Dozens of W.Pa. runners, spectators among those at Boston Marathon

| Monday, April 15, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

Ben Gross crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon and was grabbing a beer nearby when he heard what sounded like gunshots.

Kristy Brown missed the blasts by about 20 minutes and learned what happened from large TVs in the hotel lobby.

Eric Laughlin was at the finish line waiting for two fellow runners when he felt it.

“I had my back to (the explosions) and heard a boom and heard another boom,” said Laughlin, 43, a member of the Pittsburgh Hounds running club from Wintersville, Ohio. “I was dazed and in shock. Everybody started running, and there was a lot of smoke and fire.”

“The day went from celebratory to somber instantly,” said Gross, 44, of Rosslyn Farms, an attorney who posted a finish time of three hours and 11 minutes.

They were among dozens of Western Pennsylvanians who had close encounters on Monday with the devastation in Boston. Some described confusion, fear and searches for loved ones.

“You could feel it; you could hear it,” said Lauren Frick, 31, of Medford, Mass. She grew up in North Huntingdon and was a few blocks away, minutes after finishing the race. “Immediately, there was a large cloud of smoke. … The race officials said nothing other than ‘please keep moving this way.' You could see a look of panic in their eyes.”

Frick's mother, Grace Frick, was a few blocks away looking for her daughter. She, too, described feeling shock waves from the explosions and watching a blast of smoke climb 40 feet into the air. Her grandson, 7 months, burst into tears from the loud crack, she said.

“It was a relief when we found (Lauren),” said Grace Frick, a copy editor for Trib Total Media.

Gross was waiting to hear from his uncle, Ed Donahue, 74, who hadn't crossed the finish line. Moira Davenport, 41, of Shadyside, another Pittsburgh Hounds member who was evacuated from a subway car, said that when she retrieved her phone, there were 60 text messages, and her email box was full.

“I have run this marathon several times, and there was something odd this morning. For the first time ever, they had security dressed in black with bomb-sniffing dogs at all of the corrals where the runners come through,” Gross said.

Police filled the streets afterward.

“All you can hear is fire trucks, ambulance and police cars' sirens. So surreal,” said runner Roberta Groner, 35, of Irwin, who crossed the finish line a few hours before.

Brown, 34, of the Strip District described three waves of emergency vehicles passing.

“We got to the hotel and high-tailed it out of there,” said Brown, who finally qualified for the race after 13 attempts. Before the race, Brown's biggest concerns were blisters and finishing. Now she says she might avoid big races.

“It's unbelievable. Everybody was having an incredible time celebrating after the finish. It went from that to an indescribable swing of emotions,” said Vince Chavanon, 26, a University of Pittsburgh medical student who finished his first Boston marathon more than an hour before the blasts.

Police stopped Caroline Paul and thousands of other runners about a half-mile from the finish line, said Paul, 24, of New York. She was running the race with her father, John Paul, 58, of Edgeworth, who had to drop out after 10 miles because of an injury. If she hadn't stopped to tie her shoes and get water a few minutes earlier, she might have been next to the explosions, she said.

The explosions occurred when the third wave of runners, comprised partly of people who raised money for charities, was reaching the finish line, Caroline Paul said. She and her father, running in their third Boston Marathon, raised money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Police those in the front of the cluster heard .about the explosion and word “passed like wildfire” to those at the back, Caroline Paul said. During the 40 or so minutes they were stopped there, she said, people who lived and worked nearby came to the runners with cases of bottled water, food from their homes and trash bags to substitute the mylar blankets handed out at the end of races to keep runners warm.

Caroline Paul said she had been considering skipping the next Boston marathon, but “there is no way that I'm not running it next year.

“This now means so much more to me. The bib I have from this race will be more cherished to me than the one I had from my first race,” Caroline Paul said. “It will be a very emotional run for a lot of people, but there's no way that I would ever stop doing it now.”

David Spell, 34, of Jefferson Hills was almost on a light-rail car a mile away about an hour after finishing.

“The police just started freaking out,” said Spell, who was with several members of the Steel City Road Runners. Officers at the rail station told the crowd, “There's explosions in town” and public transportation was “closed indefinitely.”

“This is going to change the future of running events,” said Francesco Memoli, 40, an Italy native living in Squirrel Hill who crossed the finish line an hour before the blasts. “It is outrageously horrific. I have no more words.”

Dennis Pagel's phone rang as he watched his three grandchildren in Ross. Calling was his daughter Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan, 37, of Ross, who accompanied her husband, Edward Hogan, 37, to Boston to cheer him on in the marathon.

“She said, ‘We're OK,' and it didn't surprise me,” Pagel said, noting his son-in-law is an accomplished marathoner.

“Then she said, ‘No, we're OK from the explosions.' I had no idea what she was talking about,” Pagel said.

Pagel-Hogan said she and her husband ate at an Irish pub at the finish line the day before the race.

“Typically, access to the area around a finish line is closed off before a race, but (in Boston) anyone could walk into the area,” Pagel-Hogan said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Salena Zito, Chris Togneri, Jerry DiPaola, Mike Wereschagin, Bob Cohn, Kari Andren, Andrew Conte and Tom Fontaine contributed to this report.

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