Area native recalls Boston nightmare

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, April 21, 2013

It looked like SWAT teams were stationed outside the hotel at which she was staying. She didn’t know where her husband was. Alone and with no available cell reception, she dialed the phone numbers of her children into the hotel landline.

Two bombs had detonated on the streets of Boston below less than an hour before. She’d witnessed the second explosion but was unhurt. The fulfillment of her husband’s dream to run the Boston Marathon had darkened very quickly.

And only grew darker with every minute he didn’t walk back into the room.

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“My whole body felt it.”

Brookhaven native Sandee Stribling McPherson stood straining at the finish line of the oldest annual marathon in the world, the Boston Marathon. She was not going to miss seeing her husband of 29 years cross the finish line.

A staggered start times has disabled Boston Marathon participants beginning first, with elite runners next and then various waves containing everyone else. Given his start time, Dr. Scott McPherson was supposed to finish the race at approximately 2 p.m.

However, Sandee didn’t have a clear line of sight to the finish. The VIP seats were in the way. She also realized she wouldn’t have access to Scott once he crossed the line. Racers were shunted off to the medical tent and then to receive their medals pretty quickly.

Deciding the spot she’d staked out wouldn’t work, Sandee left in search of a better one and picked a spot further down on Boylston Street.

This was an important moment she wanted to share with her husband. Scott, a neurointerventional radiologist at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, where the couple resides, had signed up for the race eight months prior and spent six months training.

Scott’s marathon running began about 6 years ago, though he’s been a longtime health and fitness enthusiast. Since taking up marathons he’s run the Chicago Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

But Boston is the big one.

“Boston is it. That’s just it,” Sandee said. “A goal and a dream. Others were just, just a footprint leading up to this.”

And at 54, Scott knew he couldn’t put off Boston for long.

“He was so excited,” Sandee recalled.

The couple had arrived in Boston the Friday before the Monday race. Scott spent Saturday and Sunday at a medical conference connected with the race.

He’d left the hotel room at 6 a.m. Monday morning and was supposed to begin the race at 10 a.m.

Waiting for him to pass by and cover the last block to the finish line at Boston’s Copley Square, Sandee, 53, didn’t know her husband had been unable to start until 10:50 a.m.

Instead, she was hoping to catch of sight of him very soon when she heard it – heard what she could describe only as an “enormous sound.”

“My whole body felt it,” she said.

But she didn’t see that bomb explode almost right at the finish line. She didn’t see anything. Not until the second bomb detonated about 10 seconds later. Right in front of Sandee.

“The second one was directly in front of us, about a block or so down,” she said. “Talk about really feeling it. It’s like vibrations through your body.”

A few moments of what Sandee remembers as an almost reverent silence passed before people began to ask the question: “Was that a bomb?”

“You’ve just never been in a place where a bomb has gone off,” Sandee said.

But people caught on quickly.

“You just had this innate sense that you knew what it was,” she said.

Any doubt was quickly erased.

“Within three or four blinks you looked down the street and it is just engulfed in smoke,” said Sandee. “Just smoke billowing up the street and up the hill, billowing toward us along with spectators who were further down the block than us in sheer panic, running in fear and looking back but running forward and looking back.”

That’s when Sandee lost cell phone service.

“Are you OK?”

The streets turned to what Sandee described as “absolute chaos” and fearing for her safety she made the five-minute walk down Huntington Avenue to the Colonnade Hotel where the McPhersons were staying.

Law enforcement officers with dogs were already stationed outside.

Cell phone service hadn’t returned, yet. Sandee heard reports that authorities were jamming reception in case the bombs had been detonated remotely be cell phone (cellular service providers have since said the massive spike in phone usage overloaded the service towers).

About 3:30 p.m., Sandee began using the room phone to call her four children, all in the Jackson area, and her mother, a Brookhaven resident.

Agonizing minutes ticked by until Scott returned to the room about 4 p.m. He’d been about a half mile from the finish of the 26-mile race when authorities closed the course and stopped all remaining runners.

Authorities weren’t allowing anyone to leave the hotel. Confined, the couple ate room service and spent the night watching news coverage of the unfolding horror and assuring friends and family they were unharmed.

Facebook postings and messages of “are you OK?” had begun to multiply. The couple’s cell phones could receive text messages, but continued to be unable to call or text out.

The hotel lockdown was lifted the next morning, and the McPhersons briefly walked around the block.

“I’ve never seen so many black security cars,” Sandee said.

The two were able to leave as planned on a Tuesday evening flight. After one of the longest queues at an airport Sandee has ever experienced, intense security measures and a layover in Atlanta, the McPhersons arrived back in Jackson around midnight.

A few days in her home, surrounded by the familiar with the unimpeded ability to communicate with her family, the sharp experience of the tragedy has dulled – a little.

“I know this will really leave an imprint on us,” Sandee said, crying softly for the first time since discussing the bombing. “It was just so surreal that we were in this situation. There it was, we were living through this chaotic moment.”

A strong personal network has kept her buoyed, though. For that, she’s thankful.

“I just felt so much love and support from everyone,” she said.

Though she hasn’t lived in Brookhaven in over 35 years, the Homeseekers Paradise native said her Facebook wall filled with questions and encouragement from her friends in the Lincoln County city.

“No matter what, I’m always Sandee Stribling when I go home,” she said. “It just meant a lot.”