Family helps disabled firefighter run marathon

There are two people in front and back to direct traffic and someone to hold onto Ray McNamara's arm to guide him since he can't see


By Jon Mettus
Cape Cod Times

FALMOUTH, Mass. — With a team of about four family members helping him along, Ray McNamara is hard to miss as he makes his way through the seven-mile Falmouth Road Race course.

There are two people in front and back to direct traffic and someone to hold onto McNamara's arm to guide him the entire way since he can't see. McNamara's wife, Denise, douses him from the neck down with a squirt bottle filled with water because he doesn't sweat.

He gets nervous before the race, thinking "it's the last thing he's ever gonna do and they're gonna pack him up in ice like a fish," Denise said. But every year, the group bursts into tears as it crosses the finish line.

"It's like Christmas in August," McNamara said. "... It's incredibly important to me. "

The New Balance Falmouth Road Race has been a constant in a life forever altered in 1993 when McNamara was severely burned in an explosion that nearly killed him and did send him to the hospital and rehabilitation facilities for about a year. The former Newton Fire Department lieutenant will run the race today for about the 39th time — likely 17 times before the fire and now 22 times afterward. He has "dark days," Denise said, but the race helps him handle the tragedy he was dealt.

"You learn to cope with what you have to cope with...," McNamara said. "You get up every morning, put one foot in front of the other and do the best we can."

On Oct. 25, 1993, McNamara was called to a fire at the H. C. Starck plant in Newton, which manufactured items out of tantalum, a rare metal, to be used in assemblies such as jet engines and nuclear reactors.

Because of an employee error, molten sodium reacted with water, causing an initial explosion, according to the U.S. Fire Administration's report on the event. The fire was contained in a blast room used for burning off the sodium waste, but when firefighters arrived they were not told there was water in the room.

McNamara was one of two firefighters in the room piling salt onto the fire to snuff it out, knowing that contact with water would cause another blast. He remembers looking down at the fire in the drum and then being helped out of the building by his captain and rushed into an ambulance with all his clothes either burned or stripped off.

According to the report, "there was a violent explosion. A fireball enveloped most of the area and burning molten sodium erupted up and out of the drum, splashed off the walls and ceilings, and splattered on the firefighters. All of the firefighters in the area were knocked off their feet and away from the center of the blast, bouncing off walls and equipment."

Eleven firefighters were burned and McNamara was hurt the worst because of his proximity to the explosion. More than 85 percent of his body was extremely critically burned and doctors did not think he would last the night.

He spent about four months in a medically induced coma and was in the hospital and a rehab facility for another eight months. The explosion took his vision and a few fingers on his left hand and it required "too many surgeries to count" to fix his skin as much as possible.

McNamara hated rehab and its tediousness. But he did it each day and occupied himself otherwise by listening to the radio.

"You grit your teeth, kind of go along with the program thinking that you're never going to get out of this foolish place anyway," McNamara said. "So just do what they tell you until you just go into a box someplace."

As much as he hated rehab, regaining his vision for about two years thanks to a surgery about two years after the fire and then losing it was worse. McNamara had gotten his driver's license and independence back briefly only to have it taken away again.

But in the mid 1990s, he went to his family with the idea of running the Falmouth Road Race again. He originally started in 1977 after watching his brother do the race and his family helped McNamara get back on the course again.

He used to finish the race in less than two hours but now the 74-year-old either walks or jogs. He still hates the "stupid hill" near the finish but sometimes that's the same place he hears spectators chanting his name through the finish.

"When I'm ready to just cash it in, it convinces me to keep putting one foot in front of the other," McNamara said. "Do the best you can."

Copyright 2017 Cape Cod Times

 

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