BOSTON — Monday was supposed to be Carol Downing’s great day.
She was running in her first Boston Marathon and it was going to be a family affair. She has two daughters who are so proud of their mom that they came to cheer her across the finish line.
Nicole Gross, 31, is a fitness instructor in Charlotte and had coached her mother for marathons.
Erika Brannock, 29, is a beloved and outgoing preschool teacher in suburban Baltimore.
Carol Downing’s great day collapsed four hours into the race. She learned of the bombings and could not make contact with her daughters. It would take hours before she found them – in separate hospitals, both maimed.
Nicole: Two breaks in her left leg, an ankle fracture in her right, her skin torn, Achilles’ tendon severed.
Erika: Her left leg amputated below the knee, compound fracture in the right, a broken ankle. Bones in her right foot are broken.
Erika was heavily sedated Tuesday, unable to speak, but she could squeeze her mother’s hand.
Nicole emerged from a follow-up surgery Tuesday in stable condition.
“She remembers it all,” her mother said, “and just wishes that she didn’t.”
Downing was four hours into her run and just a few blocks from finishing the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon – one of the most prestigious races in the world – when suddenly the runners were stopped.
“First thing we heard was that there was an explosion, like kind of an electrical thing. And then we heard that it was two explosions. And then there was just a lot of medical personnel, cars, sirens.”
She texted Nicole and Erika. No response. She texted Nicole’s husband, Michael Gross, who was waiting at the finish line with them. No reply.
Fear rising, she finally got a text from Michael. “Are you OK?” it said.
He texted that he was in the medical tent. Then, minutes later, that he and Nicole were being taken to the hospital. They had lost track of Erika.
Downing made her way through the chaos of Boston to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is about two miles from the finish line. Nicole was being stabilized. Michael was treated for cuts and burns.
It was more than five hours after the explosion, and no one knew Erika’s fate.
“Two DEA officers came and they interviewed me,” Downing said. Then took her to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a few blocks away. There she found Erika, heavily sedated, recovering from initial surgery.
Erika Brannock teaches 2-year-olds at Trinity Episcopal Children’s Center in Towson, Md., where school officials were expecting heavy turnout for a vigil for her on Thursday night.
‘What ifs’ settle in
In Charlotte, friends of Nicole Gross were stunned by the news.
“I’m devastated,” said Kelly Fillnow, herself a professional triathlete. “But I know she is so strong physically and mentally and that she will be able to get through this.”
Fillnow, 30, of Charlotte, said that Nicole qualified for and competed in 2009 in the Kona Ironman, held in Hawaii and considered among the world’s most challenging one-day endurance events.
Nicole had told her about watching her mom run in the Boston Marathon. “She was very giddy about being able to go and watch.”
Charlotte attorney Chad Crockford, who along with his wife was among the marathon finishers who were clear of the area when the blast went off, knew Nicole and Michael Gross through triathlon training.
“She was so excited about going to cheer for someone else,” he said. He knew that she was in training for the April 27 amateur bodybuilding and fitness event sponsored by the National Physique Committee at the Blake hotel, but was more excited about her mother’s upcoming feat.
Downing isn’t sure when her daughters will be discharged.
She talked of how her great day had gone so terribly wrong, but also how her daughters had made her strong.
She said she intends to hold it together.
“I have to do it for them, and I think I’m in shock. ... I’ll fall apart later.”