Runners, social media bring tales of explosions home to bay area

People react to an explosion at the 2013 Boston Marathon on Monday. Several people from the Tampa Bay area were in Boston for the race.
People react to an explosion at the 2013 Boston Marathon on Monday. Several people from the Tampa Bay area were in Boston for the race.
Published April 16, 2013

St. Petersburg firefighter and paramedic Jim Cunningham went to Boston to watch his wife, Mary, compete in the marathon Monday.

When the first blast hit, he was walking with his 13-year-old daughter, Annie, about a block from the finish line.

"It sounded like a transformer going off," said Cunningham, 48. "I pushed my daughter into the doorway of a hotel and just waited there for a few seconds. Then right around the corner, about 20 yards away, the second bomb went off."

He heard glass flying through the air and people screaming.

"I could feel the concussion, but the building shielded us from the brunt of the blast," he said. "If we had kept going, we would have walked right into it."

His wife still miles off, Cunningham made sure his daughter was safe, then began helping the wounded. One man had lost his hand, another had lost a leg.

"I did what I could to stop the bleeding," he said.

Within minutes, police and rescue personnel arrived. "I turned it over to the professionals on the job, and then went back to check on Annie."

• • •

It was Boston Marathon No. 7 for Millie Hamilton, 69.

The Redington Beach woman was at mile marker 25.5 when she saw a mass of spectators racing toward the runners. "I thought this was very, very peculiar," she said. When everyone stopped, she heard talk of a "terrorist attack" at the finish line.

"That is where my husband always meets me," she said. "It was a horrible feeling."

Was Walter okay? She didn't know, at first.

The retired surgeon had every intention of meeting his wife at the finish line. He had staked out a spot while chatting with a stranger earlier. People had set up lawn chairs six rows deep to watch the finish.

But something called Walter's name. In a shop window, he spotted a wine cork with a cue ball on top. He went in to buy it, delaying his walk to the finish line just enough so that he wasn't there when the blast blew through the lot with the lawn chairs.

"I heard a loud boom," he said. "I couldn't tell anything about what it was. I then realized something went wrong when people were running inside."

Close to an hour passed before Millie made it back to the Fairmont Hotel, about a block from the finish line.

After she got there, police locked down the building.

"It's a war zone," she said, looking out her fifth-floor window. "Nobody is on the streets. It's all police and SWAT officers walking around. It is a ghost town. It's such an awful feeling. It's eerie."

• • •

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell was running the marathon for the 16th time when she heard something that sounded like a transformer.

She thought nothing of it. But as she got closer, police stopped the runners.

"They said that there was an explosion and that we had to stop," she said.

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Only a day before, she realized, she was sitting in the same stands at the finish line watching a friend complete a 5K race.

• • •

With cellphones jammed and voice calls thwarted, Florida families turned to text messages and social media to learn about the safety of runners.

Restaurateur Richard Gonzmart of Tampa worried about the fate of his brother, Casey, and sister-in-law, Heidi, both in Boston for the marathon. Midafternoon, he got a photo emailed from Casey. Richard tried calling but couldn't get through.

"Please say a prayer for Boston," Richard posted on Facebook. "My brother sent me this photo 30 minutes ago from a building 2 blocks away from finish. It looks a lot like the building that had the bomb. Prayers needed."

It was like that for many people until runners broke through the communication logjam.

Finally, at 3:34 p.m., Casey sent Richard a text message. "Phones all out," Casey wrote. "Heidi okay."

Staff writers Jimmy Geurts, Curtis Krueger, Mark Puente, Patty Ryan, Jamal Thalji, Terry Tomalin and news researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.