Michelle Thames was at the pinnacle of her running career, having just finished the Boston Marathon on Monday when the ground suddenly shook the euphoria right out of her weary muscles and aching bones.
“Everyone knew something was wrong,” she said.
Two bombs rocked the area near the finish line of the marathon Monday afternoon, killing three, including an 8-year-old boy, and injuring more than 130.
The first thought that entered Thames’ mind after hearing the explosions was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center in New York City.
“Here we were in the city,” she said. “Were buildings going to topple? Where could you run? It was a very scary situation.”
But the worst was this: “I was separated from my family.”
The 36-year-old Tampa resident had gone to Boston to participate in the world-famous foot race with her husband, Branon, serving as spectator and cheerleader. He was about a mile away from her when she crossed the finish line and was walking toward that spot to meet up with her when he heard the first explosion.
“I knew right away that it was a terrorist attack,” he said Tuesday afternoon just after the couple had gotten off JetBlue Flight 941 from Boston. “The second bomb that went off was closer.”
The Thames panicked in the moments after the explosions, each looking for the other, hoping the other was unhurt. The fear lasted about a half-hour until Michelle, wandering around in the maelstrom of the wounded and first responders, was able to borrow a cell phone and call her husband, hoping he was able to answer. He did.
That half-hour seemed to last forever, she said.
“It was horrifying,” she said. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had.” She said the she was lucky she and her 39-year-old husband weren’t hurt.
“Our thoughts and prayers are going out to those people injured,” she said.
Before the bombs hit, she was happy about finishing the race with a time of 3:20:44.
“The Boston Marathon is a runner’s dream,” she said. “This was my lifetime goal, an achievement. And I did it. It was such a great feeling.” As she spoke inside the terminal at Tampa International Airport, she wore her marathon medal.
“I cherish this medal,” she said. “But, there are a lot of mixed emotions tied to it now.”
Over the final six miles, which were hilly and difficult, she thought about returning next year to compete. “I was blessed I got to finish,” she said. “This is the Holy Grail for runners.”
Then, she said, came the “fear and panic and terror.”
Now, she’s unsure if she will race in the 2014 Boston Marathon.
“I’m a little shell-shocked,” she said. “We’ll see.” Her fear will have to be dealt with, she said, but she wants to show those responsible for the bombs “that they have no power over us.
“I’m just a little scared right now.”
The Thames returned to an airport where security was very visible Tuesday afternoon.
Law enforcement dogs milled about the terminal, meandering with their handlers to all parts of the facility. Some of the dogs belonged to the Transportation Security Administration, others to the airport police, said airport spokeswoman Christine Osborn.
“Yes, passengers are seeing more K-9 and uniformed officers patrolling through the public areas, making additional passes as you would expect,” she said. “We always are vigilant for unattended bags and that’s 365 days a year.
“But after an incident like this, we step up patrols and make more frequent passes through the terminal, looking for packages. We want to give everyone that additional sense of security.”
The city of Tampa, host to some 800 annual city-sponsored and co-sponsored events that each attracts thousands if not tens of thousands of people, also will see if it can improve security plans.
Security sweeps here are nothing new, said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy, who called Tampa an event-oriented city.
“On any given weekend,” she said, “we could have three or four events in the city, or more, so this is part of our day-to-day operations.
“Before all of our large events,” she said, “we conduct bomb sweeps; we identify areas that would be most vulnerable and sweep that area.”
She said the security protocol dates back to the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
“Post 9/11, we have a very elaborate preparation process to prevent any type of incident of this nature,” she said. “But you always are looking to improve the security plan, so we’ll obviously be dissecting what happened in Boston to see if there are any changes we can make here.”