine, who teaches at North Central College in Naperville. “There were worried-looking volunteers, and they shooed us all away.”

NU acknowledged the marathon tragedy in a Facebook post hours after it happened.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted by today’s explosions in Boston,” the University said in a Facebook post. “We have many members of the Northwestern community in and/or from that great city. We’re thinking of you all this afternoon.”

NU spokesman Bob Rowley said the University heard a Feinberg doctor who specializes in working with marathon runners was at the race.

“Fortunately for him, he left the scene and headed for the airport before the explosions went off, so he is no longer on the ground there now,” Rowley said in an email.

The doctor was not available for comment.

He was not the only Chicago-area attendee to make it out of Boston before the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all planes. Jeremy Rielley, a student teacher who lives in Evanston, was waiting for his flight at Logan Airport when he heard about the explosions.

“When I got to the airport, I had text messages, tweets, Facebook posts from anyone and everyone,” Rielley said. “It was just crazy.”

“Some people I haven’t talked to in eight to 10 years were checking up on me,” he added.

John Eligon (Medill ’04), a reporter for The New York Times, had already finished the marathon and returned to his hotel when he received a text from his friend asking whether he was OK. Eligon, a former Daily staffer, said he thought his friend was referring to running the marathon, but he quickly realized his friend’s concerns were much greater when he saw a breaking news alert on his phone.

“It was just surreal,” Eligon said. “I was just there an hour earlier, and it looked like a war zone on TV.”

Eligon spoke to his bosses, who knew he ran Monday and hopped in a cab to head back to the scene. He then reported for about four hours, “limping” around doing interviews, he said.

“I switched into reporter’s mode,” Eligon said. “The reporting instinct that I just had to get out there kicked in.”

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.