Unexplained minutes passed after John Mahaffey’s collapse

Questions remain about Half Marathon death

The Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

What happened in the moments between the May 17 collapse of a 31-year-old Williamsburg man near the Brooklyn Half Marathon finish line and his death later that day remains murky.

Our photographer was on the scene when John Mahaffey fell to the Coney Island Boardwalk at the end of the 13.1-mile race. She said that in the at-least three minutes that elapsed before run staffers transported him away on a golf cart, those attending to him stroked his arm and reassured him but did not perform CPR or make use of defibrillators, the devices that send a jolt to the heart to restore a normal heartbeat. That delay could have had deadly consequences, an expert said.

“Most people who die suddenly at marathons die from sudden cardiac arrest from ventricular fibrillati­on,” said Adam Singer, a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook University. “For every one minute delay in starting CPR in cardiac arrest the survival drops by about 10 percent.”

Here is what we know. Mahaffey completed the road race at 8:48 am, our lenswoman observed him convulsing on the ground before 8:55, and photo time stamps show him being carted away at 8:58. No one on hand contacted emergency dispatchers until 9:08 am, an ambulance picked Mahaffey up at 9:09 am for transport to Coney Island Hospital, and he died there later that day of cardiac arrest, according to Fire Department officials.

Here is the explanation offered. A spokesman for race organizer New York Road Runners said that Mahaffey was being treated by medical staff at an on-site care center during the gap between the golf-cart retrieval and the call for help.

“The runner who passed away was immediately attended to just past the finish line and transferred to an on-site field treatment station along the Boardwalk where he continued to be treated by the NYRR medical team with FDNY on site and then transported to the hospital,” said Road Runners spokesman Chris Weiller.

But the clarity ends there.

Weiller declined to elaborate on specifically what care Mahaffey received or who was on hand to administer it, but insisted everything was done properly.

“Out of respect for the family’s privacy, we are not sharing any of the details you are asking about publicly,” Weiller said. “He was provided with immediate and appropriate care.”

When asked to explain the safety precautions and medical staffing levels at the race, Weiller said that healthcare workers were placed throughout the race course and that they had “appropriate medical equipment, including automated external defibrilla­tors,” but refused to provide the number of staff members.

He also would not say what type of medical personnel responded to Mahaffey, but said that the medical staff on hand for the race “consists of doctors, nurses, physician assistants, [emergency medical technicians], paramedics and other trained medical personnel.” He explained further that the Road Runners staffing system was devised with input from FDNY, and said that department personnel were on hand at the race medical area where Mahaffey was taken.

We were not able to get the answers we sought, but we did learn how comparable races are run in California.

The Surf City Marathon and Half Marathon in Huntington Beach, California saw 21,000 runners this year. The medical staff included 120 medical staff members — sports medicine physicians, physical therapists, emergency room nurses and doctors, and emergency medical technicians, an organizer for the race said. Three ambulances and four medical treatment tents were placed along the course and 18 bike riders patrolled the course throughout the race looking for runners in trouble, according to the organizer. The result of all those precautions is that there are few safer places in the world to have a life-threatening medical problem than at an organized run, she said.

“If a runner collapses during the race, they’ll get help a lot quicker than if they were somewhere else,” said Kathy Kinane, who has been helping plan races since 1990.

Still not clear is what rules in New York City govern big organized running events like the Brooklyn Half Marathon. The Police Department issues permits for them, but does not have specific requirements for medical staff, a rep said. The mayor’s office “coordinates” such big events, according to the police officer, but the mayor’s office would not say what it requires in the way of medical staffing.

The medical examiner’s office has not completed an autopsy of Mahaffey. A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology states that most marathon deaths happen because of pre-existing heart conditions runners don’t know they have and that one in 50,000 runners are at risk of sudden death while on the road.

There is one other thing we know.

Mahaffey, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as owner of a real estate investment company, was a strong runner. He finished the endurance course in 1 hour, 38 minutes, and 46 seconds, putting him in 2,511th place in a pack of 25,644.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018: Typos fixed.
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Reasonable discourse

Susan from Park Slope says:
Hm. This article seems to border on being accusatory. By the way, a half marathon is not 13.2 miles.
June 10, 2014, 8:16 am
wood from not ward says:
Er, ok
June 10, 2014, 8:17 am
Ted from Iowa says:
Wow, this sounds like the BK paper is off on a witch hunt.

What I read in the above was that the NYRR does everything necessary and possible to ensure the safety of the runners. Because they didn't give specifics doesn't mean they're hiding something. In all likeliness, the reported wouldn't have known what the stats meant or how to use them, only to misuse them and decide whatever the info is, it's just not enough.

Totally sucks this guy died. Totally not the fault of the race though, I've seen 100s of their races and run in many, there are ample medical folks out there who know what to do when the need comes along.

Just report facts, don't spin it to create news. It really ruins journalism. In fact, you're doing a disservice to your trade. You're making other reporters and papers sound about as righteous as ambulance chasing attorneys. Is that how you want people to perceive you?
June 10, 2014, 9:42 am
hb from park slope says:
I don't think it is accusatory in any way. I think it points out some important shortcomings. I think there is no way we can completely control the 1/50,000 deaths that occur with marathons. But, to say everything was done correctly, perfectly and leave no room for education is an impediment to progress.

Perhaps, it all WAS handled in this case in the best possible way, there is no reason to believe it wasn't.

But, writing about it, and exploring how the process works, will enlighten and inform an entirely new group of people in recognizing and handling these kinds of emergencies. It will invite new ways of thinking.

This runner's life and early death will have much more meaning if it leads to even a small transformation in how things are done in NY and other marathons.

Thank you for publishing the story.
June 10, 2014, 10:01 am
jack from Park Slope says:
Its not about blame or the RR club wasn't at fault. Its about what can be done to prevent this and have a quicker response and personnel trained to defiber a person under going cardiac arrest. So I look at this reporting as not putting blame but the need to improve. Safety first.
June 10, 2014, 10:02 am
Sammy from Carroll Gardens says:
He'd still be alive if only LICH was open!!!
June 10, 2014, 11:28 am
Sean from Clinton Hill says:
“If a runner collapses during the race, they’ll get help a lot quicker THEN if they were somewhere else,” said Kathy Kinane, who has been helping plan races since 1990.

Is this really the person's quote?
June 10, 2014, 12:34 pm
Daniel from Carroll Gardens says:
Saying survival rate drops by 10% per minute, then noting it took 10 minutes for anyone to contact emergency dispatchers, sure sounds like you're saying this was 100% NYRR's fault. However, there's no indication he was in cardiac arrest when he hit the medical tent--that's an assumption you're willing to make without any supporting information. I believe that qualifies as irresponsible journalism.
June 10, 2014, 12:41 pm
ty from pps says:
Sean -- Are you trying to make a grammar comment because the correct word in this instance is "than." This is the word used in the article (assuming it wasn't corrected after reading your comment).

than -- comparison
then -- time
June 10, 2014, 3 pm
Ted from Iowa says:
Sean, now that you posted that quote and I read it, it is funny. Sounds like she's saying they'd get help faster if only they were somewhere else.

Back to the original point though, even the opening line "What happened in the moments between the May 17 collapse of a 31-year-old Williamsburg man near the Brooklyn Half Marathon finish line and his death later that day remains murky" already casts a serious bit of doubt as if there is some larger conspiracy going on here. Definitely accusatory.

"No one on hand contacted emergency dispatchers until 9:08 am, an ambulance picked Mahaffey up at 9:09"

REALLY? within ONE minute, the ambulance arrived? Or maybe they actually called earlier?
June 10, 2014, 3:14 pm
Billy from Park Slope says:
Not to argue for or against the witch hunt angle, but I did click on the quoted study link, and remember, it's about marathons. This was a half marathon.

Anyway, interesting find:

"Although highly trained athletes such as marathon runners may harbor underlying and potentially lethal cardiovascular disease, the risk for sudden cardiac death associated with such intense physical effort was exceedingly small (1 in 50,000) ..."

But this part got me and is always overlooked by people saying running will kill you:

"...and as little as 1/100th of the annual overall risk associated with living, either with or without heart disease.

So, the risk for heart related death from running is nowhere near what it is for those not running, who are simply alive.
June 10, 2014, 3:38 pm
Still Sammy from Carroll Gardens says:
LICH would have saved 'im! LICH is the answer! Woe is LICH!
June 10, 2014, 4:21 pm
JAY from NYC says:
I am NO fan of the NYRR, what they did after Sandy was a complete disgrace, and they over charge for races by scads and in my opinion are not about running but are about keeping their cushy non profit jobs at the expense of runners, not to mention that there are a number of organizations who put on races for a fraction of the cost, but this article is really thin on facts.
How do we know the camera time stamp was accurate and the same as the other time pieces that were quoted? We don't, and no mention was made of that issue, if the camera timer was different by 7 minutes then that would make a big difference would it not?
Was any investigation done at the time to ascertain whether there was any difference between the timer on the camera and the other clocks?
If not, then everything that this author assumed as "fact" is completely suspect. The main thing that is murky about this incident is BPs "reporting" of it.
June 10, 2014, 5:58 pm
Scott from Park Slope says:
Some people have a propensity for tachycardia that can remain undiscovered their whole lives. Many can even play professional sports and be athletically active without knowing they have it, until a very particular set of circumstances (eg. they were running flat out when someone hit them in the chest) triggers the race condition and kills them. It has happened not a few times on basketball courts during games when paramedics were literally standing right there on the sidelines. Breaking the tachycardia can be difficult even when they have the right training and equipment, especially if they have an aberrant pathway that loops the electrical impulse to beat back before the upper chambers of the heart have had a chance to fill with blood.
June 11, 2014, 10:26 am
Mike from NYC says:
This is a terrible tragedy and I am sorry to hear what happened. As a frequent runner, I think it would also help to hear why this happened( if he had a heart condition he didn't know about, a supplement interaction etc). I know the family wants privacy respected but it would be interesting and helpful to other runners to avoid this in the future
June 24, 2014, 5:46 pm
Nate from Decatur GA says:
I went to school with John Mahaffey and played on the REC league basketball team coached by his father.

There are only a handful of people in here who have deemed this a tragedy and are sorry this happened.

John will be greatly missed by his family and friends.

As the great Billy Joel puts it, "The Good Die Young" and John was not only a Good man, but a great one.
Jan. 29, 2015, 5:55 pm

Comments closed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Keep it local!

Stay in touch with your community. Subscribe to our free newsletter: