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Fate puts doctor where he was needed

By Michael Gordon

Four hours into the Boston Marathon on Monday, Theresa and Allan Panter had assumed their traditional roles.

Theresa was mere strides away from finishing her 15th crossing of the world’s most famous 26.2-mile race. Allan, never fast enough to qualify for Boston himself, stood 20 yards from the finish line, part of the closing spectacle of well-wishers and flags that drench the closing yards of the marathon with color and noise.

Then Theresa heard the explosion, and she knew her husband’s role had changed.

Those of us who have run what is universally known as Boston all fall in love with different parts of the race. Maybe it’s the start in rural Hopkinton, where the thousands of runners slide through the New England countryside like a melting glacier. Or perhaps it’s the midway point at Wellesley, where the coeds from the college form a gantlet of noise that clogs your ears for miles.

My favorite was the finish. The crowds, by marathon standards, become immense. You clear Heartbreak Hill, then glide into a long downhill. At the finish line, snarly old Boston opens its arms wide into a Copley Square embrace.

Allan Panter (say painter), who works as an emergency-room doctor in the North Carolina mountain town of Sylva, was in the center of that welcome when the first bomb went off, no more than 20 feet behind him. He felt the waves and heat. He heard screams. He turned and took three steps to his right. The second blast, in front of him now, made him pivot again.

He was unhurt. The smoke thinned.

Moments before he had been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of happy strangers. Now, all the spectators who had been to his left at the marathon barricade were on the ground, piled on top of each other. The scene, once festive, had been painted with blood and glass.

Allan Panter went to work.

The invisible line

Doesn’t it make you wonder why things work out the way they do?

Two bombs go off in downtown Boston. Three people die, hundreds are hurt, and one of the country’s oldest community celebrations becomes the pawn of terror.

But fewer than 10 yards from the first blast, an invisible line separates victims from the doctor who now must work to save them.

Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s something more. I ask Panter about it. He quotes Proverbs: “We can make our plans, but the Lord directs our steps.”

Now, Panter steps into hell.

Copley Square has become a war zone. As an ER doc, he sees a lot of gunshot wounds and burn victims. But this is different. The bombs, which authorities say were stuffed with ball bearings and nails, have ripped through the bystanders, creating what Panter describes as a “mangled mess.”

One of the first victims Panther treats is a man dug out from the street-front rubble. His legs now end at the knee.

Nearby, a young woman in her mid-20s goes into cardiac arrest. Panter works to keep her airways open. Someone else does CPR. They get a pulse. The victim is loaded on a stretcher and rushed to an impromptu medical tent. Panter later hears that she dies.

‘No different’

Panter estimates he performed triage at the scene for about 30 minutes, not knowing if Theresa was OK.

Seconds from the finish line, she had been stopped by a race official and diverted to a safe place. She knew Allan, her husband of 30 years, had been standing somewhere near the blast. “He was either hurt or helping,” she said in another interview. “I’m thankful to God that he was helping.”

In the middle of the chaos, Panter got a text from a phone he didn’t recognize. “I’m OK,” it said.

Thirty minutes later, he got another. The message was the same: “I’m OK.”

Ninety minutes after the first blast, the Panters reunite. On Tuesday, instead of enjoying the city and a relaxing wind-down from Theresa’s race, they trek from interview to interview.

I reach them late in the afternoon. They are on their way to Logan Airport and the flight home. Both of them sound worn out.

Allan seems to have had enough of the spotlight. He wants to talk about the people we’ll never see on CNN or “Today,” the dozens of anonymous bystanders who, he says, jumped into the horror, stripping off clothing and belts for emergency bandages and tourniquets, helping any way they could.

“Everybody’s talking to me,” he tells me. “But I was no different than anybody else.”

That may be true. But so is this:

The guy who was too slow to make the race himself wound up exactly where he needed to be.

Gordon: 704-358-5095; mgordon@charlotteobsever.com
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