About an hour before the start of Monday’s Boston Marathon, the 27,000 runners were asked to participate in a moment of silence to honor the victims in the Sandy Hook shootings.
Dr. Sam Wittenberg turned to his friend Jim Duffy and said, “I guess we’re still in civilization.”
About four hours later, they weren’t so sure.
“There was a big boom and oh, my Lord,” said Duffy, associate vice president for academic affairs at Old Dominion University. “And then all you could hear was sirens, all kinds of public safety folks in every which way.”
The two Virginia Beach runners had finished the marathon and were waiting in line for their gear when the explosions occurred.
Wittenberg, a 60-year-old family practitioner for the Sentara Medical Group, knew people would need help, but he also knew the event was heavily staffed with medical personnel.
“I’ve been on the medical staff for some running events,” Wittenberg said. “I knew that in a situation like this, me going back and trying to help would have created more trouble.
“The finish line area was well equipped for this. Not prepared, but equipped.”
Two bombs exploded on the streets near the finish line of the marathon. Blood stained the streets and shattered glass covered the ground as emergency personnel worked to help the injured.
At least 45 runners from South Hampton Roads participated in the marathon. Three were part of Team Hoyt, a national organization that helps disabled people run races. Michael Davis, who is blind, Dennis Welch and David Mick were about half a mile from the finish line when Mick and Welch saw runners up ahead turning around. Welch said the group asked a police officer what had happened.
When they learned of the explosions, they turned around and headed for their hotel, about half a mile away. Davis’s wife and mother had been at the finish line, so the group was worried about them. But both were safe, Welch said.
Wittenberg worried, too, about his friends as he retrieved his gear. He called his wife, who had left several messages for him, then set about the task of reaching as many Hampton Roads runners as he could.
“Many of us finished just before it happened and some people were either redirected or stopped running when the race was shut down,” he said.
One of those runners was Valerie Brandt, 31, of Virginia Beach.
“I was walking back from the finish line when I heard the explosion,” she said. “It was pretty terrifying.”
Brandt intially thought the explosion was in a building. When she learned it was outside near the finish line, she and her mother ran back to their hotel.
“You could see all the ambulances going,” Brandt said.
Sophie Wolfe, 20, of Virginia Beach, finished in 3:52.17, about 8 minutes before the first explosion. When she heard that one, she went to find her boyfriend, who was waiting near the finish line.
The two of them quickly united, then went looking for Wolfe's parents, who had cheered Sophie on about a mile from the finish.
"It was just chaos," Sophie said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Sophie's father, David Wolfe, said he's worked in the violence-torn nation of Israel. But he also said he's never seen anything like what he saw Monday.
Wolfe and his wife, Helen, started walking toward the finish when Sophie passed the final mile marker. He said they fortunately took a wrong turn, then saw the first explosion in front of them. Still, they plowed forward to find Sophie. Then the second explosion hit.
"It was right in front of us," David Wolfe said. "My wife said it was like a (Sept. 11, 2001) puff of smoke up in the air."
The Wolfes soon reunited and escaped the scene safely. Wittenberg said he thought most of the local runners were physically uninjured. “But I know that all of us will be emotionally affected.”
Wittenberg was competing in his eighth marathon and second Boston. He said Monday’s bombings won’t deter him from future runs.
“All sorts of lunacy goes through your head with something like this,” Wittenberg said. “I’m not fearful. Just really disappointed. I have so much regret for the people who were injured or killed.
“Jim and I heard the explosions and saw the smoke and just hoped that it was something where nobody got hurt. This is such a sickening feeling.”
Virginian-Pilot reporters Ed Miller, David Schleck, Stacy Parker, Elisabeth Hulette and Mike Connors contributed to this report.