Linda Claire Willits crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon in a time of 3 hours and 34 minutes, setting a personal best in her 29th marathon.
No matter how many races one runs, there's nothing like that euphoric moment of pushing through the pain to complete 26.2 miles. Willits soaked in the atmosphere along Boylston Street. People lining the road cleared a path when they saw she was a runner. They congratulated her and made her feel like a celebrity.
She texted a friend waiting down the street at the bar at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. "I'm on my way," Willits said.
Her friend, Stephanie Douglas, prepared to celebrate.
Then, a small explosion went off, followed seconds later by a thunderous boom that tore through the area.
"It was so strong the bar filled up with smoke and chairs tipped over," Douglas said. "I saw people -- it was like they were on a trampoline literally flying through the air."
Bedlam ensued. Smoke poured into the bar. People began shouting that another bomb had been found, and everyone scrambled to escape.
Outside, one man's legs were blown off, and he kept trying to stand up.
Douglas fled, unable to contact Willits. Panic for her friend sunk in.
Rushing to the scene
Boston.com sports producer Steve Silva was covering the much-heralded Boston Marathon. He was shooting what should have been joyous finish-line scenes when in a few seconds, everything changed. His camera kept rolling amid screams of shock and horror.
"It was just immediately (evident) there were injuries, right in the middle of the spectator crowds. I saw dismemberment, I saw blood everywhere," Silva said.
"I saw someone lose their leg, people are crying, people are confused."
Rescuers rushed to the victims with stretchers and wheelchairs. Ambulances quickly lined up for blocks and blocks. In between the screams of pain and panic were phone calls. "Mom, I'm safe."
They were words Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker heard many times as he kept passing people on the scene. He posted what he heard and saw on Twitter: "Finish line volunteers told to run. Describe fear 'like 9/11 or the tsunami.'"
He described a nervous calm energy as people either tried to figure out what was happening or had no idea where to go.
Then his tweets got considerably more grim:
"Now getting gruesome first-hand accounts of hair on fire, severed limbs, battlefield scene in front of Charlesmark Hotel."
Confusion. Bewilderment. Rumors everywhere.
"It's not safe to be here," said a Boston police officer evacuating Commonwealth Avenue, Baker reported.
Jim Bardin works in an office building between the locations of the two blasts.
"I heard the first blast and it shook the building a bit, and went to see what was going on and the second one went off a couple of seconds after," Bardin said.
What he saw from above was harrowing.
"People were pretty panicked down there -- the crowd was trying to get away as fast as possible. From up above, it looked like mayhem."
Will Ritter was about a block away, near Copley Square. He was trying to arrange a press conference for a runner who had just finished the race.