TAMPA — Bruce Shephard was blocks away from reaching the finish line when the first explosion rattled the streets.
Plumes of smoke enveloped the race. Runners sprinted away from the finish line and sought safety.
"Just unimaginable," Shephard said. "It sounded like a gigantic cannon."
Shephard was among the local runners who arrived at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, a day after two explosions at the Boston Marathon killed three people — including an 8-year-old boy — and injured nearly 200 others.
The runners returned not with medals dangling from their necks, but with troubling recollections of a race that ended in tragedy.
Shephard, of Carrollwood Village, exited the JetBlue airplane at Terminal A wearing the same running shoes he wore while seeking refuge in Boston after the blasts.
He ran a few blocks away and entered a Courtyard Marriott, where he was given a blanket and some water. He wasn't in Boston alone. His girlfriend of 12 years, Coleen Christensen, traveled with him to cheer him on.
But the finish line was crowded. She headed back to their hotel to watch from their room's window. Once in the elevator, the first explosion erupted. She walked into their room, peered through the window and saw the second blast.
"I don't know how somebody could do this," she said through tears at the airport Tuesday. "I just really don't."
For hours, the couple was separated. Shephard didn't have his cell phone. He borrowed a stranger's and made contact with Christensen. They eventually reunited outside their hotel.
Also on Shephard's flight was Tony Black of Tampa. Monday was his ninth time attending the Boston Marathon.
"It's the very last thing you would expect to see at an event which is just pure and fun and great," Black said. "It's just really a shame."
He didn't see the explosions, but once Black reached his hotel room he received several text messages and emails from loved ones, asking if he was okay.
First, he thought they were making sure he finished the race. But the messages "had enough of a tenor of trouble that I turned on the TV and saw that there had been an explosion."
On Tuesday morning as Black headed to Boston's Logan International Airport, the city was quiet.
Runners typically wear their marathon medals on the way home. But on Tuesday, none did, Black said.
"For people to run the Boston Marathon, it's a lifetime achievement for most runners," Black said, adding that runners must qualify to participate in the 26.2-mile race. "To be within steps of finishing the race and have something like that happen, it's unthinkable."
At the airport, Shephard's eyes glazed as he recalled the chaos: the officers carrying sniper-like weapons. The ambulances. The police presence at Boston's airport.
But despite the attack, Shephard said he will attend next year's Boston Marathon. He already qualified, he said.
"Runners will not shy away from the Boston Marathon because of this."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3386.