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    Anxious calls flood in from afar after explosions

    Cellphone service went down in Boston briefly as loved ones tried to locate one another.
    Bill Greene/Globe Staff
    Cellphone service went down in Boston briefly as loved ones tried to locate one another.

    They called from Ecuador, Ireland, and Egypt to ask about their loved ones caught up in the carnage in Boston. Phones rang from the embassies of Romania and Guatemala. Relatives inquired from New York, California, and Maine.

    Thousands of calls flooded Boston’s 24-hour hotline at City Hall as desperation and heartache came from England, Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago. The Boston Marathon drew more than 23,000 runners to the starting line Monday, a field that hailed from 55 US states and territories and 71 countries.

    The two explosions at the finish line reverberated far beyond Copley Square, echoing from Singapore to Slovakia, Wyoming to Ukraine, and beyond. Across the globe, people frantically dialed Boston City Hall.


    One caller reported seeing a photograph in the news of the caller’s uncle in a wheelchair, and was desperate for information because his wife had already lost part of her foot. Another wanted an update on her aunt, who was undergoing emergency surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A local mother called heartsick because she could not reach her daughter, who worked at a pizzeria on Boylston Street.

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    On the eighth floor of City Hall, a swarm of volunteers — city employees who showed up and asked how they could help — answered the rush of calls. Janine L. Coppola, the city’s director of constituent services, who helps run the hotline, touched her hand to her face as worry emanated from the constant ring of phones.

    “People are just nervous,” she said.

    In 45 minutes Monday night, more than 1,100 calls poured in. City officials could offer little hard information: Hospitals had not yet released a list of the dead and injured. The hotline workers tried to reassure callers that there were relatively few people injured in the blasts in the context of the tens of thousands present.

    They told them that hospitals were contacting relatives of the injured. They told them that Boston’s cellphone network had been overloaded, which might explain why their loved one had been out of contact.


    “With each call, you feel like you’re going through something with each of these people,” said one of the hotline volunteers, Joanne Massaro, Boston’s commissioner of public works.

    Other volunteers in the hotline center included City Councilor Tito Jackson; Marie St. Fleur, one of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s top aides; Martha Pierce, a top education aide; and Sheila A. Dillon, director of the Department of Neighborhood Development.

    They asked callers for basic information — name, phone number, name of the missing, spectator or runner — and compiled a database from which to call people back.

    “You know what’s a nice thing?” Coppola asked. “A couple of people have already called and said they have found who they were looking for.”

    Google posted Person Finder — a website that tracks missing people in disasters — with two buttons, “I’m looking for someone” and “I have information about someone.” On Monday evening it was tracking about 4,100 records.


    Most people were located by sundown, including many who had never ventured anywhere near the race but whose out-of-town friends or relatives knew they lived or worked in Boston, or were in town visiting.

    Others were grim.

    An entry requesting information on a 20-year-old runner from Philadelphia said, “Last seen on webcam from Boston bleeding heavily, taken into hospital.”

    Antoinette O’Neill of Davis, Calif., and her family spent a tense few hours waiting to hear from her father-in-law, John O’Neill, a veteran of the race who was running for the 11th time with friends, leaving his wife back home in Placerville, Calif.

    Antoinette O’Neill said the family gained some reassurance by tracking his time on the Marathon website, which said he had reached the 24-mile mark just before the explosion.

    “We did some math and we figured he was not right at the finish line” when the explosions occurred, she said. But they wanted to be sure, and he had no cellphone with him.

    But after a reporter interviewed him, he borrowed the reporter’s mobile phone and called home just before cell coverage was cut off. “We were all very relieved,” she said.

    In Alberta, Canada, the family of runner Amy Nachtigall and her husband, Jeff, who was here to support her, tried in vain to reach the couple for about an hour after the explosion.

    Donna James, whose daughter is related to Amy Nachtigall, phoned her family on the way out to the starting line.

    “Then we heard nothing from either of them,” she said. “We were desperate to hear something.”

    Jeff, she said, had a cellphone, but “he was just trying to find Amy for the longest time. When they finally got together, there was that period of shock and consolation — you don’t even think about getting in touch with anyone else.”

    He eventually called his wife’s sister in Ottawa.

    “They said they are absolutely emotionally depleted,” James said.

    Andrew Ryan can be reached at