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Marylanders recall terror after Boston Marathon explosions

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Kathryn Ledwell turned at the boom and stared, confused in her fatigue by the plume of smoke rising behind her, the screams and the crowd — not just her fellow athletes but everyone — running in different directions.

Then the second explosion occurred, not too much farther down the Boston Marathon course, and Ledwell, a 22-year-old Charles Village resident and Johns Hopkins University senior, knew something was wrong.

"Honestly, the fact that I just completed a marathon was immediately gone from my mind. I didn't even think about it," Ledwell said. "My body obviously could tell, but that wasn't what was going through my mind at all. My immediate fear was that there were going to be more [explosions], and that they would be coming toward me."

Ledwell tried to start running again, away from the flames and shrieks, but struggled to muster the strength.

Throughout Maryland, participants in the famous New England marathon — which turned deadly when two separate explosions rocked the course near its finish line Monday afternoon — continued to reflect Tuesday on the terror they'd witnessed.

Three people were killed and more than 170 were injured in the dual bombings. Lost limbs and other gruesome injuries were reported from shrapnel and small metal debris. Nearly 450 Marylanders were in the race, and many others there to support them.

Ledwell, a native of Prince Edward's Island in Canada, is a piano performance major at Johns Hopkins who also works at the Music Entrepreneurship & Career Center at the Peabody Institute. She was running her first marathon Monday, raising money for the charity Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that has chapters in Baltimore and Boston and pairs volunteers with homeless people for running and exercise partnerships.

Friends and family members who had supported her in her fundraising efforts were tracking her progress in the race online, she said. When the bombs exploded, they knew she was right near the finish line.

"They knew my projected finish time was right around when the bombs went off, but the cell service went down, so they were all freaking out," she said.

Ledwell moved away from the explosions, through a water area and toward a zone for race finishers to meet their family members.

"It took a long time to get there, just because there were people running and screaming everywhere, people crying," she said.

As the chaos began to sink in, Ledwell said she began to realize how fortunate she had been.

"I'm really lucky to be able to finish when I did," she said. "If I'd even stopped to go to the bathroom or tie my shoelace, I wouldn't have made it."

Eventually Ledwell reached her parents by phone and found her friend and fellow runner, Charlotte Healy, 23, whose family is from Towson and who graduated from JHU last year. Together, they met Healy's parents and left the city. They all flew back to Baltimore Monday night.

Others at the race from Maryland were not as lucky. Erika Brannock, an Ellicott City native and Towson preschool teacher, and her sister Nicole Gross and brother-in-law Michael Gross, were all in Boston-area hospitals after sustaining serious injuries in the blasts.

Many Marylanders participating in the race had reached out on social media websites shortly after the explosions, at times through friends and loved ones, to let people know they had survived the carnage.

Caitlin Houston, 27, a Catonsville resident and a teacher at Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School in Baltimore, wrote a long blog post Tuesday titled "Angels Were Protecting Us," about traveling to Boston and waiting near the finish line for her friend, Melissa Blasczyk, to arrive. Blasczyk's boyfriend, Andrew Ruggiero, had planned an elaborate marriage proposal, complete with a local news crew on hand.

When the explosions occurred, everything was thrown into chaos, Houston said. None in their group — including Blasczyk's and Ruggiero's parents and Houston's mother — were injured, but they weren't sure about Blasczyk. All they knew was that she'd been nearing the finish line when the explosions occurred.

It turned out that Blasczyk had been turned back about a half-mile from the finish line, then spent more than an hour trying to reunite with her family.

The entire group ended up meeting back at her apartment, where Ruggiero went through with the proposal — a moment of happiness in an otherwise tragic and terrifying day, Houston said.

"All we kept thinking was she was right there, thank God she had slowed down a half-mile away," Houston said.

The Rev. Alistair So, rector of the All Hallows Episcopal Church in Edgewater, posted on the church's Facebook page Monday about the church's curate, the Rev. Meredith Kefauver Olsen, who was near the finish line at the time of the blasts.

"She was just getting her Mylar blanket at the finish line when the explosions went off," So wrote. "She found the whole family and they are now at her parents' hotel."

"It is absolute chaos here and very scary!" So said Olsen told him.

Bob Reid, president of the Mid Maryland Triathlon Club, said members of the group running in the marathon used social media websites as well as a group email listserv to communicate with one another after the bombings, in part because cell phone service was "overwhelmed."

One member, Lisa Farias, of Catonsville, posted her own harrowing account on Facebook, of being in a medical tent near the finish line when victims of the bombings were brought in:

"Thank you everyone for all your concerns and prayers such a terrible event at Boston today. I was in the medical tent directly across from the explosion. It's shook all the beds and we had the look of confusion on our faces. They immediately rushed in those injured and I have never seen anything like it except on TV. I broke down in tears and gave up my bed to those in need. I salute all the medical staff on board and how they can stomach it. My heart breaks for all the families."

Farias declined through club officials to speak directly with a reporter.

Another club runner, Mark Yost, of Bethesda, had finished the race under 3 hours, one of his best times, Reid said.

"His joy of this accomplishment was tarnished by the later events," Reid said. "It was a sad day for all of us."

Dale Hunsinger, principal of Homestead Wakefield Elementary School in Harford County, said that mentor teacher Erin Schisler ran in the race as well.

"I heard from Erin late yesterday afternoon and she said they were all safe," Hunsinger said Tuesday.

Dr. Wade Gaasch, the Baltimore Fire Department's EMS medical director and a University of Maryland Medical Center emergency doctor for more than 20 years, said he had just finished the race — his 13th Boston Marathon in a row — minutes before the explosions took place.

He walked a few blocks to an area where runners could collect their gear, then headed back up the street toward his hotel, he said. When the bombs went off, he saw a "plume of smoke" a block or two away and heard a boom that sounded familiar.

"You could feel it at that point, and I went, 'Wow, that's strange.' That sounded an awful lot like a starter cannon that they use at the start of races, but this was in the middle of the race," Gaasch said.

When he heard the second explosion, Gaasch, 58, said he "knew it was bad, and [had] a gut feeling what it was."

He tried to make his way to where he'd seen the cloud rise, but police blocked off the area. With no identification proving he was a doctor and a public safety official familiar with emergency and mass casualty drills from years of practice in Baltimore, he couldn't get through.

Instead, he was directed away from the scene like other bystanders and uninjured racers, he said.

Gaasch said attacks in today's modern world are inevitable. But the events in Boston, as tragic as they are, will help Baltimore and other big cities prepare even more thoroughly for future events, he said.

And he doesn't plan on letting the attack prevent him from attending such events, especially the Boston Marathon.

"I'm going to work harder than ever to be back there next year," he said, to "show whoever did this that they're not going to change what we do."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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