When Natalie Stavas and her father finally reached mile 26, drained but determined to finish, they heard the boom of the explosions and watched as police began erecting barricades to block runners from continuing to the finish line.
Father and daughter knew something was terribly wrong; and despite their fatigue, they knew they had to help.
So Stavas, 32, a pediatric resident who now works in Boston and was running with a broken foot, leaped over a barricade. Police screamed for her to stop, she says, but she kept running toward Boylston Street. “I yelled at one officer, saying, ‘I’m a pediatric doctor. You have to let me through.’”
As depleted as she was after running all but the final two-tenths of the Marathon, she sprinted, ignoring the police who couldn’t keep up with her. “I was running like a bat out of hell,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of my fatigue.”
She was running toward the explosion, and police kept trying to stop her.
When she made it to the scene of the second explosion beside Atlantic Fish Co., she found a young woman bleeding profusely from a blown-open thigh. She immediately began pumping the unconscious woman’s chest and directing others to provide oxygen through an ambu bag someone had supplied. She showed others how to apply pressure to the woman’s legs.
When paramedics took the woman away, Stavas ran about 30 feet down Boylston until she found another young woman lying on her back with a massive hole in her groin. “As soon as I saw the wound,” she said, “I began screaming that this woman needed to be sent to a hospital.”
‘On some fundamental level, those people were there for me.’
The woman was shivering, and Stavas borrowed a jacket from someone, which she used to cover the woman’s wounds. With the woman stabilized, she got up and ran toward the site of the first explosion to help a man lying on his back with a mangled foot. Someone handed her a tourniquet, and with all her strength, she applied it above his knee.
“I had to apply so much pressure that the man thought he was going to die,” she said. “He was screaming.”
Afterward, she treated a young man whose tibia was protruding through his skin above his ankle.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before — like a true, utter battle zone,” she said. “I thought, how could someone do this to so many innocent people?”
Meanwhile, her father, Joe Stavas, 58, a radiologist who now works in North Carolina, was helping tend to some of the thousands of runners who were halted at Hereford Street. Many were growing cold quickly after sweating, which can be dangerous for marathon runners.
He found an elderly runner who was ashen, lacked much of a pulse, and had passed out. “She was white as a sheet,” he said of the woman. “I knew it was hypothermia.”
He and others bundled her in a coat, hat, and blankets from spectators, and they carried her to a nearby restaurant. “We knew it would be impossible for an ambulance to get to her,” he said.
Afterward, he found a young woman who was crying so hard she couldn’t speak. Her fingers were so cold she could barely open them. “I saw goose bumps on her face, which is rare,” he said.
He gave her his hat and jacket and his daughter’s gloves, which he was holding. Over the next hour, he helped at least a half dozen people, carrying them to nearby townhouses, where residents had opened their doors.
“I see this like getting through a marathon, and we’re on Heartbreak Hill,” he said. “This will be a long struggle, but I’m sure it will be overcome with more good Samaritans.”
The Stavases were among a number of doctors who ran toward the carnage to help.
Allan Panter, 57, an emergency physician from Georgia, was waiting for his wife, who was about to cross the finish line. He had squeezed his way to the front of the crowd when the first bomb detonated.
“All the people around me took the force of the blast,” he said. “I was shielded by their bodies, which is why I didn’t have a scratch.”
A few feet away, he saw six or seven people “in a tangle of a mess,” with one man’s legs blown off and a woman with chest injuries who appeared to be on the verge of death.
With his ears still ringing from the blast and covered in blood, Panter helped apply a tourniquet and bandages to the man’s legs and then tried to resuscitate the woman by blowing into her mouth. Her eyes were open, but she was staring vacantly into the sky, sighing in agony.
“We brought her to the medical tent, and lost all pulse,” he said. “She was dead.”
For Natalie Stavas, who has run three previous marathons with her father and seven others, Boston has always been the paramount race, because of the tremendous support from spectators and all the money raised for good causes. She has raised thousands of dollars for Boston Medical Center Pediatrics.
Despite her broken foot, she felt strong as she had surged toward the end of the race, carried by high fives, hugs, and everything from jelly beans to oranges.
“Everyone is so happy,” she said, “and the crowds are bigger and more enthusiastic than anywhere else. They cheer you on, no matter how you look.”
She and her father, both originally from Nebraska, scoff at the notion they are heroes. On the contrary, she said, she feels in some ways guilty for what happened.
“There’s a deep sense of grief, because on some fundamental level, those people were there for me,” she said. “You can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility for their loss.”David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him Twitter at email@example.com.