Marathon runner Rhonda-Marie Avery, who is legally blind, was supposed to be greeted by her husband and three children at the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday.
Instead, a deadly bomb attack left her family searching for her in a haze of dust and burnt plastic, while she was held in lockdown with other terrified runners at a nearby church.
The 34-year-old Port Hope resident is one of hundreds of Ontarians who were caught in the tragedy that killed several people, including an eight-year-old boy, and left more than 100 injured.
More than 200 Toronto runners and in excess of 2,000 Canadians were in Boston for the marathon. A Foreign Affairs official said Monday night there had been no reports of injured Canadians.
Avery’s husband, Rick, was in a nearby mall buying flowers for his wife – who was about seven kilometres from finishing the marathon – when the blasts went off. He said patrons began to panic and run out of the shaking building. “It was basically pandemonium,” he said. “My youngest ended up on the floor.”
He and his three children – 5, 11 and 14 – walked to the race route to search for Avery, but eventually were forced by police to return to their bed and breakfast. His wife finally texted to let him know she was safe and had been taken by bus to a church.
“I don’t know why it had to happen,” he said, his voice breaking. “We’ll probably never do a big race again.”
Toronto runner Jean-Paul Bedard had finished the race and was walking with his wife to a restaurant about 300 metres from the finish line when the blasts went off. He called the aftermath “absolute chaos.”
“We heard these two huge bangs in quick succession. We thought the stadium stands had fallen down,” he said. “Then we could see the smoke and everyone screaming and running from the site.”
Laura McLean, also of Toronto, was in the medical tent receiving treatment for dehydration when she heard the explosions. She said victims were quickly pulled into the tent by first responders.
“There are people who are really, really bloody,” she said. She was ushered into Fairmont Copley Plaza and kept in lockdown with at least 50 other runners for several hours.
Sarah Hendricks had already made her way to her hotel, but her partner, David Mackie, was walking along Commonwealth Ave. when chaos erupted.
“People started sprinting, everyone was panicked,” Mackie said shakily. “I just followed people who were running.”
The Toronto couple reunited shortly after. “It’s a tragic end to what was supposed to be a special and beautiful race,” said Hendricks. “I’m afraid it will change the face of marathons.”
Allison Dellandrea, a Crown prosecutor in Toronto with the Ontario attorney-general’s office, crossed the finish line about 20 minutes before the blasts. “It was awful,” she said.
She said she was worried about the fate of not just the other runners but also the thousands of volunteers and spectators who line the race route.
“Who would cause intentional harm to such an amazing group of people?” asked Dellandrea. “You could scarcely gather more positive people than the tens of thousands of people who run, organize and volunteer for these events.”
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said his office reached out to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to offer assistance and Ford extended his sympathies to the victims of the blasts. “This tragic and shocking crime defies our imagination,” he said in a statement.
“Right now, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston, especially those affected by this incident – and the over 200 Toronto residents participating in this event.”
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, herself an avid runner, also released a statement condemning the attacks.
“I am sickened and dismayed by the violence that occurred in Boston today. Races like the Boston Marathon, which draw participants from across Ontario and around the world, are a demonstration of human endurance and our sense of community,” she said.
“This act of violence has thrown a dark cloud on this day, but it will not diminish that human spirit.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was shocked to learn of the explosions. “It is truly a sad day when an event as inspiring as the Boston Marathon is clouded by such senseless violence,” Harper said in a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those injured or affected by this horrible incident. We stand with our American neighbours in this difficult time,” the prime minister said.
But legally blind runner Rhonda-Marie Avery was not to be discouraged. Late Monday, she began a journey of seven kilometres on foot to reunite with her family.
“She’s running home. She’s finishing the marathon regardless,” her husband said.
With files from Julian Sher, Bruce Campion-Smith and the Canadian Press