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May 3, 2013

Former city manager recounts Boston Marathon

Jon Austin finished the marathon before bombs went off

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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Former city manager recounts Boston Marathon
Jon Austin, former city manager of Madison Heights, stands with his wife, Lori, by a sign marking the start of the route during the Boston Marathon. He finished nearly an hour ahead of the bombs detonating. The Austins were unharmed.

MADISON HEIGHTS — Jon Austin, resident of Madison Heights and its previous city manager, was one of the participants in this year’s Boston Marathon, finishing nearly an hour before the first bomb detonated. No harm came to him or his wife, Lori, who was present to greet him at the end.  

Like many runners, Austin had been anticipating the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon. Now in its 117th year, it’s held every year on Patriots’ Day, the third Monday of April.

According to the Boston Athletic Association, more than 26,000 registered participants entered the April 15 event. At a half-million spectators, it is New England’s most-watched sporting event.

Soon, it became the most-watched event in the world, when a series of bombings brought it to an abrupt and bloody end.   

“We were truly blessed by God that I had finished early,” Austin said.

The bombs killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy. At press time, 264 had been injured, according to Boston public health officials. A number of people suffered severed limbs due to lacerations or amputations — multiple limbs, in some cases. 

The first bomb went off at 2:49 p.m., close to the finish line. Within the same minute, the second bomb went off, about 210 yards away. 

The explosives were low-lying pressure cooker bombs, detonated by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the latter of whom was killed in a confrontation with police in the ensuing citywide manhunt, during which an MIT officer was also killed. Dzhokhar was subsequently captured.

With the Boston Marathon being such a high-profile event, it’s not unusual to know someone who may have been there. Knowing that Jon was in the race, friends back home, such as City Councilwoman Margene Scott, were immediately concerned for the safety of Austin and his wife.

“Luckily, I had his cell, so I called him right away and found out he was OK,” Scott said. “I thought that was poignant, how here he had met a lifelong dream, working his way up to be a runner of that caliber, and then something like this happens.”

Austin, who retired as city manager of Madison Heights in late February, has made it a goal to run a marathon in every state. So far, he has run 25 marathons across 16 states. Next up: The Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., on June 22.

“If I had still been working, I still would’ve run in Boston,” Austin said. “The only thing that’s changed is, now that I’m what I call ‘semi-retired,’ I’m planning around four marathons a year instead of two.”

Austin qualified for the Boston Marathon in November of 2011. He improved his time in November 2012. At the Boston Marathon itself, he cut his second qualifying time by around seven minutes and 30 seconds, finishing the 26.2-mile run in 3 hours, 27 minutes and 41 seconds. The average finishing time for the Boston Marathon in 2012 was 4 hours and 18 minutes.

The bombs didn’t go off until nearly an hour after Austin had already crossed the finish line. His wife, Lori, had been watching from Beacon Street, away from the crowds at the finish line — people whose lives were in imminent danger.

When he finished, they walked through the downtown area of Boston Commons en route to the subway station, hoping to return to their hotel room so Austin could shower and relax after the long run. He figured the nearest station would be packed, so they opted for the next station several blocks over.

“That’s when we heard the noises,” Austin recalled. “My wife asked me what the noise was, and I told her it must be a cannon going off as a celebration for Patriots’ Day.”

He noted the booming noise sounded just like the cannon demonstrations they recently saw while on vacation in St. Augustine, Fla.

“It didn’t become evident (what was happening) until we got to the subway station at Park Street, under Boston Commons,” Austin said. “We were on the subway platform when the police ordered everyone out of the station, since they were concerned about the green subway line that runs under the bombing. The officer told us there had been an explosion at the finish line.”

At that point, the couple didn’t know the nature of the explosions, nor the fact there had been people killed. Text messages from concerned family members brought them up to speed as they walked to another subway station about a half-mile away.

“It was very confusing,” Austin said. “There was a lot of confusion on the streets, and we had no idea how bad it was until we got back to our room and turned on the TV.”

The contacts continued to pour in: phone calls, text messages and Facebook postings from more than 50 people, Austin said. Lori posted a message to her many Facebook friends indicating she and Jon were both all right.

They know others weren’t so fortunate.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to those families that have lost loved ones or been injured due to this senseless act,” Austin said. “Boston and the Boston Marathon and our country will only grow stronger in the face of this evil.”

On that note, he said the incident at the Boston Marathon won’t influence him.

“To alter my plans out of fears of terrorists would be to have them achieve their goal,” Austin said. “My philosophy is we need to stay vigilant.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.