By Mike LaBella
---- — The 100th Boston Marathon in 1996 was the most memorable for Dave LaBrode.
It was the centennial occasion for the world’s oldest and most famous marathon, and, as he did for many previous Boston Marthons, LaBrode volunteered to help at the event.
LaBrode, a Haverhill resident, is a longtime competitive distance runner who also helps organize running events in Haverhill.
Monday’s 117th running of the marathon was an opportunity for LaBrode to shine at the event again.
But when the race ended abruptly, he was left to wonder if the team of volunteers he was directing at the event was safe.
LaBrode, captain of a 43-member team responsible for protecting posted mile and kilometer banners along half of the 26-mile route, never got to finish the job others were counting on him to do. There were no post-race celebrations, only fears about the volunteers he had organized and was not able to reach after the race was stopped due to the bombings that killed three people and injured dozens of others.
”What we do is fairly simple and it is to make sure the banners don’t fall down, get damaged or stolen,” LaBrode said of his group’s responsibility at the marathon.
Two volunteers from his group were posted at most banner locations. Their other duties included directing runners to aid stations and water stations.
The Greater Framingham Track Club managed the mile markers for the first half of the marathon, while LaBrode’s team was responsible for 20 markers between the 13-mile mark and the 1-mile-to-go mark. The Boston Athletic Association marks locations along the course so runners know where they are, LaBrode said.
Specially-made banners were set up at every mile mark along the right side of the road and at every five-kilometer mark.
”At about 2:05 p.m., at the 13-mile mark, the course had officially reopened to traffic,” LaBrode said. “We have a van and a bus, we were picking up the mile markers and volunteers, and we were making our way towards Boston.”
Then came news that something had gone terribly wrong.
About 3 p.m., LaBrode learned there were two blasts at the finish line, which was still miles ahead of him.
”I’m thinking it was fireworks, some celebration of some sort,” said LaBrode, who still had eight more stops to make to pick up his remaining team members.
”Somewhere between the 19- and 20-mile mark we were diverted off course due to a suspicious package on Commonwealth Ave.,” he said. “I had a trio of college-age kids working for the first time at mile marker 20 and I was very concerned about them.”
LaBrode’s bus was diverted, but was able to continue on its route for a short distance.
”We got in touch with them (the volunteers) and told them to walk to the 21-mile mark, where we picked them up,” he said. “But I still had seven more markers to go.”
Just past mile marker 21, near Boston College, everything was shut down and there were police everywhere, he said.
”They blocked the road and we were told we could go no further,” he said. “It was very much surrealistic, like a movie. They took names and bib numbers and they had a medical area set up in a church.
”People were being bused to a Catholic church at BC (Boston College) and runners were no longer permitted to continue,” he said.
LaBrode worried about the remaining members of his team he was unable to reach.
”They were my people and they were counting on me to be on that bus to pick them up,” he said. “I did not want to abandon them with no instructions as to what to do.”
While LaBrode was still on the bus, a marathon runner from Hawaii said his wife and two daughters were at the finish line and he had no way to communicate with them.
”We reached them with my cell phone and he hugged me and started crying,” LaBrode said. “You see this in movies, and we were living it.”
A female runner from New Orleans was sitting next to LaBrode’s wife, telling her she not could find her husband, who was ahead of her in the race as they both ran the marathon.
”He eventually was pulled off the road and they were reunited at the church,” LaBrode said. “We listened to news reports, and people were crying.
”We had people working together,” he said. “People were helping people, just doing the right thing. You read about it, but I saw it.”
The next three hours at the church were tense and memorable ones.
”I was able to reach some of my volunteers and instructed them to follow police orders and not to worry about the mile markers,” LaBrode said. “I told them to just get yourself to where you belong.”
At just before 7 p.m., buses arrived at the church and, with a police escort, brought runners and volunteers to their destinations.
”I’ve been at the marathon for 25 years and there’s always been a police presence, but I’d never seen anything like this,” LaBrode said. “When we got to Boston, I saw armored vehicles, guys in fatigues with automatic weapons, dogs, any kind of law enforcement you can imagine. We passed heavily armed units ... fingers on their triggers. It really was like a scene from a movie.”
LaBrode and his wife were dropped off near where they had parked their car.
Normally, after the marathon they’d head to a pub in Brighton with other volunteers to reminisce about the day’s events. This time, they headed home to Haverhill.
LaBrode had run in Sunday’s Frozen Shamrock race in Haverhill, and on Tuesday night he was to run in a 5K race in Lowell.
”The Boston Marathon is an institution and it’s not going to stop us from continuing to do this,” he said. “You can never be totally secure anywhere. Things happen, and we saw that. It was a horrible thing ... but we’ll all continue doing what we do. We do this because we love the sport.
”I hate to use the term ‘you never would expect it to happen here,’ but it’s an open field with nothing to stop anyone from watching the race or doing other things,’’ he said. “The London Marathon is this weekend and you have to ask yourself, ‘How do you protect people in an open event?’’’