By Bill Burt
---- — BOSTON — Meet at the mailbox.
That’s all the Manzi family of North Andover needed to know when they were going to see the Boston Marathon.
“It was 2008 and I was with a bunch of my friends, looking to get something to eat and find a good area on Boylston Street to watch my dad (Al Manzi) finish his first marathon,” recalled Alyssa Manzi Ritter, who lives in Newburyport with her husband and two small children.
“The restaurant was called ‘Vox’ (now it’s “The Forum”) and the mailbox was out in front near the street,” she said. “We saw him and went crazy cheering right there at the mailbox ... It ended up being such a great spot, our family went back there every year to see my dad ... at the mailbox.”
Except last year.
Last year, there were a string of circumstances that kept the Manzis away. His son Al III’s two sons were sick. His oldest daughter, Lauren, was at a wedding in Mexico. And it probably would have been too much for Alyssa to bring her two kids, Brock (almost 2) and Isla (10 months old).
“I told them all to forget it and just meet me at the Boston Athletic Club, where we have a small party afterward,” said Al. “It would just be too hectic.”
When hell broke loose at last year’s Boston Marathon, Al, 61, was running on Commonwealth Avenue, less than a mile away from the finish line. He ended up calling his wife to let her know he was fine.
It wasn’t until later that night that the Manzi’s realized that the second bombing’s connection to their family, right next to the mailbox where the Richard family of Dorchester stood. Eight-year-old Martin Richard died and his 7-year-old sister, Jane, lost her leg.
”It’s hard to talk about,” said Al. “That could have been my family. That could have wiped out my entire family, my wife, children and grandchildren. I’m sick thinking about it sometimes. My grandson (Al Manzi IV) was eight years old last year, just like Martin Richard.”
The Manzis to a person will tell you they are a very close family, getting together in some form or fashion, almost every week.
So when the patriarch of the family, Al Manzi II, a Massachusetts State Police trooper, decided to get in shape and run the Boston Marathon, he had a support system.
”I was working a detail at the airport with Bill Colter, who was the captain of our state police marathon team,” said Al. “He had run something like 110 marathons. He’s done Ironman Triathlons. We were talking and he said ‘You should really give it a try, Al. If you do it, they can put it in your obituary that you ran the Boston Marathon.’ I remembered telling him, ‘I guess I have to start building up my obituary.’”
After that first race in 2008, Al was hooked. Having everybody on hand made it extra special.
”When you make the turn from Hereford to Boylston Street, you have 380 yards to go until finish line,” said Al. “That’s where the highest concentration of people are. When you make the turn you are met with wall of people on both sides and you see runners start scanning for people the know.
”It makes life easier if you have landmarks,” said Al. “We used in front of that restaurant, at the mailbox. That’s the spot where it is easy to see anybody.”
Al never made it that far last year, while running with his godson, Kieran Wittbold, also of North Andover. They were about 7/10ths of a mile from the finish line on Commonwealth Avenue when everything just stopped.
”I don’t want to say there was panic, but there definitely was some angst amongst runners,” said Al. “The B.A.A. (Boston Athletic Association) stopped us. Pretty quickly, I realized something was seriously wrong, that Boylston Street was a crime scene. There were probably about 10,000 runners backed up.
”To be honest, I wanted to go down Boylston Street with five other troopers who were running,” said Al. “This is what we do for a living. We approached the police line and they said we can’t. It was a difficult pill to swallow.”
The usual refreshment stations with water, recovery food and those metallic blankets are awaiting the runners. But on Commonwealth Avenue, there was nothing.
”When you stop running, you get really cold,” said Al. “People were in various stages of hypothermia. Some people were passing out. I remembered seeing a woman from Germany sitting on the ground, shaking. I couldn’t tell if she was scared or cold. Everyone started yelling for help and soon she got some clothes and food.”
Al was able to borrow someone’s cell phone amid the confusion and he called his daughter Alyssa, who was home in Newburyport with her children, to let her know he was fine and that she should let the rest of the family know.
His daughter Lauren was in Mexico and was relaxing by a pool when word got out about a “terrorist” attack in Boston at the marathon. Having no idea that her family made a late decision to not watch her dad on Boylston Street, she went into a panic.
”I was a mess,” said Lauren. “I honestly thought I lost my entire family. Everything was in Spanish, so it was hard trying to communicate. I finally got in touch with Alyssa. She said dad was OK, that she talked to him, that she saw a random phone number on her cell phone but knew it was him. I was shaking.”
A year later
It’s been a year and a few days since the 2013 Boston Marathon and Alyssa still has her moments, particularly over the last few weeks when stories, videos and TV specials have replayed the bombings, particularly the one that took the life of Martin Richard.
In fact, Alyssa is reminded of what happened almost every day, as she works on Boylston Street, a block away, at the John Hancock Building.
”It’s so hard to even talk about it now, a year later,” said Alyssa. “My eyes fill up. My husband can’t tell people. We imagine what could have been. Our whole family could have been there, including my little angel, less than a month old, Isla (pronounced (Eye-la). We would have been in the exact same spot. It hit so close to home.”
Alyssa remembered the morning of last year’s race, when she got word her brother’s two boys were sick.
”Lauren was in Mexico. It was just going to be too much with two babies for me,” recalled Alyssa. “I felt really bad that it would be the first time no one would be there to see my dad.”
Al said he is especially reminded how close it all hits home when he sees the incredible stories of Martin Richard. He only imagines that his son and his grandson probably would have been standing right there, waiting to their grandfather.
”We are so lucky,” said Al. “I don’t know what I would do. I really don’t.”
The events of last year, though, didn’t affect Al’s love and appreciation for running the Boston Marathon. He and his godson are running again.
Both are raising money for Crowdrise, which is police-based charity that donates money to families with kids that have cancer. When a family has a child afflicted with cancer, it can apply for money, which can be used any way they want.
”There is a lot of funding for research, and that’s a great thing,” said Al. “This is quick cash to help a family out. They can do whatever they want with money. It’s based out of Boston.”
Al has raised $2,100 so far. He would love to double that if possible (www.crowdrise.com and write “Albert Manzi” in search box).
It appears his wife, Kathy, and three children will all make the trek to Boston, probably leaving the grandchildren home.
”It’s something we need to do,” said Alyssa. “We’re going to go back in there, with my mom. My husband will stay at home with the kiddos. I just know I got to get back in there and see him finish.”
Al said he never had second thoughts about returning to Boston to run.
”This is a special race for me,” said Al. “Not only because it’s my tenth Boston, but because of what it means. You see all of these different survivors and their stories; how can you not be inspired? Think about those two brothers from Somerville that were at the bar (on Boyston Street). Each loses a leg. That’s a game-changer for me.
”Family is everything. There isn’t anything more important,” said Al. “And I feel lucky every day that I have my family with me.”
You can email Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.