Full bags leave empty feeling

On the corner of Berkeley Street and Boylston Street, just two blocks from the area where two massive explosions killed three people and injured countless others near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Rich Havens stands overlooking a sea of bright yellow drawstring backpacks — commemorative bags filled with unclaimed property belonging to competitors in Monday’s race.

Havens, the finish area coordinator for the Marathon, is used to seeing a few bags left unaccounted for around the changing tent at the end of the event each year. Invariably, there will always be a few runners who manage to leave the race without the items they brought with them. But in 17 years on the job — and in the 33 years since he ran his first Boston Marathon, in 1980 — he’s never seen anything quite like this.

“Normally that Penske truck over there contains maybe 150 bags at the end of the night,” Havens said, motioning to an idle moving truck parked about halfway between Boylston and St. James Avenue. “We’ve got about 2,500 we’re estimating right now, on the ground.”

Of the 23,326 runners who started Monday’s race, 17,584 crossed the finish line before the explosions brought the event to a halt shortly before 3 p.m. ET. That leaves 5,742 who were unable to finish, and it’s disconcerting, at best, to canvass the eerie scene and wonder what kept so many from claiming their belongings before they left the area.

But as gut wrenching as it is to consider the terror that forced so many to flee Copley Square with so little concern for their own possessions, there was almost a sense of joy emanating from Havens’ team of employees, who remained upbeat despite the bitter chill and lingering sadness in the air on an unseasonably cold night in the city.

When racers would trickle in to retrieve their bags, workers would take a break from their McDonald’s sandwiches and fries and often race each other to see who could locate a runner’s bag first, filling the street with laughter on a day when so much pain washed over the city of Boston. It sounds insensitive, but it’s not. They do it for the morale of the racers, and nearly every athlete who left the collection area did so with a smile on their face that was absent when they arrived.

“Are we saddened, and am I personally crushed by what happened today? Absolutely,” Havens said. “It would be easy to lose all faith in society and mankind and ask ‘Why did this happen?’ But I’m not going to change who I am, and all these people aren’t going to change who they are. People who do harm, one of the things they want is for people to become low and morose, and if you let them do that, they’ve won. We still have to service the customers, the runners, and we can’t put on a sad face for them.”

As for the bags? Havens and his team will keep returning them to their rightful owners until someone tells them to stop.

“We’ll be here as long as it takes, until we’re given a directive (to leave),” Havens said, noting that on a normal race day, he’s home and in bed by 9 p.m. “We could be here till tomorrow, we could be here two days. I hope we’re not, but if it is, it is, and we’re going to stay here until we can’t.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.