Donnie Rhodes of Altoona was within blocks of the finish line Monday - his girlfriend, Jayme Orr, having completed the Boston Marathon some 30 minutes earlier - when "an explosion louder than a cannon" rocked the streets.
Police went running, Rhodes said, as he and friend Dima Kunstbeck, 16, searched for companions who'd run the 26.2-mile race. Dima Kunstbeck's mother, Hollidaysburg Area YMCA Wellness Center Director Tina Kunstbeck, and Orr had finished within minutes of each other Monday afternoon.
"Dima thought it was lightning. Someone said it sounded like the bleachers had collapsed." Rhodes said. "It was a good 10 minutes before someone said the 'b' word" - bomb.
Photos by The Associated Press/Kenshin Okubo
People flee after one of two explosions Monday during the Boston Marathon. At least three people died in the explosions.
Several runners from Altoona and the surrounding area were near Boston's Copley Square, where a pair of explosions killed three near the finish line.
Authorities have since described the blasts as part of an orchestrated attack.
With emergency responders rushing to the scene and spectators still uncertain what had happened, Rhodes and Dima Kunstbeck searched for their companions over what Rhodes called "10, 15 high-anxiety minutes."
The group reunited soon after, but the attack had left public transportation jammed and taxis all but unavailable.
"There were cops on the metro saying there have been two explosions and that we don't want to take the metro," Tina Kunstbeck said in a telephone interview.
So, with their hotel miles away - and despite an exhausting four-hour run just moments earlier - the group set out on foot through downtown Boston.
A deluge of text messages, phone calls and Facebook notifications from concerned friends and relatives drained the group's phones, Rhodes said, even as spotty cell service rendered communication difficult.
"She was running away from the finish line and called me real quick, before I had even heard anything, to let us know she was going on her way back to the hotel," Tina's husband, Dusty, said. "After that, my cellphone had 20 text messages after it had been on the news."
Runners were packed near the finish line, with as many as 10 gathered horizontally at a given point, Orr said.
"It's just bumper-to-bumper people," the West Point graduate and veteran Army officer said Monday.
Video of the site showed a crowded sidewalk as the explosions shot smoke and debris toward the marathon route. Had the suspected bombs been placed across the street, Orr said, the casualty count could have been higher.
"That's the thing that's really upsetting to me," the Afghan war veteran said. "You shouldn't be seeing this on American soil."
Other local runners escaped the attack, though several were unreachable Monday evening.
Kevin Locker, pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Roaring Spring, said in a post on the Mirror's Facebook page that his son had crossed the finish line seven minutes before the explosion.
"He is OK but not reunited with his wife and daughter yet," Locker said in a second post.
State College-based running groups, including Penn State students and staff, reported their members as safe and out of harm's way, campus media outlets said.
Two women who listed their hometown as Huntingdon - Carol Wilson, 49, and Karen Stevenson, 50 - crossed the finish line minutes before the explosion, according to a marathon website that tracks runners' progress. Stevenson reportedly finished at 2:46 p.m.; Boston police listed the first blast at 2:50.
Wilson and Stevenson could not be reached by the Mirror Monday evening.
Humanitarian and government groups worked to facilitate contact amid the chaos. Staffers at Google created a page to seek runners, while American Red Cross representatives said reaching loved ones is "the best way to help."
Rhodes and Orr sent a mass text message to contacts two hours after the blast, asking friends to spread the word that they remained safe.
"It was mass confusion," Rhodes said. "Nobody knew what was going on."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.