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Wednesday, 24 April 2013 00:00

‘We’ll go back’: Sylva doctor who helped at Boston bombing vows not to let terrorists win

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As the manhunt ends, the nation begins to cope and the primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing either lay dead or in custody, Dr. Allan Panter, a Sylva emergency room doctor who visited Boston for the race, is still reliving — in vivid detail — the brutal events of that day.

 

Panter was accompanying his wife in Boston the day tragedy struck. It was his wife’s 16th Boston Marathon, and usually she attends the storied run with friends. The past few years, however, Panter has gone with her. Panter said he has run one marathon and was more enticed by the donut shops in Boston — the birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts — and the festive atmosphere surrounding the event than he was the actual race.

The race day coincides with Patriot’s Day, a reenactment of the Revolutionary War Battle of Lexington, and a Boston Red Sox’s game in the evening.

“It’s basically a state holiday,” Panter said. “Everybody is basically in a festive mood,”

However, as Panter found out, the festivities would not be the highlight of the trip.

The day of the race, Panter saw his wife off onto one of the marathon shuttles that brings participants 26.2 miles from the finish line, before cutting them loose on their trek back downtown.

Runners in the race are equipped with electronic chips, so as his wife passed certain checkpoints Panter could track her progress through automated text messages and know when to meet her near the finish line. When she crossed the 30-kilometer mark, he began to make his way through the hordes of spectators to watch her complete the race. Panter positioned himself underneath a row of flags blowing in the April breeze, and tried to get a clear line of site to snap a photograph of his wife.

“I was mumbling and cussing at the flags,” Panter said. “Because when the wind wouldn’t blow they would drop in front of me and I couldn’t see.”

Then he heard a loud “boom” and felt the heat and ringing in his ears. 

A crowd of spectators beside Panter protected him from the blast. He crouched down and watched as bodies around him dropped to the pavement. A woman to his right screamed and ran a few steps. A store window blew out from the blast.

“Basically there were enough bodies between me and the bomb to protect me,” Panter said.

He followed the screaming lady for a few seconds — then the second blast went off. It was the second of two bombs detonated in the crowd near the finish line that day.

“When the first one went off, I thought it was a bomb,” Panter said. “When the other went off, I knew it was. I knew then it was a sequence bombing.”

Panter, as part of his specialization in emergency medicine, had trained in disaster response. But nothing could have fully prepared him for what he saw next. After the second bomb detonated, Panter turned toward the source of the explosion. That’s when he noticed the carnage, a pile of seven or so people who had taken the brunt of the blast’s force.

“I had never really looked to my left,” Panter said. “And that’s where all the bodies were.”

Panter moved toward the injured. He provided care to a woman with a bleeding leg wound. He started applying tourniquets to a man left legless. He gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a young woman, then helped load her on a stretcher. He learned later that she died. 

“You’re talking screaming, yelling — people were taking their belts off and using them as tourniquets,” Panter said. “I kind of lost track of time.”

As Boston Marathon medical staff, nurses and doctors descended onto the scene and medical responders began to arrive and take control of the situation, Panter began to wonder about his wife. He also had the thought in the back of his mind that there may be a third bomb intended for the emergency responders

But Panter said he couldn’t stop to give it any serious thought.

“They sometimes plan a reserve device to hit responders,” Panter said. “But when you’re in the thick of things, you don’t think about it.”

About a half-hour after the bombs detonated, Panter felt his phone vibrate. He had received a text message from an unknown phone number, stating “I’m OK.” Another half-hour later he received the same anonymous message from a different number.

Panter wasn’t sure who it was, but hoped it was his wife, who he had never seen round the corner toward the finishing stretch. He texted one of the numbers back and identified himself as Allan Panter and asked if it was his wife who had sent the message. He got a response saying it was and she was fine. But it wasn’t until an hour and a half after the bombing that he had the opportunity to talk to his wife of 29 years on the phone.

“It felt pretty good,” Panter said.

But he felt for the other spectators who were still scrambling to find loved ones amidst the confusion.

“I saw other spectators trying to find their family members,” Panter said. “I saw other guys looking for their wives. They were getting phone calls from back home.”

After the bombs detonated, volunteers and race officials had swept Panter’s wife in the opposite direction while she was running. She told Panter later she thought the explosions were cannons being fired as part of the festivities.

Panter and his wife eventually re-united and were able to make it back to their hotel room downtown. They slept for a few hours before being awakened by an early morning phone call phone call to the room. NBC and ABC wanted to interview him. Media outlets were already reporting the death toll at three and the number of injured at over 100.

However, Panter said he and his wife have already discussed returning next year to Boston for the marathon. He said that might be the appropriate reaction, rather than what happened after 9/11.

“I hope the public will not exchange freedom for security like we did after 9/11 — you don’t give up your freedom for protection,” Panter said. “If my wife wants to go back, yeah, we’ll go back. If you change, the people who did it win.”

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