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Jackson: They were near when Boston bombs blew

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Published:   |   Updated: May 12, 2013 at 10:12 AM

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DADE CITY For 116 years, “How’d you do?” was the traditional first question posed to long-distance warriors back from the Boston Marathon. Then, say authorities, the Tsarnaev brothers carried out their fiendish Patriots Day plot, and, in the flash of two bone-shattering explosions, everything changed.

Now, as the Tsarnaevs’ (OK, alleged) evildoing shoulders into a pantheon of modern nightmares alongside the Challenger disaster, the attacks of 9/11, and the assassination of President Kennedy, we ask with numbing fluency, “Where were you when the bombs went off?”

Ten minutes past the finish line, having clobbered her previous personal best, kicking Heartbreak Hill’s butt in the bargain, Dade City’s Vera Sanchez, 49, an engineering technician for Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, was retrieving personal items from the bus she’d ridden to the starting line, eagerly anticipating her chance to embrace tradition.

“I saw my time (3:47:31) and I thought, ‘I’m not such a bad runner after all,’?” Sanchez says. “I was pretty happy, and then all that happened happened” — the first blast splitting the festival atmosphere, the ground trembling under her Newton running shoes.

“There was this eerie feeling,” Sanchez says. “Like, what was that? Then somebody says, ‘It’s terrorists!’ and everybody hushed her, like we’re not even supposed to say that.”

Five minutes behind, Sanchez’s pal and training partner Jenny Uible, 43, a Spanish teacher at Saddlebrook Academy, edged her way along the maze beyond the finish line where volunteers dole out trinkets and packages of food and sports drinks while studying racers for signs of distress. She shrugged off the first explosion, telling those around her, “It’s a cannon. They shot off a cannon. It’s Patriots Day.”

Then came the encore, “and all those volunteers, all those college kids in uniforms and the rest, they started running in the opposite direction.” Toward the thunder and smoke.

Where Sanchez stood sorting things out, the second explosion drowned out the shushing, settling the matter in favor of the woman silenced. Suddenly, finding her family — husband Joe, daughter Jessica and Jessica’s boyfriend, Douglas Stokes — then holing up in the safety of their hotel room was all that mattered. Someone set off two bombs; who would bet against there being a third, a fourth, or more?

They’d been scheduled to rendezvous at the John Hancock Tower, the mirrored Boston landmark, but Stokes warned them away. “What if they’re not finished?” he said. “What’s the logical next place they’re going to hit?”

While Jessica and Stokes retreated across the street, Joe, cellphone jammed against his ear and barking, “Can you see me now?” went searching. Twenty tortured minutes later, he identified his wife’s small hand waving above a crowd of bewildered spectators and racers.

Back in their room, Vera was managing surprisingly well for someone who’d run 26.2 miles only to be caught up in death and chaos. Wits well-ordered, she directed Jessica to update their status on Facebook, a posting that, back home in their First Baptist Church family, turned prayers for safekeeping into thanksgiving hallelujahs.

A calm that surprised even them settled over the group as they pieced events together, revealing a day of narrow misses. Given Boston’s reputation, Vera hadn’t expected to improve much, if at all, on her qualifying time (3:55 and change) logged at last year’s Space Coast Marathon in Cocoa, but 3:55 and change would have put her perilously near the two blasts. And instead of having left to meet her, Joe, Jessica and Douglas would have lingered at their cheering post, cater-cornered from the second bomb.

Despite all that, Vera was fine until she spotted the iconic footage of Bill Iffrig, the 78-year-old marathon veteran from Washington state, being toppled by the first blast, exactly where she might otherwise have been. Her stomach seized, rejecting everything she’d downed since the fleetingly proud moment she crossed the finish line.

Just off the airplane the next night, she presented herself to the emergency room at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, woozy, head throbbing, and complaining of dehydration. An attendant skeptical of patients who self-diagnosis was swept aside by a nurse who overheard Vera explain she had recently run a marathon.

“You were in Boston?” Vera nodded. “This woman ran the Boston Marathon!” the nurse announced. “Get her into a room. Now!” Vera would not reemerge for nearly 48 hours, but by then, the pattern was set. You were there? Where were you when … ?

For Vera Sanchez, who came to distance running late — she trained, back in the day, with the Pasco Junior High track team, racing home to Lock Street before her mom, who considered athletics unfitting for young ladies, returned from work — her sudden celebrity comes tinged with sadness. “Bittersweet,” Joe says.

Patiently bearing the chagrin of unsought attention, she held herself together, even when, on a whim, she and Joe popped into the Market City Bistro after her hospital release — they’d meant to try it for months — and owner Julie Buckingham shredded their check, saying, “You’ve made us so proud.”

Marvels Joe, “There’s been such an outpouring of support from this nice little Dade City community I grew up in.”

Finally last Monday, at a memorial run organized by the FITniche store at The Shops at Wiregrass, Vera saw Jenny Uible for the first time since Boston. Tumbling into each other’s arms, they surrendered to their jumbled emotions.

And now?

They’re going back. Of course they are. Otherwise the terrorists win, right? “We’ll show them,” Vera says. “This is tradition, and they’re not going to shut us down.”


tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

https://www.facebook.com/#!/TomJacksonTribune

Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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