Temple doctor, students on front line of blast

Dr. Howard Palamarchuk was engrossed in a routine he’s developed over 28 years as a medical volunteer at the Boston Marathon: tending twisted ankles, bandaging blisters, and treating whatever ailments struck runners as they limped into the main medical tent.

Then the bombs blew.

Within minutes, Palamarchuk, 59, and nine Temple podiatry students scrambled for whatever they could find to help stabilize blast victims. The wounds Palamarchuk witnessed were traumatic enough that he was reluctant to speak of them in detail today from his Boston hotel room.

“They weren’t runners in shorts and t-shirts anymore,” recalled Palamarchuk, director of sports medicine at Temple University’s School of Podiatric Medicine. “They were grandmothers, young ladies with their husbands, grandfathers, and parents. You’re not used to seeing people come in there with really horrendous wounds.”

The blasts came at the busiest time for the tent, so it was already packed with the dehydrated and others suffering the effects of the race. Palamarchuk said the fastest runners had already crossed. When the bombs struck it was about four hours into the race and fitness runners and those seeking personal bests were coming through in clumps. Thousands normally come to the tent for help.

The tent was erected just after the finish line, facing Boylston Street. The explosions occurred just before the line.

“We were right there, we were right at the front,” Palamarchuk said.

The first bomb struck at 2:50 p.m., followed by a second blast 13 seconds later.

“You could feel the concussion. The sound was like a sound I’ve never heard before - maybe like a Howitzer you would hear fired at the Army-Navy game,” Palamarchuk said. “I thought the first one was maybe an accident, like a propane tank from the cooking area, a lunch truck. Then, after the second blast, I knew something was wrong.”

Soon, EMTs were hurrying to get the wounded from Boylston Street into the tent. First-responders, nurses, trauma physicians all rushed to help.

The tent – a city block in length – suddenly became a trauma unit.

“We stood in place and started grabbing as many supplies as we could wrap with, like gauze bandages and anything else we could find,” Palamarchuk said. “Within two minutes, they started wheeling people in. The ambulances were already to go.

“There were a lot of people coming in, but the more critically wounded were on stretchers. It was a lot of severe trauma to the limbs. We were taking care of shrapnel injuries, and injuries to the upper extremities. I’ve never seen that before. It was almost like what a shotgun would do. So we were more just stabilizing and making sure people were conscious. They requested that everybody in the tent to please start bandaging, and help in any way. Those in critical condition were moved through quickly.

“Everybody pitched in. You had to put away your fear and panic,” he said, referring to now discounted rumors that more bombs had been found.

Palamarchuk said he and the Temple students worked for 30 to 40 minutes before they were evacuated.

“After the blast, I was just very sad. It’s hard to put into words. I looked around and thought this is what 911 must have looked like. I could hear the never ending sirens; I could see people walking and talking on cell phones, trying to reach home. I just found a quite place to sit. I called my family to tell them I was okay.” 

Hesitant to speak of Monday's events, Palamarchuk wanted to make sure that the EMS crews in Boston and other emergency personnel got credit for the “outstanding” way in which they handled the ordeal.

Palamarchuk could still see the main medical tent from his hotel room this morning. The Temple students had all left the night before.

“I came by myself this year,” Palamarchuk said. “I’ve brought my family in the past. I’m glad I didn’t this year.”

Contact Frank Kummer at fkummer@philly.com or 215-854-2443.