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What NPR’s Peter Sagal learned amidst Boston Marathon chaos

Police clear the area at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon as medical workers help injured following explosions in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. The explosions near the finish of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killied at least two people, injuring over 20 others. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

There are two types of people, says National Public Radio’s Peter Sagal. There are those who hear an explosion and in a panic think – ‘it must be car bomb;’ and there are the people who turn to the first person and say ‘come on! What are the chances of that?’

To Sagal’s disbelief, it wasn’t just some generator exploding just 100 yards away from where he was standing. The “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” host was in Boston, not just to run the marathon, but to help William, a blind man he’d never met before, run the course. They finished in 4 hours and 5 minutes. The first bomb rang out at 4 hours and 9 minutes.

It was William’s seventh marathon, Sagal tells KIRO Radio’s Luke Burbank. William triumphed over a terrible brain injury when he was 17 years old. People thought it would kill him or disable him for life. Instead he has a career, he’s married to a wonderful woman, and he runs marathons – even though he can hardly see.

“This was not a guy that was going to let some pain stop him from running in this marathon,” says Sagal.

But the marathon was beating William up. They’d been walking, and as they approached the final mile, Sagal encouraged William to stick it out and run again.

The last mile of the Boston Marathon is famous, Sagal tells Luke. You’re running through downtown Boston, you pass Kenmore Square near Fenway Park, you turn a right up Hereford Street, and then a left on Boylston.

“It’s like a canyon of heroes. The buildings along the street are just packed with people, five or 10 people deep along the sidewalks all cheering for you, and you can see the finish line in the distance.”

William told Sagal, ‘When we get to that right turn you told me about, I think I’ll need to stop and walk.’ So Sagal replied, ‘OK. Whatever you need.’

But the pair took that right turn on Hereford Street and just kept running. “He gutted it out,” says Sagal.

He shouted at William as they approached the finish line, saying they had 200, now just 100 yards left. He raised his arms to get the crowd to cheer just a little louder. And they crossed the finish line – William didn’t see it – Sagal had to let him know.

With that, he doubled over.

The four minutes that followed were typical marathon happenings, according to Sagal. They were funneled out of the finish line area, and a medic checked out William to make sure he was fine – and he was.

But after making it only 100 yards from the finish line they had just crossed, they heard the explosion. Then seemingly right after, another explosion in nearly the same place.

According to Sagal, his journalism instinct kicked in – he was curious about what happened, but his responsibility was to William. They were trying to find his wife, which would turn out to be more difficult than anticipated with the chaos around them.

“It’s one of those situations where the people there know the least about it.”

It wasn’t until hours later, when Sagal saw a video of what happened, that he realized how close they were to that dangerous situation. And how close they could have been to the explosion if William continued walking in the final mile.

Luke asked Sagal if the whole experience had him taking stock of his life today. In spite of it being a terrible act of terror, he doesn’t want it to ruin his experience.

“This is what I feel,” says Sagal. “I’ve run 10 marathons now. I’ve run a pretty fast marathon, I’ve run some decent marathons, I’ve run some famous marathons – but this was my favorite. I’ve enjoyed this more than any other marathon I’ve ever done because it was the first marathon I’ve ran for someone other than myself. Running is a hobby and like all hobbies, it’s essentially selfish. It’s like, ‘what can I do? What can I accomplish?’ For the first time, I tried to help someone else accomplish it and I had a great time. It was painless. It was easy. Every mile was a joy because every mile I was helping this guy who I’d never met before get closer to a goal he really wanted.

Sagal continues.

“I refuse to let this bizarre, horrible attack take away from that. If anything, it accentuates the need to do more stuff like that. They’re talking about how people ran to the explosions, the EMTs, civilians, everybody. There are pictures of runners helping other runners. I wasn’t in a position to do that. It would have been a helpful thing to do, but I spent the day helping somebody else. That’s what I think – if there is any lesson out of this, it’s not ‘hey, we’re all going to die sometime, if not by a bomb than by stroke when I’m 90, (I hope.) But ’til then, I hope I spend more time helping other people and less worrying about how fast my own time is.”

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