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Charlotte blast victim at Boston Marathon coached mother on strength

BOSTON and Mark Washburn

Monday was supposed to be Carol Downing’s great day.

She was running in her first Boston Marathon, and it was going to be a family affair. She has two daughters who are so proud of their mom that they came to cheer her across the finish line.

Nicole Gross, 31, is a fitness instructor in Charlotte and had coached her mother for marathons.

Erika Brannock, 29, is a beloved and outgoing preschool teacher in suburban Baltimore.

Carol Downing’s great day collapsed four hours into the race. She learned of the bombings and could not make contact with her daughters. It would take hours before she found them – in separate hospitals, both maimed.

Nicole: Two breaks in her left leg, an ankle fracture in her right, her skin torn, Achilles’ tendon severed.

Erika: Her left leg amputated below the knee, compound fracture in the right, a broken ankle. Bones in her right foot are broken.

Erika Brannock was heavily sedated Tuesday, unable to speak. But she knew her mother’s voice when she heard it, and squeezed the hand holding hers.

Nicole Gross emerged from a follow-up surgery Tuesday in stable condition. She is scheduled to have another surgery Wednesday.

“She remembers it all,” her mother said, “and just wishes that she didn’t.”

The race just stopped

Carol Downing was four hours into her run and just blocks from finishing the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon – one of the most prestigious races in the world – when suddenly runners were stopped.

“First thing we heard was that there was an explosion, like kind of an electrical thing. And then we heard that it was two explosions. And then there was just a lot of medical personnel, cars, sirens.”

She texted her daughters. No response. She texted Nicole’s husband, Michael Gross, who was waiting at the finish line with them. No reply.

Fear rising, she finally got a text from Michael. “Are you OK?” it said. He texted that he was in the medical tent. Then, minutes later, that he and Nicole were being taken to the hospital. They had lost track of Erika.

Finding her daughters

Downing made her way through the chaos of Boston to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, about two miles from the finish line. Nicole was being stabilized. Michael was treated for cuts and burns.

It was more than five hours after the explosion. No one knew Erika’s fate.

“Two DEA officers came and they interviewed me,” Downing said. They took her to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a few blocks away. There she found Erika, sedated, recovering from surgery.

Erika teaches 2-year-olds at Trinity Episcopal Children’s Center in Towson, Md., where school officials were expecting heavy turnout for a vigil for her on Thursday night.

‘What ifs’ settle in

Downing, 57, of Monkton, Md., a community of about 5,000 near Baltimore, is a massage therapist. She’s worked with a lot of runners. Somewhere along the way she decided she wanted to run in the Boston Marathon, which has rigorous qualifying standards.

Nicole Gross, a noted triathlete who coaches swimming, cycling and fitness at the elite Charlotte Athletic Club, helped her mother prepare for the challenge. By the time Downing went to Boston, she had already run in two other marathons.

“She did all her coaching to get me here,” Downing said. “It was just supposed to be a really fun weekend and they were both so proud of me, and I was just so happy to have them here.”

After a long day Tuesday of shuttling between hospitals and daughters, an exhausted Downing gave in to guilt.

“What if I hadn’t qualified? What if I hadn’t come? What if I had gotten sick and couldn’t come? What if I had run faster? What if they had stood someplace different?”

Then she added, “You can’t change what happened. Just take it one day at a time.”

Friends reach out

In Charlotte, friends of Nicole Gross were stunned.

“I’m devastated,” said Kelly Fillnow, herself a professional triathlete. “But I know she is so strong physically and mentally and that she will be able to get through this.”

Fillnow, 30, of Charlotte, said that Nicole qualified for and competed in 2009 in the Kona Ironman, held in Hawaii and considered among the world’s most challenging one-day endurance events.

Nicole had told her about watching her mom run in the Boston Marathon. “She was very giddy about being able to go and watch and support her along with her family.”

Fellow racer in Boston

Charlotte attorney Chad Crockford, who along with his wife was among the marathoners who were clear of the area when the blast went off, knew Nicole and Michael Gross through triathlon training.

“She was so excited about going to cheer for someone else,” he said. He knew that she was in training for the April 27 amateur bodybuilding and fitness event sponsored by the National Physique Committee at the Blake Hotel, but was more excited about her mother’s upcoming feat.

“She would never mention that, but would always talk about how excited she was to go be cheering for her mom finishing the Boston Marathon.”

James Haycraft, a triathlete and bike manager at Inside Out Sports in Charlotte, said he took some swimming instruction from Nicole and considered her one of the state’s better female triathletes.

“I think a lot of people are intimidated by her because she’s really good looking, she’s smart, she’s a good coach, she’s popular in the sense that a triathlete can be,” Haycraft said. “I don’t think anyone I know has ever had a negative thing to say about her.”

Maryland transplants

For six years, Nicole has worked as a trainer at the uptown Charlotte Athletic Club. Her husband Michael, 32, a former Charlotte firefighter, is the manager there.

She grew up in Howard County, Md., and is a 2003 graduate of the University of Tennessee where she was a swimmer and diver. Michael was captain of the swimming and diving team at Tennessee.

Her brother-in-law is Brian Gross, swim coach at Charlotte Catholic High School, who has led the girls’ team at the school to 12 straight state championships.

Downing’s husband arrived in Boston Tuesday afternoon. He had been in Arizona on a family matter.

After she had located her daughters Monday night, Downing told him not to come right away.

“And then later last night, I just said, ‘OK, come please. It’s hard to do this alone.’ ”

Outlook uncertain

Michael Gross was kept overnight for observation and released Tuesday. Downing isn’t sure when her daughters will be discharged.

She was limping slightly Tuesday from race-sore muscles. Sitting outside the surgical intensive care unit at Beth Israel – in front of windows overlooking a flagpole where the Stars and Stripes droop at half-staff – she talked of how her great day had gone so terribly wrong, but also how her daughters had made her strong. She said she intends to hold it together.

“I have to do it for them, and I think I’m in shock. … I’ll fall apart later.”

Staff writer Corey Inscoe and staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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