By EDMUND H. MAHONY, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
11:17 PM EDT, April 15, 2013
Tammy Hughes, a runner from Darien, had just crossed the finish line and was glancing back over her shoulder to check on her husband Danny's progress when she was knocked back by the blast of the first explosion Monday at the Boston Marathon.
"It was deafening," Hughes, 43, said. "I jumped out of my skin like everyone around me. I thought, 'Was that a bomb?' I didn't know what to think. Five seconds later, the second went off. Then I knew."
Thick brown smoke choked Boylston Street as race officials prodded bone-weary runners away from finish line area as fast as they could move, Hughes said.
One of those officials was race volunteer Evan Gilchrist of West Hartford. A longtime marathon volunteer, he said the explosive blast of the first bomb sounded like a cannon shot, and when he turned in the direction of the sound, he saw flames shooting across Boylston Street. The area was crowded with tired runners and shocked spectators who had been watching the finish from a VIP grandstand.
Glilchrist and fellow volunteer Andy Bassock, also of West Hartford, had been assigned to the VIP security detail and were 200 feet from the first explosion.
"I saw white smoke come billowing up, and before you realized what was going on, the next explosion happened and people started running all over the place leaving stuff behind,'' Bassock said.
He said he was lifting spectators off the grandstand, helping them retrieve dropped cellphones and purses when a police officer raced toward him, warning him and Gilchrist to leave the area.
"The cop said, 'We think there are more bombs. You need to get out of here right now,''' Bassock said.
The two volunteers said emergency response personnel were carting what appeared to be terribly injured blast victims away from the blast zone in wheel chairs that had been stored at the finish line for exhausted runners.
"They just started grabbing wheelchairs and bringing them over to where the bomb had gone off, and then they were wheeling people by me who were missing legs or were covered in blood,'' Gilchrist said.
Both men said one of the bombs detonated in front of the Atlantic Fish Company. By late Monday, three people had died and more than 100 were injured. It was not clear if any of the injured or dead were from Connecticut.
While security on the grandstand side was tight — bags were checked and passes and identification were needed to get into the VIP section — people were free to move as they pleased in the area where the first bomb exploded, they said.
"It was clearly timed to happen when the maximum number of people were there,'' Bassock said. "It was the height of the marathon, when most of the regular runners would be coming in and people would be at the finish line waiting for them."
After looking back and not spotting her husband, Hughes said she followed the instruction to flee the area.
"It got pretty chaotic," she said. "I didn't know if he was two minutes behind me or 20 minutes,"
She telephoned a friend who was watching her 4- and 8-year olds elsewhere along the course and told them stay away from the finish line area. She then headed toward her hotel, although she was uncertain what she would find.
"I was scared to go into the hotel because I didn't know what they were targeting," Hughes said.
She said she found her husband at the hotel half an hour later.
The couple works in lower Manhattan and both have vivid recollections of the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.
"It's been 11 years," Hughes said. "That was such a scary thing. I felt that it had subsided a bit until today."
Also crowded into the finish line area were Kevin Fisher and Jessica Retrum, two college students from West Hartford. The bomb blasts erupted on either side of them.
"Everybody was cheering," said Fisher, who attends Union College and was visiting Retrum at Northeastern. "At first we heard this explosion like a cannon. All we saw was a lot of smoke. I saw a bunch of people starting to freak out. I grabbed Jessica and we started running. The first bomb was right in front of a restaurant."
"At first nobody knew what happened," Fisher said. "There was a lot of smoke. Even the runners were still running. When the second one exploded, there was chaos. The glass was all around us. I was about 30 yards from the biggest blast. It was loud. My friends saw people without legs and arms.''
Fisher said the crowd had begun running en masse toward the Prudential Center when it occurred to him that it could be a third target.
"I'm very shaken," he said.
Eric Opdyke, of Norwalk, had been across the finish line for about two minutes when the first bomb went off.
"I had just finished and was getting a water bottle," Opdyke, 41, said. "My back was to it when I heard the explosion. It was just a big explosion. I didn't know what it was. If I was a little slower, I would have been right there when it happened."
"People started to scatter everywhere," he said. "All of a sudden, there were sirens, they were blocking off intersections."
Opdyke said he worked his way back to his hotel, about two blocks away, and was locked in by the police with all the other guests.
Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 race and a marathon fixture since, was running with friends and was about a half mile from finishing when he noticed what looked like a milling crowd ahead of him.
"I thought it was drunken college students at first," Burfoot said. "As I got closer I realized it was runners with nowhere left to run."
Just then, Burfoot said his wife called on his cellphone and reported that the finish line had been closed. He said he turned around and left for his hotel.
About 25 runners from the Hartford Track Club ran the marathon. One was injured in the blast.
"One of our runners came in and he had been hit by shrapnel, because he finished just as the explosions themselves went off," said Kelly Gallagher, the club's treasurer. "Two of our runners were unaccounted for, so we went through an hour and a half to track them down."
Robert Niedbala, 65, of Norwich was running his 20th Boston Marathon, but for the first time, he was running unofficially because of a hamstring injury he suffered while training. He thinks the injury may have slowed him enough to have saved his life.
Niedbala said the injury knocked him out of the race at mile 17, and he learned of the explosion on his car radio while driving home.
If he had crossed the finish line in his customary time, Niedbala said, he would have been there when the bombs went off.
"My hamstring, in a way, saved me," he said.
Back in Norwich Monday evening, he said he and his wife were on their way to St. Patrick's Cathedral in that town.
"We're just going to pray for the people who died and who were injured," he said. "I fear for public events in the future," he said.
He said his wife is normally standing in a crowd 5-6 people deep near the finish line -- but didn't go this year.
"They picked the time where the maximum number of people really cross," he said. "Somebody timed it. They knew."
Lisa Abrams of Newtown got a call from her husband around 5:30 p.m. as he hunkered down in a church near Boston College. Thomas Abrams, 58, was uninjured by the blast and apparently was still running when it happened.
"My sister texted me when it first happened, and I was on a call for business actually," Lisa Abrams said, adding later, "Somebody texted me from him … they were near him he asked them to text me to tell me he was OK."
He was among those who had green T-shirts to represent the Newtown Strong Scholarship Fund, one of the organizations raising money since the Dec. 14 school shooting. The 26-mile marker featured a Newtown logo to honor the 26 victims.
The Newtown Strong runners were split up at the start of the race based on their previous running times in order to be grouped with similarly athletic runners, Lisa Abrams said. Thomas left some of his belongings on the bus, and he was unable to get back to the start of the race to retrieve them because emergency officials shut down traffic and transportation.
When her husband learned about the blast, he got on a bus, but then transportation was shut down in Boston. He ended up hunkered in a church, borrowing a phone from a stranger to call his wife. His phone and other belongings are at the start of the race on a bus.
"He's trying to get the heck out of there and trying to get home, but he doesn't know if he's going to get his license and everything is there [on the bus]," Lisa said around 5:30 p.m. Monday, explaining she is sick and wasn't able to go to the race.
"He just wants to get out of there tonight, and he doesn't know when he's going to be able to get his stuff," Lisa said.
Courant staff writers Ken Gosselin, Dave Altimari, Denise Buffa, David Owens, Matthew Sturdevant, Vanessa de la Torre, Jeff Jacobs, Lori Riley, Jenny Wilson, Shawn Beals, Matt Conyers and Amanda Falcone and Fox 61 reporter Beau Berman contributed to this story.
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