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Triumph turns to terror for Oxford runner in Boston



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This photo of Stephanie Schreiber Bland, of Oxford, was taken just one minute before two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon April 15. (click for larger version)
April 24, 2013 - One minute, Stephanie Schreiber Bland was racing toward the finish line, ready to complete the famous Boston Marathon after having given birth just three-and-a-half short months ago.

The next, the 26-year-old Oxford resident was terrified and certain she was going to die.

Bland was near the finish line on Boston's Boylston St. April 15 when two bombs, made using pressure cookers packed with ball bearings and nails, exploded within about 12 seconds and 100 yards of each other at about 2:50 p.m.

"I was only a tenth-of-a-mile away from the finish line," she said. "I saw all the smoke come up. I thought it was like fireworks at first. Like, something went wrong with the fireworks.

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"A couple seconds later, a second bomb went off behind me to my left. At that moment, I didn't even know what to do. Everyone was yelling, 'Get down! Run this way! Run that way!' There were people screaming. I didn't know what to do."

The twin bombings left three people dead, including an 8-year-old boy, and approximately 180 injured, according to media accounts.

"The streets were covered with blood and there were people without their limbs," said Bland, who's a former Orion resident. "There were screams. Everyone grabbing everyone. It was absolutely horrifying."

Within a matter of seconds, Boylston St. went from a marathon route filled with cheering spectators and focused runners to a war zone filled with gore, terror and casualties.

"It was an awful nightmare that you never want to think of and never want to see," Bland said.

Bland was certain her life was about to end at that moment.

"When the second bomb went off, I thought, 'This is it. I'm done.' I just kept thinking I have this newborn baby. What am I going to do? I'm going to die right now. Another bomb is going to go off and I have nowhere to go."

As scared as she was, Bland knew she had to find her family. Her husband Brandon, son Brady and parents Dan and Debbie Schreiber, of Orion Township, were all there to watch the race and root her on.

In fact, she met up with them just moments before the bombs exploded.

"As I was making my way around the turn to hit Mile 26, I saw (my family) out of the corner of my eye on the right-hand side of the street," Bland said. "I ran to them and I gave them a hug and a kiss."

After the bombs exploded, Bland turned around and started heading back toward her loved ones.

"My first thought was to go to my family because they were coming to the finish line to meet me," she said. "I knew they were close."

Debbie Schreiber noted the family is usually at the finish line waiting for her daughter.

"We go to a lot of Stephanie's marathons and usually we like to get that picture just as she's crossing the finish line," she said.

Fortunately, her family was not at the finish line this time.

"We were following (an electronic tracking) chip on her shoe and we knew we couldn't get there in time, so we were about 200 yards away," Debbie said.

After the bombs went off, Debbie described the scene as "chaotic."

"People were running in all different directions," she said. "You didn't know where to go."

Debbie sent her husband to find her daughter.

"I had the stroller with the baby, so I was screaming to my husband, 'Get Stephanie! Go down there and get Stephanie!,'" she said. "I just kept saying (to myself), 'God, please let Stephanie be okay.'"

In the midst of all the confusion and carnage, Bland and her father managed to find each other.

"I saw my dad running as fast as he could, screaming and crying for me," Bland said. "I ran right into his arms. I was shaking and saying, 'Where's Brandon and my mom and Brady? Is everyone okay?'"

Even though she's 26 years old, her father's natural instinct to shield his child from the horrors of the world automatically kicked in.

"When my dad grabbed me, he covered my eyes and said, 'Don't look. Just stay with me. Don't look,'" Bland said.

Given what he had already encountered, it's no wonder Dan Schreiber said this to his daughter.

"I saw the most gruesome sight I've ever seen," he said. "I actually ran past a black Converse high top (sneaker) with the ankle and lower leg still in it, but no body."

Dan said when he found his daughter, he looked "straight across (the marathon route), right where the bomb was at, and you could literally see people laying on the sidewalk with no lower extremities."

When he found his daughter, Dan was in "full-blown tears" and thanking God that she was alive.

Bland's husband then located her and her father and took them over to where her mother was caring for and protecting little Brady.

Even though it was only minutes, Debbie said the time between when her husband left and when he returned with Stephanie "felt like days."

Although she was very thankful when her family members returned safely, Debbie couldn't help but think of all the others at the race.

"I felt bad for all the other people that were down there," she said. "All those people that ran by us (during the marathon) were happy and high-fiving us. We were all cheering them on and now, what about those people?"

Bland's family immediately went to the hotel where they were staying.

"Our hotel was right in the center of everything," Bland said.

Dan said it was "like a salmon swimming upstream" trying to get back to their hotel.

Once inside, they were told to go to their rooms and stay there. "Our hotel was pretty much on lockdown," Bland said.

"We just stood in the room and hugged each other," Debbie said. "We were in shock."

They stayed through the night and were finally allowed to leave the next morning. They drove to New York and caught a plane home.

Looking back at this experience, Bland believes the time she took to hug and kiss her family around Mile 26 probably saved her life.

"If I didn't stop to say hi to my family and give them a hug, I would have been at that finish line (when the first bomb exploded)," she said. "It's weird how God placed me where I was. I was right in the middle of (the bombs).

"I'm so thankful that I'm safe and my family is safe," she continued. "There's a million things that could have gone wrong in that whole situation."

Bland was very complimentary of the way Boston reacted to the attack.

"The whole city of Boston was phenomenal," she said. "The way they handled the situation was outstanding."

"The police and everyone were so nice and thoughtful, so caring. Their main concern was keeping everyone safe. I can't say enough about Boston."

"I've never seen so many people run into a battle zone (to help others)," Dan noted. "There could have been a third bomb, there could have been a fourth bomb, but it really didn't seem to matter to them."

Bland was inspired by the way complete strangers were comforting each other.

"I had people come up to me and just hug me because I was in tears," she said. "It was actually very uplifting."

Lots of folks gathered in the hotel's lobby and bar/restaurant areas. Many were people who had nowhere else to go.

"You could tell that everyone was just trying to lean on everyone else," Bland said.

One of the bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was taken into custody on April 19. The day before, the other bombing suspect, his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a firefight with police.

According to media accounts, the ethnic Chechen brothers were Muslims who recently gravitated toward a radical faction of Islam. They reportedly posted anti-American, jihadist videos on some social media websites.

Bland finds it difficult to comprehend how someone could commit such an act of violence against so many.

"I don't understand what their motives were," she said. "I don't get it. I don't understand how you could hurt innocent people."

"My heart breaks for the people who were injured and more for the people that lost their lives," Bland added. "That young 8-year-old boy watching his dad (in the race), he didn't deserve any of this. He deserved to watch his dad cross the finish line and celebrate, not lose his life over this."

Now that she's back home, Bland is simply trying to cope with what she saw and experienced.

"I can't get that out of my head," she said. "I've been struggling the last couple of days. I replay everything in my head and I can just see and hear everything again."

Despite this tragic experience, Bland will be back.

"I going to run the Boston (Marathon) again next year," she said. "I'm not going to live in fear. They might have broke me down, but they're not going to ruin my life."

"We're going with her," Debbie noted. "I'm so proud of her."

"I think the overall opinion is we can't wait to go back," Dan said. "I'm a Marine and I, honestly, will never live in fear . . . I live by a code and the code is freedom."

To the people of Boston, Bland sends this message – "Stay strong. Don't live in fear. If we live in fear, then they won. They have not won."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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