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Happiness turned to horror for Marylanders at Boston Marathon

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— At 2:42 p.m. on Monday — just minutes before the first bomb exploded along the marathon course — Carol Downing's son-in-law and daughters were positioned perfectly to watch her run past the blue-and-yellow finish line painted across Boylston Street.

Michael Gross took six, maybe seven or eight, steps away from his wife, Nicole, and her sister, Erika Brannock, until he found the spot where he planned to snap a picture of the moment they had waited for all day.

The three had been tracking Downing's progress on their smartphones as her feet touched the timing mats along the route. 30K. Done. Nearing the 40K mark …

Finally, the 57-year-old Monkton woman was approaching the final turns: right on Hereford Street and left on Boylston. Her years-long dream of running the Boston Marathon was almost complete.

Downing gripped her iPhone, which displayed a text from Nicole Gross: "We're at the finish line. When you finish head to left away from the bleachers. We're in front of LensCrafters behind the flags.

"Finish strong."

Eight minutes later, a bomb hidden in a backpack detonated near her daughters, shattering the glass on the shop's two large windows. Another detonated seconds later, farther back along the stream of runners, and closer to Downing.

Runners in front of Downing stopped abruptly. Those behind her continued forward, creating a crush of people and widespread confusion. Word spread that there had been an electrical problem at a nearby hotel.

Sirens quickly sounded. This was no accident.

Downing frantically texted Brannock and the Grosses. No answer.

Here in the heart of the Back Bay, anchored by historic buildings such as the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church, the finish-line revelry of the famous marathon took a sharp turn.

Many Marylanders who had trained long and hard for the 26.2-mile race, or had come to cheer on a loved one, would be caught up in the devastation — some injured severely, others robbed of a sense of accomplishment.

So much strength had brought them here. So much horror would send them away.

A beautiful day

Richard Snyder and his wife, Jill, Annapolis residents who married in October, had been here before. She had run the race 21 years ago; he had run it two years ago and in the 1980s, while in high school. This time, they vowed to cross the line together.

They trained together as well, with the Annapolis Striders running club, mostly along the relatively flat Baltimore & Annapolis trail. And they struck a deal: Richard Snyder would slow down a bit; his wife would kick it up a notch.

By Monday morning, they were in high spirits. The weather — mid-50s, slight breeze, a strengthening sun — seemed like a dream. "It was a beautiful day. It was perfect," says Richard Snyder, 50.

After her last Boston marathon, Jill Snyder, 52, had vowed never to run one again. But life had changed, and she had pushed herself physically to be in Boston once again, which she thought of as the "mecca" of all races. The marathon, which was marking its 117th year, is known for its qualification standards and history, as well as landmarks such as Heartbreak Hill.

"I just wanted to achieve that goal again after 20 years," she says.

As they waited at the start of the race, in the town of Hopkinton, west of Boston, they were ready. Nervous, but ready.

The crowds were cheering. The atmosphere was contagious.

'Perfect family event'

For Downing, the marathon was the culmination of a lifetime of running and competing in other races. An injury kept her from running in Boston a couple of years ago. This time, she was aided in her training by daughter Nicole, a former North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer who works at a health club in Charlotte, N.C.

Having her daughters at the race made the weekend that much sweeter.

Brannock, a 29-year-old preschool teacher at Trinity Episcopal Children's Center in Towson, had fired off an email laced with excitement to the parents of her students. She would miss class on Monday, she wrote. Her mother was competing in the Boston Marathon and she would be there to cheer her on.

Brannock flew with her mother to Logan International Airport on Saturday, where they met Nicole Gross and her husband. Once the family was together, Downing picked up her race packet and spent some time walking with her daughters around the city. The young women held up running-themed T-shirts, and suggested that Downing buy one to remember the occasion.

"I was worried I was taking too much time; they were like, 'Mom. No. This is your day,'" Downing recalls. "We were just having a lot of fun. One [T-shirt] said, 'Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston.'"

They spent some time at their hotel, the Residence Inn in Framingham, before going to dinner at an Italian restaurant, Papa Razzi Trattoria. "We're just all goofy together," Downing says.

The next day, Michael Gross stayed at the hotel with a migraine and Brannock worked on a biology project for a graduate course at Towson University. Downing focused on final race preparations with Nicole Gross, who had moved to Charlotte about 10 years ago after graduating from Mount Hebron High School and the University of Tennessee.

They went on a chilly, 25-minute run. At Target, they picked up a sweatsuit Downing would peel off after she warmed up during the race. They bought tickets for the "T," Boston's subway system, so the family wouldn't have to stand in line after the marathon. And they made a trip to Hopkinton.

"I said, 'Let's go to the start real quick and see what it looks like ...'" Downing recalls. "We got there and it was just like, 'Oh, this is so great.'"

Before the race, held on the Patriots Day state holiday, some members of the family considered watching the Red Sox play the Tampa Bay Rays — the game was being played early, before the marathon. But they decided there wasn't enough time.

Brannock had another sport on her mind as she prepared to watch the race. She texted a friend: "You think I'm gonna have trouble wearing a Ravens shirt on Patriots day? Haha."

'Dad, there was a bomb'

When Kathryn Ledwell crossed the finish line at 2:44:26 p.m. — after nearly four hours of running — she was exhausted. "I didn't want to take a step further," says the 22-year-old Charles Village resident, a senior at the Johns Hopkins University. "My legs had had enough."

The first 16 miles had gone well, the rest not so much. But she had pushed on.

"My thought was the faster I finish, the faster I can stop running," she said. Medical aides approached. She was OK, she told them, but didn't want to move. Slowly, she walked to a nearby water stand. Moments later, the first explosion sent smoke, shrapnel and debris into the air.

To Ledwell, who grew up in Prince Edward Island in Canada, it sounded "like a mix between a cannon and a bunch of fireworks." But her brain wasn't processing it. Men and women in yellow jackets and sweaters — race personnel and volunteers — and security officers in black vests rushed past her, toward the thick line of smoke. Runners and spectators streamed toward her.

When a second explosion sounded, Ledwell knew to flee. "OK, if there were two, there might be more," she thought.

Three minutes after the first explosion, Ledwell's friend, Charlotte Healy, who had run the race as well and was waiting for her, managed to reach her on the phone and asked what the sounds had been. "I was freaking out and she didn't know why," Ledwell recalls.

At 2:57 p.m., Ledwell's father called from London, unaware of the explosions. He had been tracking her progress online and wanted to congratulate her. "Dad, there was a bomb. There was a bomb, I gotta go," she told him. Then her phone stopped working.

In Toronto, Ledwell's sister had also been tracking the race online and was terrified, knowing Ledwell had been at the finish line about the time of the explosions. At 3:07 p.m., Ledwell's boyfriend, Daniel Ben-Ami, a Hopkins junior, texted from Baltimore: "Hey please tell me you're OK."

Ledwell's father quickly emailed the sister to let her know Ledwell was OK. But Ledwell's phone would not let her respond to the dozens of others who began texting her.

'Just in a daze'

Down the street, Lynne Douglas of Columbia heard the first explosion as she ran down the right side of Boylston — within a block of the yellow band with "FINISH" lettered in blue. She saw the smoke rise, but she and the other runners nearby kept moving.

Police officers lining the road were alert but didn't seem too concerned. Her first reaction was that it was a gas explosion.

Seconds later, directly to her left, another explosion on the patio of the Forum restaurant sent something — she doesn't know what — straight into her leg, cutting her skin. "At that point I knew it was bombs," she says.

A runner just to her left had been badly injured — one of his legs was gashed open and bleeding. In front of the Forum, Douglas could see wounded spectators on the ground.

"Everybody just started running away and screaming and crying," Douglas, 57, said. "I didn't know what direction to go. I stood still for a moment and just tried to figure out what to do and where to go."

Instinct took her to the right, to a metal fence along the course. She climbed over and huddled with a family who told her, "Get down! Get down!"

A man whose clothes were burned and his pants split down each leg approached Douglas on the sidewalk, asking, "Am I OK?"

"And he was just like all of us, just in a daze," she recalls. "I said, 'You've been hit but you look like you're OK,' and he just walked away and so did I, and I can't believe I didn't say, 'We need to get you to the medical tent.' But I wasn't thinking straight."

Eventually Douglas moved off Boylston onto a side street. A woman there asked what had happened, and Douglas explained. Immediately, the woman gave Douglas her coat and her food. She also pulled out her cellphone so Douglas could call her husband, Greg, who was elsewhere in the crowd.

"We couldn't get the call through right away, but we just kept trying," she says. The woman, and a teenaged boy who offered her the shirt off his back, were just two among a crowd of people helping her.

"They were just amazing," she says.

'Redial, voicemail.'

For seven long minutes after the explosions, Dr. Wade Gaasch tried to control his emotions and tamp down the fear that his wife might have been injured in the blasts. But he couldn't get through to her cellphone.

"I kept hitting redial, redial, and would get her voicemail. Redial, voicemail."

Gaasch, an emergency doctor at University of Maryland Medical Center, had passed his cheering wife, Lauren, on Boylston just before finishing the race at 2:23 p.m. He'd meandered through a runners' area stocked with water and food, refueling before grabbing his gear from a bus and heading back toward the finish line.

At 2:50 p.m., he heard the first boom. Then another. Gaasch, who also serves as the Baltimore Fire Department's EMS medical director and was running his 13th Boston Marathon in a row, had a gut feeling something was terribly wrong, and didn't know where his wife was. He thought she might have started walking down Boylston after him. That would have put her right where he saw a plume of smoke rising.

He redialed. Voicemail.

Gaasch tried to make his way toward the smoke but was pushed back by police, as officials shut down the street. Sirens began wailing. People were rushing in different directions.

The couple had a room booked at the Westin Copley Place hotel, back near the finish line, and had planned to meet there afterward. Gaasch headed there, around barricades and walls of police.

Finally, at 2:57 p.m., as Gaasch neared the hotel, his phone beeped with a simple text from his wife: "We're OK."

Moving forward

Brannock and her sister were in far worse shape.

Nicole Gross, a 31-year-old fitness trainer, sat on the sidewalk, blood splattered all around her. The sleeves of her red shirt were in tatters, and her legs were bloodied and blackened. Other victims lay nearby.

She was taken to Brigham and Women's Hospital with a broken left leg and other injuries.

Brannock had been among the first victims rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where doctors amputated her left leg below the knee. (That is the same hospital where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would be taken after being captured Friday night.)

The decision Michael Gross, 32, made to step away from the sisters to get ready to photograph Downing likely spared him similar injuries. He suffered burns and lacerations.

But it wasn't until about an hour after the bombings that Downing got any word from them.

"Are you OK?" Michael Gross asked in a text message.

A local Boston couple helped Downing recover from the race and begin her search for her daughters. They let her shower and use their computer to cancel a flight that was scheduled to leave in a few hours. She borrowed a fleece and a pair of reading glasses. The couple took Downing to Brigham and Women's Hospital and waited until she was reunited with family and by her older daughter's side.

But it wasn't until 9 p.m. — six hours after the bombings and after Brannock's first surgery — that Downing learned of her younger daughter's location.

Since the bombings, Downing has shuttled between the bedsides of her daughters. Messages of support for the family — both emotional and financial — have poured in.

"I am overwhelmed with the people who have come out and given their support and prayers and offers of help," she says. "It makes me feel good, being so far away from home, that there's people doing all of this for my family."

Getting out

Gaasch and his wife were scheduled to stay the night in Boston. After his past marathons, they had gone out and enjoyed the revelry of the city's bars and restaurants, where strangers buy runners drinks and the mood is jovial.

"Everyone is wearing their medal and high-fiving each other and everyone is whooping and hollering, and people are at the bars having beers," Gaasch says of years past.

In the aftermath of the blasts, however, "it was deathly quiet," he says.

"No one said, 'Congratulations, how was your race?' or all the things you're accustomed to after the race. Everyone just stood there with this blank look on their face."

He and his wife packed their bags and left with friends who live outside Boston, choosing to spend the night in their suburban home instead of staying in the city.

Many other Marylanders also left. Ledwell headed straight to the airport with Healy. Since her return to Baltimore, her parents have urged her to go to the counseling center at Hopkins to discuss her experiences. She can't stop reading about the bombings. "I've been glued to the news," she says.

Douglas and her husband, who managed to regroup at the race and get to a medic tent so her leg could be patched up, flew out that night. Her leg has since developed a huge bruise, she says. She went to her doctor and got an X-ray, but nothing is broken. "I do keep thinking I'm so lucky I wasn't closer," she says.

The Snyders changed their late-Tuesday flight to one earlier in the day. No charge, the airline told them. They've been on a "roller coaster" of emotions since, Richard Snyder says, watching the news and thinking back on their experience.

"It goes in waves," he says. "I get angry and then I get sad, and then it feels personal, like it was a personal attack. And then you feel guilty because other people were injured. Then I feel like I put my wife in danger."

They've heard fellow runners talk about being in Boston again next year, about not giving into fear. They haven't decided how to feel about that, yet.

krector@baltsun.com

ywenger@baltsun.com

cwells@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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