Our news plan for Tuesday’s newspaper literally came apart shortly after 3 p.m. Monday.
That’s when the first reports of an explosion near the finish line at the Boston Marathon started to move on Twitter. A minute or two later, reports of a second explosion.
Minutes later, reports of injuries — first a few, then a dozen injuries, then a death and then more than 100 hurt, many critically.
Our thoughts immediately turned to the 21 runners from Southwest Florida and their families. Were they safe? How could we assure their friends and families back home that all were OK.
How do we find them?
We knew we would get the breaking national story from USA Today or The Associated Press. Our focus had to be on our Southwest Florida connection.
Sports Editor Ed Reed had gone to BAA.org, the official Boston Marathon site, on Friday to find all the names of our runners on its database. We ran a story on Monday listing all our local runners who qualified for the marathon and details of the race.
Reed kept track of our runners through the race and was tabulating their placement and times. So, he knew who had finished and who was still out running at the 4 hour 10 minute spot of the race — the time the bombs went off.
He only had a couple of phone numbers. It was a start. He then went to a public database site, Lexis Nexis, looked for names from this list to get phone numbers. We found a few more numbers of local runners that were in the same running club as those locals running in Boston.
We also used our in-house network of runners. They knew people and they connected us to more runners and more running organizations. The contacts were growing and we contacted a few of them in Boston.
Now, social media kicked in with our News-Press Facebook page. We had four Boston Marathon-related posts, with a combined reach of 11,427 viewers.
We continued to update on Facebook as we found more and more runners. We began receiving messages from followers showing how much they cared.
From reader Ken Franklin: “Good for you, News-Press for doing this.” It affirmed an opportunity to do a public service for our community amid this tragedy.
Engagement Editor David Plazas then posted on Twitter an update on our runners, which was retweeted eight times. On Facebook, he made a post about the fact that we were tracking our local runners.
Through that stream, Facebook friend Stephen Hooper told us that Cindy Matthes-Loy was alright. Plazas messaged him that we would like to talk to her. She got that message from yet another friend. Cindy called us immediately and talked to our reporter, Marisa Kendall.
We kept updating and posting all afternoon and into the evening. One post would lead us to another name, another number, another person. Information started to pour in and we got more and more messages.
We kept getting encouragement that showed people were watching.
From Marti Blase Van Veen: “Great job with the updates!! Thank you for doing this. Such a sad day......”
From Jeffrey George: “Thank you for the updates.”
Millie Lugo: “Thank you God for protecting them. Hold close to your heart those affected and their families.”
We continued to search Facebook and more and more people started posting what was happening. Within minutes of the explosions people had posted on a local runner’s page. They were interested in how he was and he wanted to get the word out that he was OK.
More and more posted, sharing their thoughts and prayers. It was like a wave had been created in this social media space because of this one event.
By 9 p.m., we had reached all the runners, posted on Facebook and online that they were all OK and safe. It took many people many hours to get this story. It took old-fashioned reporting and a never-surrender attitude. It also took a great understanding on how to use the social media tools.
Since the cellphone signal was so jammed in the Boston area, we depended and corresponded through Facebook. We were able to not only learn information but began interviewing runners through the Facebook chat, for example.
We always used Facebook and Twitter but this opened our eyes to exactly how helpful these tools were in gathering the news and finding people in a short amount of time. This became our lifeline on this horrific day.
At the end of this terrible day, we informed and connected with family and friends that looked to us to help them.
And that felt pretty good.
Terry Eberle is executive editor of The News-Press.