Boston Marathon bombing victim Brannock walks again

Towson-area preschool teacher has 'dark days' but focuses on gratitude

November 09, 2013|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Erika Brannock slides to the edge of her wheelchair.

She looks down at a pair of carefully selected gray New Balance athletic shoes. And stands.

Her thigh slides deeper into a flexible plastic socket as she shifts her weight from her right leg to a new prosthetic limb.

The bone where her left leg was amputated above the knee sends a sharp, shooting pain, and she starts to cry. Not because it hurts. Because she is about to walk again.

"It's been a long time," she says to her mother, Carol Downing, among those watching at an orthotics and prosthetics supplier in Linthicum.

One hundred and seventy-three days, to be exact. Almost six months since the homemade bombs filled with nails, shards of metal and pellets exploded into crowds of spectators near the Boston Marathon finish line.

On a cool and clear Monday in April, Brannock, a teacher at a Towson preschool, was preparing to watch her mother finish the marathon. She wanted to wait some distance from the blue-and-yellow finish line painted across Boylston Street so she could give her mother a hug, a boost for the final, grueling yards of the 26.2-mile race.

But her older sister, Nicole Gross — wanted to watch from another spot. So the women, along with Gross' husband, Michael, ended up in front of a LensCrafters store, near a row of flags representing nations from around the world.

"I started crying — for some reason I was just crying — that we had moved," Brannock, 29, recalls. Her sister "could tell that I was upset, so she just rubbed my back and said, 'It's going to be OK.'

"Instantly after that, the bomb went off."

Brannock saw flashes of light and started falling as a column of fire shot into the sky and a thick gray cloud of smoke rose above the street. She blacked out. After regaining consciousness, she tried to move her left leg but couldn't. She reached down. Her hand was covered in blood.

All around Brannock, the sidewalk was coated in bright red blood and her family's possessions were strewn about: a Philadelphia Marathon bag filled with their phone chargers, a couple of cowbells and Downing's change of clothes.

Just inches away was Jeff Bauman, whose legs were so severely injured that both were amputated above the knee. Bauman — captured in a memorable Associated Press photograph being pushed in a wheelchair alongside a man wearing a cowboy hat — would later help the FBI identify Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his late brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as the bombing suspects.

Nicole Gross, who was blown away from her sister by the force of the blast, sat dazed on the sidewalk, her red shirt and black pants shredded by the explosion. She had broken bones, a nearly severed Achilles tendon and damage to critical blood vessels. She opened her month to scream for her husband but couldn't manage a sound.

Michael Gross, with lacerations and burns, searched in the chaos for Brannock and his wife. He had stepped back from them before the blast to find a perfect spot to snap a picture of Downing finishing the race and was spared more serious injuries.

Brannock said she closed her eyes and tried to speak to God: " 'I am not ready to go yet. You're not taking me.' "

And in that moment, a woman, Amanda North, grabbed her hand. They both held on. The woman screamed for help.

North, of Woodside, Calif., had been waiting for her daughter to finish the race. In the aftermath of the explosions — another bomb went off farther down Boylston Street she asked Brannock to look into her eyes, to stay calm. North put out the burning embers on her jacket and wrapped it around Brannock. At the suggestion of a man nearby, she gave her belt to an emergency medical technician to use as a tourniquet on Brannock's leg.

"Every fiber of my being was connected to her," recalls North, who suffered a gash on her leg and burns. "I never felt anything. I didn't know I was injured."

Within minutes, Brannock was rushed by ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which was setting up a command center to handle the mass casualties.

She had lost so much blood, her body went into shock and she needed to be resuscitated inside an elevator on the way to an operating room.

"I, without a doubt, believe that [North] was my angel, and she still is," Brannock says. Tears, as they often do, spill from her green-blue eyes. "Right before she had come over and grabbed my hand, I closed my eyes and I could feel myself slipping away."

The next day, as armed guards stood watch over the front doors of the medical center, Downing — still wearing black running shorts and a fleece that she had borrowed — kept vigil at Brannock's bedside while taking breaks to visit her other daughter at another hospital in the city.

Outside the intensive-care unit, family and friends of other bombing victims crowded together on a series of padded blue benches lined along a sunny hallway.

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