Monday, April 29, 2013

Sharing Amidst the Boston Marathon Bombing

Shaking hands with the Tufts University President Larry Bacow after finishing the Boston Marathon in 2010.Sharing Amidst the Boston Marathon Bombing:
I ran the Boston Marathon in 2010 as a student at Tufts University.  My hair still stands up on my arms when I think about the experience.  The marathon is a defining event of the city.  From yuppies to townies to students to suburbanites, people come out of the woodwork to line the 26.2-mile route to cheer on total strangers.  The stoke level is through the roof for both fans and runners (hint: one group is more sober than the other).  I especially remember the five-year-old kid who was psyched beyond belief to be handing out freeze-pops at mile 15 after the Wellesley Scream Tunnel.  Having so many people united under a common experience is quite surreal and I look forward to it every year.  There’s absolutely nothing like it.

On Monday, April 15th, 2013 at 2:50pm, two bombs went off at the finish line killing three and injuring 170.  This is my story about that experience through the lens of the sharing economy.

Welcoming Marathoners with Airbnb.
Knowing that hotel rooms are at a premium during the marathon weekend, I decided to increase my Airbnb rates.  To my surprise, someone snatched my offering up immediately.  After looking at hotel rooms in Boston for the marathon, I realized that my apartment was still 50% below their cost and more convenient in terms of location.  I live very close to the buses that take you to the starting line in the morning and even closer to the finish line.  So instead of fighting crowds in the hotel district or the traffic to get across the river to Cambridge, a runner can stay in a real home, cook food in a real kitchen, and make friends with a local.  It’s not for everybody.  There will always be people who prefer hotels.  However, if you’re an outgoing person and/or you’re on a budget, then Airbnb is an excellent option.
Leading up to the marathon, I had a busy Airbnb week. I had a guest staying Monday through Friday (from New York City), then my marathoner guest (from Denver) would stay Saturday, Sunday, and leave Monday afternoon after the race.  This would be just in time for my next guest to arrive (from Belgium).  Perfect.  Everybody wins.

The Bombing
On the day of the marathon I planned to meet my friend Sarah at mile 22, just after the infamous Heartbreak Hill.  This was her first marathon, so I wanted to give her some moral support through the last few miles.  She had hit a second wind and was cruising when I started pacing her.  I was super impressed because she had never considered herself a “runner” before, and yet here she was, at mile 22, smiling and actually enjoying herself.  As we saw the Citgo sign, signifying that the end was near, I peeled off the course to let her experience the last few miles for herself.  The end of the Boston Marathon is unbelievable, the crowd is often ten people deep and the roar is deafening (hair on end as I’m writing this).
I ran along the side of the course planning to meet her, her father and many friends at the finish.  I lost sight of her as the crowds on the course got thicker and thicker.  I started to notice that people were just standing around in the racecourse.  I remember thinking how rude people were for crowding the course when the race was still going on.  As I kept running, I started to hear crying and mutterings of a bomb at the finish.  I picked up my pace, weaving through the crowd, trying to find Sarah.  I kept thinking to myself, “Oh my God, how many people are dead?  Was this like 9/11, or like Oklahoma City, or was it an accidental explosion?  What’s going on?”
Then I realized my cell-phone couldn’t get service because thousands of people were clogging the networks trying to text loved ones like myself.  I had a dozen friends in the race, a few who I knew were watching at the finish, and countless others including both my Airbnb guests. I felt overwhelmed and sick to my stomach.

Crowds, Barricades, and Ambulances as Far as the Eye Could See
I climbed a tree to look for Sarah but immediately realized there were just too many people to pick out one face.  She managed to find a phone and texted me, so we found each other fairly quickly.  The police had stopped the runners a half mile from the finish.  We were surrounded by hundreds of runners who were already mentally and physically traumatized from having just run over 25 miles.  The prospect of a terrorist attack only added to their shock.  It was like watching a mob of zombies limping around with no idea what to do with themselves.
My cell phone was mostly ineffective in the chaos, but we managed to communicate with her father via text.  We learned that he couldn’t get to our location because the police were shutting down everything within a 15-block radius of the bombing because it was now a crime scene.  Thankfully, I live about a mile from where we were, so we decided to rendezvous with her father at my apartment.
Ambulances arrived from all over the state.
En route to the apartment, I got a text from my Denver Airbnb guest telling me that she was safe at the apartment with my roommates and asking if I was OK.  I then got another text from my future Belgian Airbnb guest, again asking if everything was OK.  He was standing on the finish line moments before the bombing.  Thankfully, he was about 100 yards away when the actual explosions went off, still too close for comfort.  Then came the flood of texts from friends and family as I started to get cell service back.
At first glance, this communication from my Airbnb guests didn’t seem too surprising.  However, after reflecting back on the events of Monday, I realized that I had heard from two people I hardly knew before I even heard from anyone in my family.  Nothing against my family, they responded promptly.  I’m just surprised at the responsiveness and connectivity that the Airbnb experience created.
It took us two hours to exit the crowds, police barricades and endless lines of ambulances to finish the one mile walk back to my apartment.  There I watched the news with Sarah, her Dad, my roommates, and our new friend from Denver.  At this point we were still in shock from the events but thankful to be safe.

Airbnb, a Business with a Social Conscience
OK, here I’m about to sound like an Airbnb salesperson, but people should know this story regardless.
The bomb went off in what I would call the “hotel district” of Boston, also known as Copley Square.  Some hotels there had to evacuate their guests.  That left a few thousand runners and their families without a place to stay (read: zombie comment I applied earlier).  I cannot imagine running a marathon in a different city and not having a place to warm up, eat food, and spend the night.

Courtesy of Twitter, we found out that Airbnb was offering free rooms in Boston for anyone who needed them.  The apartment owners still get paid, but Airbnb was footing the bill.  What an incredible way to support the marathoners and their families who were affected by this tragedy. The company didn’t need to come forward, but making hundreds if not thousands of rooms available to those affected was an amazing gesture of goodwill.  Huge kudos to Airbnb for stepping up to the plate when the people in Boston needed them.

Fast Friends Between the Belgian and the Mile-High Marathoner
My Denver guest was heading to NYC immediately after the race for a work trip.  However, with the city in total chaos, all modes of public transit were shut down, including her Amtrak train from Boston to New York.  Fortunately, she was able to book a bus ticket but it wasn’t leaving until almost midnight.  This meant that her stay would overlap with my next guest coming in from Belgium.
OK, fast-forward a few hours.
My Belgian guest showed up three hours late, but we had been communicating via text.  His timing, however, coincided with me leaving the apartment to bring Sarah and her Dad back to her apartment across the river from Boston.  In half-English and half-French, I explained that he would be briefly sharing the apartment alone with my Denver guest until midnight.  He said, “No problem, be safe my friend.”  I felt bad, but honestly they would just have to make-do with the situation.
Several hours later I made it back home, nervous to see the awkwardness between two strangers temporarily living in my house.  Instead of seeing awkwardness, I found them deep in conversation, with more than a few empty beer bottles on the kitchen table.  Maybe it’s just the type of person that Airbnb attracts, but I have had nothing but friendly, positive experiences with my guests so far.  This situation just drove that point further home for me.

#Manhunt in #Watertown
Four days later an MIT cop was killed in the middle of the night.  The ensuing car chase led to a firefight with over 200 rounds shot and several improvised explosives littering the previously quiet neighborhood in Watertown.  The result was one dead suspect with one still on the run.
As the sun rose over Boston, the Governor of Massachusetts shut down all public transit and ordered people to stay in their homes.  Again I heard from two Airbnb guests (New York and Denver), checking in with me and sending their thoughts and prayers to Boston.
The manhunt ended that night with the police capturing the final suspect alive.  It was a pretty unreal experience watching the events unfold (mostly via Twitter).  It’s good to start seeing some closure to the wicked events at the Boston Marathon.  However, there are almost 200 victims who are still recovering; 14 of them lost limbs and three of them lost more than one.  My friend’s mom was standing across the street from the first bomb and had her knee torn apart by glass, nails and pellets that were projected from the bomb.  She’s recovering in the hospital after reconstructive knee surgery but it will be several more surgeries and a long time before she can walk again.
Countless others were affected and my heart goes out to them.  Everyone knows someone who was there.
In true Boston Marathon fashion, the community has rallied in support raising over $500,000 for the victims and their families. As Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
“Boston Strong” is everywhere and is likely to be the city’s motto for a long time to come.
Even a week later, I still haven’t talked to anyone in my apartment building about the bombing.  Why is it that I have concerned strangers from across the world texting me, but the people who live in the same building hardly say "Hi" in passing?  What is it about the sharing economy that brings people from all over the world closer than those who live across the hall from each other?  I’m not sure why that is the case, but I’m certainly a believer in the power of the sharing economy to bring people together.
Boston Strong.