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Scottdale resident recalls Boston Marathon experience

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Joe Bierhals of Scottdale finished the Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 16 seconds. The 1987 gradauate of Soutmoreland High School has finished the race three years straight and plans to go back in 2014.
Joe Bierhals of Scottdale finished the Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 16 seconds. The 1987 gradauate of Soutmoreland High School has finished the race three years straight and plans to go back in 2014.
Joe Bierhals of Scottdale crosses the finish line at the Boston Marathon
Joe Bierhals of Scottdale crosses the finish line at the Boston Marathon

Joe Bierhals had just finished his third Boston Marathon and was back at his hotel room with family members when he noticed a commotion.

The Scottdale resident explained his hotel was adjacent to a mall and in that area he saw many people running. The mall was just a matter of blocks away from the second of two explosions that touched off a tragedy.

“Everybody was running,” Bierhals said. “Somebody was saying ‘Somebody's got a gun,' The closer we got everybody was running toward us. We were heading directly to where the second bomb went off. You heard something, you just didn't know what it was. We had no clue at that point.”

Two explosions ripped through the finish line of the heralded race at about 2:50 p.m. April 15. The explosions resulted in three deaths and more than 170 injuries. Two brothers — Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev of Cambridge, Mass. — have been deemed the suspects in the incident. Tamerlan was killed in a gunfight with police overnight on April 19, His brother, Dzhokhar, was captured alive and taken into custody later in the evening after he was found hiding at the bottom of a covered boat in the backyard of a Watertown, Mass., home.

Bierhals, 43, finished the race at about 1 p.m., nearly two hours before the explosions, in a time of three hours, 16 seconds. He was off the course well before any of the chaos ensued.

“We weren't in any danger,” Bierhals said.

The treks to “Beantown” for the 26.2-mile race have become a sort of family outing for Bierhals. He was joined on the trip by his wife Joyce, daughter Tracy, son-in-law Mike and sister Connie Puglin.

The aftermath of the explosions found them in their hotel for the majority of the day.

“We were up in our hotel room most of that evening, until probably about 8 o'clock,” Bierhals recalled. “We had to show our driver's license anywhere we went. We just went to a restaurant and got something to eat and returned to our room. The rumor was they were using garbage cans to hide the stuff. We were told, ‘Don't go around garbage cans, stay away from trash cans.' They didn't know who was doing it. Who knew if there was going to be more.”

During the immediate hours after the explosions cell phone service was shut down. Bierhals couldn't contact people to let them know he was safe. When service was restored, he received quite a pleasant surprise.

“I must have had like a hundred messages,” he said. “Local business, such as Brilhart's (Ace Hardware), and people were trying to find out where I was. I didn't know how many friends I had.”

Bierhals and family stayed in Boston until April 17, which was their original plan

While Bierhals was able to finish the race and go back to his hotel room, that wasn't the case for many others.

The lobby of the Sheraton was filled with people.

“There were probably 1,500 runners who could not get back to their hotel,” said Bierhals, a 1987 graduate of Southmoreland High School. “There were people everywhere in the lobby of our hotel. I've never seen marines walking around with M-16s before.”

The race was halted immediately upon the explosions, forcing runners to cease their quest for the finish line.

“You train or 16 weeks for this,” Bierhals said. “I got to finish, but there were people within 100 yards (of the finish line) who were told not to go any further. Some of these people use this as a qualifier for next year.”

Thirty-seven runners who did not finish the Boston Marathon were to run in this past weekend's marathon in Pittsburgh.

The events of April 15 will not keep Bierhals from running marathons. The Pittsburgh Marathon was the 10th he completed since 2005, when he picked up running as a means of losing some weight. Bierhals placed 89th in the Pittsburgh Marathon with a time of 3:02:26.

He will continue to run in marathons and will not let the acts of those involved in Boston stop him.

“I'm not going to change anything,” he said. “It's just an awesome experience to run it. It's a great feeling. The acts of kindness you saw were real amazing. I didn't directly have any contact with what had happened. It bothers me the fact somebody did this for no reason.”

Paul Paterra is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-887-6101 or

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