By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun
9:54 AM EST, November 16, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Somewhere near an eighth of a mile from the 5K finish line, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Erika Brannock stood up from her wheelchair.
Slowly, the 29-year-old Towson preschool teacher walked forward, with her sister and brother-in-law, Nicole and Michael Gross, by her side.
The moment came seven months since the bombing injured the Grosses and Brannock, whose left leg was amputated above the knee.
"I knew the day would come when they would all walk across that finish line," the women's uncle Ronnie Atkinson of Laurel, said. "It's very emotional."
The survivors waited about another hour for the women's mother, Carol Downing, to finish the Thunder Road half marathon. Downing was running the marathon on April 15 in Boston when the first of two bombs exploded.
Brannock and the Grosses were waiting for her at the finish line.
"We're not afraid," said Gross, 32, a Mount Hebron High School graduate who now lives in Charlotte. "We're here to the tell the world that we're not scared to be at a finish line again.
"We will embrace the finish line one more time."
Nicole Gross, a former collegiate swimmer, suffered broken bones, a nearly severed Achilles tendon and other injuries while her husband received lacerations and burns.
Brannock, 29, had her left leg amputated above the knee and suffered severe injuries to her right leg. She took her first steps on her new prosthetic leg about a month ago, and her sister saw her stand again for the first time Friday.
More than a dozen family and friends gathered to support the family in Charlotte, including Amanda North.
"I wouldn't not be here," North said to Brannock as the women shared a long embrace at a pasta dinner Friday where North surprised Brannock.
The last time Brannock and North were together was about a month ago in Baltimore when North flew to the East Coast to support Brannock, who kicked off the Baltimore Running Festival outside Pickles Pub near Camden Yards.
The experience in Boston created a lifetime connection between the women.
"I am of the belief that sometimes you can meet people and you know they are a kindred spirit," North said. "That happened to us. There was this compelling force that moved me to go over and try to help her and hold on to her."
Brannock and North hadn't interacted before the bomb blast, but in the seconds after the explosion, North attended to Brannock, pulling her jacket around Brannock, flagging down a paramedic and handing over her belt to use as a tourniquet.
Unlikely circumstances reunited the two women in the weeks after the bombing.
With their hearing damaged by the explosion, Brannock thought North's first name was "Joan" and North heard Brannock's as "Irene."
But Brannock put out a plea to find the "Joan from California," and CNN ran pictures of a woman by Brannock's side on the sidewalk where she was lying injured. One of North's friends recognized her, and North contacted the network, which made arrangements for them to meet in June at a rehabilitation center in Baltimore.
North said she couldn't stop thinking about Brannock after the bombing.
"I am a person with a religious conviction," North said. "I prayed for her every day. I knew she would make it – not just make it survive, but make it thrive."
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