Johannes Britz and wife Linda describe chaos, panic and finding each other after bombs went off
While Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon wrenched heartache throughout the nation and globe, UWM was fortunate to celebrate the safe return of four runners of their own.
Kristi Schuette and Alex Francis, both former UWM student athletes, and Helaine Hickson with the School of Education ran the marathon. Linda Britz, wife of Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Johannes Britz, finished the marathon minutes before the explosions went off.
Johannes Britz shared with the Post his story of the day’s coincidental events that left him and his wife counting their blessings amid the chaos of the city.
“Everything just worked out well for us,” he said. “We were blessed.”
Tracking Linda’s time online from his room within a bed-and-breakfast on route of the Marathon, Britz planned on taking a metro downtown to meet his wife just as she crossed the finish line.
He checked out of the hotel, bags packed, and tried his luck at catching a metro. One after another seemed to be full with the influx of people in the city for the Marathon, but he eventually caught the third metro from another line.
Meanwhile, Linda Britz had crossed the finished line. Not seeing her husband, she walked down the street, away from the finish line.
At about ten to three, Britz and the other passengers below the city streets experienced a slight vibration.
“That must have been the exact time the bomb went off,” Britz said. “I was just underneath it.”
Britz, along with the others, had no reason to believe a slight vibration was reason for concern at that point. Such vibrations were expected, he said.
On the street above him, Linda Britz heard the explosions go off behind her.
“There were two explosions,” she said. “It sounded like people shooting one another, or a cannon.”
Under her feet, her husband’s metro continued to inch forward slowly, in a stop-and-go fashion, finally coming to a rest at the next station, a block from where the finish line explosion occurred.
“I didn’t know, of course, at that point, so I just got out,” Britz said. “And when I did, there was just a sea of people.”
Minutes later Linda was calling, telling him explosions had gone off.
Britz said he was confused because at that point, he said, there were not yet sirens.
But then crowds in the metro broke into panic, said Britz. They began shouting “Get out! Get out! Don’t go down!” and Britz told his wife he believed the explosions had originated from below the city.
Getting out of the subway, Britz and his wife did not realize they were in such close proximity of each other.
“I couldn’t see her, and she couldn’t see me,” he said. “I asked her if she could see the statue and to meet me there.”
Upon meeting, Britz and his wife realized they had been just across the street from each other.
“Call it luck or, I don’t know. My wife was coincidently just across the street from where I came out of the metro station. And of course, I was late because I couldn’t get an empty car. She had finished just about 10 to 15 minutes earlier and happened to be walking my way, away from the bomb,” Britz said.
Seconds later, a wave of people were headed toward the two on Boylston Street. It was chaos, Britz said.
“I immediately texted my children. We have a 9 and a 12-year-old, who were in school at the time. But the godmother who looked after them, I texted her and said, ‘two explosions, chaos, we are safe.’“
The next text was to Chancellor Michael Lovell. Again, Britz wrote: “two explosions, chaos, we are fine.”
Britz also reached out to Helaine Hickson, who had run in the race with Britz’s wife. Hickson had finished just two minutes before Linda Britz and was 3 blocks from the finish line area collecting her race bag from the bus when the bombs went off.
Following the explosions, city officials cleared the streets in a matter of seconds. Between 15 and 20 ambulances arrived shortly later, followed by police.
“I sensed it was pretty serious — like a terror attack when I saw the FBI agents coming in wearing full gear, and riding in large black SUV’s,” said Britz. “Military helicopters flew overhead. I said to Linda this wasn’t simply a gas explosion or leak underground in the metro station like I thought. This was a bomb.”
Britz and his wife’s next steps were to get out of the area to safety. The metro had been shut down, and cell phone service had been turned off, preventing the two from calling a cab. So they ran.
“We just walked, and ran, walked and ran, straight through the city, to get to a metro that worked, in the hope we could get to the airport. I had the luggage, and Linda had just ran 27 miles and was tired.”
About five miles outside of where the explosions had occurred, the two eventually reached a metro that was operational. They took it to the airport, where fortunately they got through and boarded their flight.
It was at this point that phones started working again. Friends had been tracking Linda’s run time and knew she had crossed the finish line close to the time the bombs went off.
“We had probably over 20 missed calls and people were still calling,” Britz said. “I think when it hit us, was when we answered. They didn’t talk, they just cried. It was an emotional experience for everyone just to think, ‘ok, they are safe.’ They didn’t know what to say, they just cried.”
“I think we were lucky, and we were blessed in many ways. The fact that she was across the street, the fact that I couldn’t find a metro and had arrived late, right outside where she was, and then that we could walk, and run, walk, and run,” Britz said. “I was just grateful we got out, but it was a scary experience.”
Britz said this experience will not stop them from returning to Boston.
“It was our first time in Boston, and I was very impressed by the way I thought they managed the crisis,” he said. “It was very quick, very efficient. It was chaos, but I sensed the city was very well prepared.”