Erika Brannock saw flashes of yellow and orange, and she felt as if her body was falling in slow motion when the first of two homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon exploded inches away from where she stood near the finish line.
She heard people crying and screaming.
"I thought I was going to die, and I had this conversation with God in my head, and I said, 'I am not ready to go yet,'" Brannock, a 29-year-old Towson preschool teacher, said Monday.
After 50 days at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Brannock became the last of the bombing victims to be discharged. She returned home to a couple dozen friends and relatives and gave one of her first extensive interviews at a private terminal near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. She flew in a medical jet and used a wheelchair to greet her family and friends.
Brannock will spend the next several weeks at Kernan Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, where she will be fitted for a prosthetic leg and learn to walk again. Her left leg was amputated above the knee and she underwent multiple surgeries for doctors to save her right leg.
She said the outpouring of support, including phone calls from Cal Ripken Jr. and Ray Lewis and visits from Kevin Spacey and Amy Adams, gave her strength.
"There were really dark moments," Brannock said. "I sat with my mom and cried, telling her, 'I don't know how I am going to keep going.' And I remember having a moment when I told her I didn't want to keep going, but you just have to dig really far deep inside of you."
She and her mother were greeted Monday by supporters wearing lime-green T-shirts with "Team Brannock" and a dragonfly — a symbol Brannock has said she associates with strength — pictured on the front.
"I just need to lay eyes on her," said Kelly Pucillo, a fellow teacher at Trinity Episcopal Children's Center. "I just need to touch her. I need to know she is really real and that she's here and that she's home."
To a bank of TV cameras and reporters, Brannock recounted the moments after the bombing. She was positioned along with her sister and brother-in-law, Nicole and Michael Gross, to watch her mother complete the 26.2-mile race.
"A woman, as if she heard my thoughts, turned to me and grabbed my hand and said, 'I am Joan from California, and I am not going to let you go.'"
The woman, whose belt was used to tie a tourniquet around Brannock's leg, saved her life, said Brannock, who still wore a hospital bracelet around her right wrist.
In the chaos after the blast, Brannock lost contact with her family. It took her mother, Carol Downing, six hours after the April 15 race to locate both her daughters.
Brannock was transported to Beth Israel Deaconess. Her sister, who also sustained extensive injuries to her legs, was taken to Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Nicole Gross, a standout swimmer at Mount Hebron High School, was discharged from the hospital in May and returned home to Charlotte, N.C.
Downing said Gross had a recent setback when a filter implanted in her chest to prevent blood clots dislodged, and she required abdominal surgery. Otherwise, Gross is recovering well, her mother said.
"She is an athlete," Downing said. "She is used to working hard."
As for Brannock, Downing said she'll likely face more surgeries, including a bone and soft tissue grafting to continue to repair her right leg. She's had 11 surgeries so far.
"She had some setbacks with her surgeries and that kept her in the hospital longer," said Downing, who returned home to Monkton for only one day in the past seven weeks.
When Brannock is released from the rehabilitation center, she will move in with her mother and stepfather. Downing said it's unclear whether her home would need a chair lift or other modifications to accommodate her daughter.
Family and friends created the Erika Brannock Fund to help pay her medical expenses, much of which the family said won't be covered by insurance.
So far, $120,000 has been raised for her care, primarily through multiple fundraisers in the Baltimore area, according the fund's organizers. Over her lifetime, Brannock will likely need new prosthetics, which can cost as much as $85,000 with synthetic skin.
Downing said the medical team in Boston provided outstanding care. The nurses gave Brannock manicures to lift her spirits, created a scrapbook for her and threw her a surprise party that was "full of tears." On Monday, Brannock was wearing an ankle-length summer dress with a dragonfly charm bracelet and purple and green polish on her fingernails and toenails.
"I've seen a different side of her that I didn't know was there," Downing said. "She is a lot stronger than I have ever imagined, and she's just unbelievably patient."
Brannock said the youngsters she teaches inspired her. She recorded a video from the hospital for the students to show them the physical changes in her body, so they would have time to ask questions and wouldn't be frightened the first time they saw her. Parents could opt out of allowing their children to watch the video.
She expects to attend a graduation at the preschool this week and to serve as maid of honor in a friend's wedding this weekend. Her mother will push her down the aisle in her wheelchair.
Brannock said she isn't supposed to put weight on her right ankle, but as soon as she can, she hopes to walk again.
"There are going to be a lot of adjustments," Brannock said. "I am going to have to learn to walk again. I am going to have to learn to change a lot of things in my life and be more patient with myself."
Among the welcoming supporters on Monday was Brannock's best friend, Jill Ball of Catonsville.
"You have to make sure you tell everyone you love them as much as you can, because life is fleeting," said Ball, who spent two weeks with Brannock in Boston. "When they found her — I was afraid for her life — that was just the happiest moment that I have had in my life, really."
Downing said Brannock and her friends and family members continue to search for meaning in the marathon bombing and the lessons in kindness they have learned since.
"We need to find out what the new normal is," Downing said. "We're looking for the message in this. I know there is a message for all of us. We just had such great support from Maryland and Boston and all over the world. People we don't know. We're looking for a way to pay it forward."
Erika Brannock's family and friends have created a website, http://www.thebrannockfund.com, where individuals can contribute to help pay her medical expenses.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun