The longtime broadcaster and former Lakers play-by-play man was assigned by NBC’s Westlake Village-based Universal Sports Network to host the live national TV coverage of Monday’s Boston Marathon.
This was a city he had visited dozens of times before. He returns home and admits: “Now I know what terror looks and feels like.”
There is measured infuriation in his voice. He pauses to collect his thoughts. He wants to capture the proper perspective of what he saw.
“Please, not to compare what I went through to what the victims went through,” Sunderland said this morning from his home in Malibu. “I was close to it all, but I’m OK. For so many others, their lives are forever changed.”
When the first bomb on Boylston Street went off, Sunderland had just finished walking up through that people-pack thoroughfare and finally reached a production trailer on Exeter Street about 50 meters away, not far from the race’s finish line.
“It took 25 minutes just to walk those two blocks,” he said. “I followed a young mother pushing a stroller with twins as she cut a path through the crowd. There were children and families everywhere on both sides of the street.”
The live TV coverage of the race had finished at 1 p.m. Eastern Time, but he had to circle back for a 2:45 p.m. production meeting. The broadcast crew was to be back on the air at 4 p.m. with updates and interviews featuring the winners and top finishers.
That didn’t happen.
“I just set my briefcase down, and this explosion shook the trailer almost to the ground,” Sunderland said. “It took a few moments for it to register what happened.
“I’ve been a lot of big sporting events where there are pyrotechnics. During the 2002 World Series in Anaheim, the stealth bomber flew overhead. But this was nothing like I’d ever experienced.
“We heard the second blast a few second later, and that confirmed it. We were under attack.”
Boston police immediately gathered those in the TV compound and directed them away from the scene, to the race headquarters at the Fairmont Hotel in Copley Square. There, they were locked down for four hours, watching the live reports on TV screens and the confusion of reports about what happened. One of the runners who finished the race went to the media center to report on things he saw that were too graphic to repeat.
“We saw a lot of bad things as raw coverage kept coming in,” Sunderland said.
He was able to pull out his cellphone and call his wife, Maud-Ann, to tell her that a bomb had gone off, he was safe, and he’d call back later. Security later turned off all cell towers, not because of the volume of calls, but to prevent the possibility that more bombs could be detonated by an active cell phone from another location. Sunderland was able to get on the Internet and use his Twitter and Facebook accounts to relay information.
As the coverage continued, and video replayed the events, “every time I heard that bomb, I got a little sick to my stomach again,” he said.
FBI and Homeland Security has already interviewed the TV production team and gone over hours of footage shot in an attempt to find information on who planted the bombs.
The 61-year-old Sunderland, a graduate of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High and a former standout basketball player at Loyola Marymount as well as playing on the 1984 U.S. Olympic gold-medal winning volleyball team, had been in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics when bombs went off in Olympic Centennial Park, killing one and injuring hundreds. Covering volleyball for NBC at the time, he was at the network hotel far enough away to miss the commotion, but was awakened in his room at 3 a.m. and told what happened.
In his travels around the world, competing and covering sporting events, nothing comes close to this experience, he said.
“That was the worst possible time and place to want to have mayhem and debris and destruction,” Sunderland said before heading out to cover a USC-UCLA tennis match for the Pac-12 Network. “The bombs were not designed just to damage, but to maim and mutilate.
“I’m still sorting a lot of things out. How do you stop something from this happening again? I had a pleasant chat before the race with one of the handlers on a canine crew with bomb-sniffing dogs. Boston has put on this event 117 times and has spent more money and time on security than anything else. They had the best possible people on this, and still couldn’t stop it.
“I am righteously angry at whoever did this. Will I be anxious being in a huge public gathering. Maybe, but I won’t let this stop me from living my life.”
His schedule doesn’t include any trips to Boston soon.
“But now I really want to cover the next Boston Marathon in 2014,” he said. “I want to be there.”