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Towson preschool teacher injured in Boston Marathon explosion

29-year-old Ellicott City native was there to support mother

By Yvonne Wenger, Jon Meoli and Kevin Rector, Baltimore Sun Media Group

11:16 AM EDT, April 17, 2013

BOSTON

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– Sitting in the lobby of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Tuesday with one daughter upstairs in critical condition and another recovering in a hospital blocks away, Carol Downing described the frantic hours she spent looking for them after bomb blasts cut short her third marathon and separated the family.

The Monkton woman stumbled over her words, dropped her head into her hands and slowly ran her fingers through her short brown hair as she relayed what happened at the storied Boston Marathon, which was supposed to have been the culmination of a weekend getaway with her daughters, Erika Brannock and Nicole Gross, and her son-in-law, Michael Gross.

When the bombs exploded, Downing said, she was just a half-mile from the finish line where Brannock and the Grosses were waiting to cheer her on. They were gathered outside the LensCrafters on Boylston Street, one of the bloodiest sites along the course. Downing heard sirens, not the blast, and officials corralled her and other runners in a spot under a nearby overpass.

She spent the next six hours trying to locate both her daughters.

"They're like my best friends," said Downing, dressed in a pair of shorts and a borrowed fleece. "They are great, supportive daughters, always have been. We've always had a lot of fun together. They mean the world to me."

Brannock, 29, who teaches at a Towson preschool, had her left leg amputated from the knee down among other injuries, cousin Jocelyn Wood-Garrish said Wednesday.

"She is aware and taking the news very well. I'm in awe of my cousin's bravery," Wood-Garrish said, adding that there were more surgeries to come. Brannock was communicating with the family by writing, and had requested pictures of the students she teaches.

Brannock, who before Wednesday had been heavily sedated, is expected to remain in the hospital at least a month, Downing said.

Nicole Gross, 31, a personal trainer at Charlotte Athletic Club in North Carolina, had both her legs broken, family members said. She is in stable condition at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. Michael Gross sustained lacerations and burns and has been discharged, Downing said.

Downing, a retired massage therapist, said she tried texting her daughters and son-in-law, but the phone lines were jammed. She finally reached Michael Gross about an hour after the blasts, but they couldn't locate Brannock until 9 p.m.

While she was panicked, scared and cold after running nearly the entire marathon, Downing said, a Boston couple took her back to their home, where they gave her something to eat and drink and allowed her to take a shower. They also gave her a fleece jacket, which she kept, and stayed with her at Brigham and Women's Hospital until family arrived.

"With all the chaos and to be in a city where I don't know anyone, it reminds me that there are some good people in the world," Downing said.

She said she doesn't know what to think of the attack, and isn't focused on the constant news updates.

"I am not really thinking about it right now," she said. "I don't want to watch TV, and I am not reading the paper. It's just too emotional for me. I am trying to stay disconnected from it and focused on my kids."

Wood-Garrish said the family has been overwhelmed by support, an outpouring that began Monday night on Facebook.

"I know that so many people are worried about her," Wood-Garrish said. "Our hearts are breaking, but our hopes are high."

For friends who knew that Brannock was in Boston, the hours after Monday afternoon's blast were tense. Former roommate Ericka Leonard, a Boston University graduate who is now a middle school teacher at McDonogh School, was texting with Brannock about places to go in the city and received updates on Downing's pace throughout the day.

"I knew that her sister and brother-in-law and she would be at the finish line because her mom's expected crossing of the finish line was around that time," Leonard said.

Leonard said she sent a text message that showed up on her phone as having been read, but did not receive word until 9 p.m., when Downing told her Brannock was at a hospital.

"It was a really stressful few hours," Leonard said.

Brannock, who grew up in Ellicott City and Bowie, is a teacher at the Trinity Episcopal Children's Center in Towson. She completed her undergraduate degree from Towson University in 2008 and is completing her master's degree in early childhood education.

Brannock and Gross are Mount Hebron High School graduates.

"She's just an awesome teacher," Downing said. "The kids are always quoting Ms. Brannock to their parents."

Liz Harlan, former director at Trinity Episcopal Children's Center and founder of Davenport Preschool in Hampton, said Brannock was going to teach at that school when it opens this fall.

Brannock is "so outgoing and so loving, she knew every single student and every single parent that was in that building for four years," Harlan said, adding, "She is everyone's teacher and everyone's friend."

Harlan said that since she emailed former parents from the children's center and future Davenport parents Tuesday morning, she has received hundreds of emails from people wondering what assistance they could offer. "It is such a family," Harlan said.

Stoneleigh resident Brian Dulay, whose 2-year-old son Griffin is in Brannock's children's center class, co-taught by Lorraine Robertson, said Brannock reminded them at Friday afternoon's pick-up that she would be out Monday because she was "going to see Mom run."

Dulay said Brannock is uncommonly caring, and "blessed with an innate ability" to connect with people.

"Most people in schools care, but she has a remarkable talent to spend her days reaching 2-year-olds, then she can relate to working parents in the evening," Dulay said. "She's chosen the right profession."

He said the school provided a normal arrival for students Tuesday morning, which he found "comforting" as the community tries to make sense of the bombing.

"The grace in this event for me is that here's this giving person who does so much for my son," Dulay said. "She and her family, now they get a world-renowned medical community ready to give back to them."

Nicole Gross was a star swimmer at Mount Hebron. she finished as the overall top scorer in the Howard County meet in 1996, 1997 and 1998, according to her athlete's profile at the University of Tennessee, where she went on to swim the breaststroke and the individual medley from 2000 to 2003.

Downing said Nicole Gross helped her train for the marathon.

Her coach at Tennessee, Dan Colella, who now coaches at Duke University, said Tuesday that he was "devastated" to hear the news of her injuries in the Boston attack.

Nicole Gross was "an absolutely terrific young lady and was always someone that we thoroughly enjoyed having as a member of the team, was a great athlete and a great team member," Colella said, adding that she was equally committed to academics and her friends.

Nicole Gross, who listed Michael Phelps as her biggest sports influence in her Tennessee profile, works with people on triathlon and swimming exercises, according to the website for the Charlotte Athletic Club. If she could have one superpower, the site says, it "would be the healing touch."

"It absolutely doesn't surprise me that she's involved in fitness to this day," Colella said. "She was one that always enjoyed working out and challenges, and I can see where she's someone who can really help and inspire others in that area."

Her husband, Michael Gross, who turns 33 next month, was also a Tennessee swimmer, competing in the backstroke and freestyle from 1998 to 2002. He is from Sparta, N.J., where he was a two-time state champion in the 100 meter backstroke, according to his university profile.

A Charlotte Athletic Club employee said on Tuesday that staff would not comment out of respect for the family.

The Rev. Ken Saunders, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, said the church updated members of its parish and school community via email.

Before teaching at the children's center, Brannock worked her way through Towson University at Graul's Market in Hereford.

The store's manager, Ken Bullen, said he spoke with Brannock's mother Tuesday morning, and Brannock was in the store earlier this month.

"I've got girls in the deli who are barely holding it together," Bullen said. "They've worked right beside her and they're devastated, as we all are. It's a terrible tragedy for many, many people."

A parent from the children's center set up a prayer vigil for Brannock and her family at 8 p.m. Thursday evening at St. Mark's on the Hill Episcopal Church, at 1620 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

Saunders said Trinity Episcopal is planning a vigil as well.

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

jmeoli@tribune.com

krector@baltsun.com