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Joyous event turns shocking as tragedy halts Marathon

Greg Meyer was standing in the lobby of the Fairmont Copley Plaza, his eyes misting over.

“I don’t understand it,” he said Monday afternoon, as the ambulances were pulling away from the medical tent and hundreds of confused and fretful runners and spectators wandered the streets around the square as sirens wailed. “I don’t understand it.”

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Thirty years ago, Meyer had come running down Boylston Street in triumph on Patriots Day, the last American man to win the Boston Marathon. Monday he returned with his sons to relive the day that changed his life forever. Just a few minutes after they’d crossed the finish line and collected their medals, they heard two explosions behind them and the lives of many thousands of people changed as well.

“This is an event that brings people together,” said Meyer. “I don’t get this.”

For 116 years, the world’s most fabled footrace had been a place of concelebration, where hundreds of thousands of runners were cheered by millions. Their macadam mecca was the final stretch along Boylston, where the overhead clock confirmed their personal victories and hugs and handshakes from friends and family waited beyond.

YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

Thousands of runners were suddenly stopped by police and race officials on Commonwealth Avenue because of two bomb explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

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This time, it was a place of blood and horror and chaos as a race that had withstood all that nature could bring — snow and rain and heat and cold — was halted by the twisted hand of man.

Everyone on the planet knew within moments that something terrible had happened in Boston on a star-spangled holiday. The video clips — the blasts on the sidewalk, the plumes of smoke, the runners passing by in shock — immediately went viral. Any runner with a cellphone found it jammed with anxious text messages: r u ok?

Except for the customary blisters and cramps, the runners were fine. The unfortunate souls were those who had come to urge them across the line and who just happened to be standing in a deadly spot. Roupen Bastajian, a state trooper from Rhode Island who’d just finished his race, went back to help and saw carnage that he barely could describe.

“It’s bad,” he reported. “There were 40 people that I saw down, some without legs. I tied off maybe five or six legs with tourniquets. It’s all blood.”

Was it an act of terrorism? Who could say?

“We will find out who did this,” President Barack Obama vowed. “We will find out why they did this.”

What investigators soon suspected was that the devices had been dropped into trash cans by a passerby. How many more bombs were there? Where could they be? There were thousands of backpacks capable of carrying them that had been stashed for safekeeping at the finish. What has made this race universally popular suddenly had the potential to make it deadly.

If the casualty list was nowhere close to that of 9/11 in its magnitude, the personal connection was far greater. More than 23,000 runners from nearly 100 countries started the race. Each of them probably had dozens, if not hundreds of friends and co-workers who knew where they were Monday morning. The question was, where were they when the bombs went off?

Most of the runners — more than 17,500 — already had finished. But more than 5,500 of them never got to cross the line. They either were told to keep going down Commonwealth Avenue or were stopped before they ever reached Boston. Mike McMahan, who’d come here from Minnesota, had just finished and wasn’t sure where his wife Krista was on the course.

“I was thinking, ‘Do I wait for her here?’ ” McMahan said. “And then I heard the boom.”

The winners — Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa and Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo — already had been crowned with their laurel wreaths. The top finishers had given their press conferences and taken their doping tests.

But it was those who’d just finished, and those who still were struggling to, who are the essence of what has been an Everyman’s race ever since the first line was drawn in the dirt in Ashland in 1897. If you can go the distance in Boston, if you can cover the same ground as DeMar and Rodgers and Samuelson and the Kelleys, then you belong in their company.

Ray Flynn, the former mayor who was on hand as a spectator, had been saying Monday morning that “this was Boston’s finest day.” During his decade as mayor, he never got to crown the champion because he was running the race. Ben Beach, the Maryland resident who had finished every one since 1968 but didn’t get the chance this time, was shooting for his 46th in a row, which would have been a global marathon record.

The lure of the race is that powerful. Micah Kogo, the Kenyan who finished second in Monday’s men’s race, never had run a marathon, and Geoffrey Mutai, his training partner who’d set a world-best here two years ago, had advised him to try an easier course for his debut. He chose Boston, he said, because of its fame. If you ever have won here, you need win nowhere else. If you have won here, there is no staying away.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, who set a world record here 30 years ago, came back for an anniversary run and set another, this one for her age group. Amby Burfoot, who was mentored by John “The Younger” Kelley, was back 45 years after his 1968 victory.

Meyer, whose unofficial middle name is “LastAmericantowinBoston,” came back with Danny and Jay so that they could share in his reprise.

“This should have been a beautiful day,” Meyer was saying. “What you’ll remember about it is this horrible act.”

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