BOSTON (AP) — Laura Nowacki rushed to help the shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. As a first responder, the pediatrician was stunned at the horror she encountered.
Four months later, she hurried out of Boston with her husband and four children, anxious to keep them safe after the deadly explosions near the finish line of the historic marathon she had just completed.
"That really scared us," she said Tuesday. "My daughter was really upset, so we needed to be a family first and get back home."
The race was supposed to help Nowacki recover from the shock of the Newtown shootings that killed 20 children and six educators — and from which her 10-year-old daughter fled uninjured. Instead, it brought the painful memories back.
"Running has been kind of my escape, my freedom," Nowacki said. "We felt like we were getting back to normalcy. My husband said, 'Leave it all in Boston and come back to a fresh start.' And now it's just unbelievable."
About 40 minutes after she completed the Boston Marathon on Monday, two explosions near the finish line killed three people and wounded more than 170, more than a dozen critically.
The death of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was watching the race, deepened the connection to the Newtown shootings of school children.
"I think there are families back here in town that are feeling it again," Nowacki said.
Nowacki was part of a group of eight people who ran the Boston Marathon for the Newtown Strong Fund, which was set up to raise money in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings last Dec. 14. She was its spokeswoman and attended a news conference in Boston last week at which marathon organizers announced they would honor the victims of the shootings with a special mile marker at the end of the 26th mile of the 26.2-mile race on Monday.
Before the race began, there were 26 seconds of silence in honor of each of the 26 victims. And each of the eight Newtown Strong runners wore T-shirts with the names of those victims on the back. Each mile of the race was dedicated to one of them.
"When I ran each mile, I thought about each kid," Nowacki said, "from Charlotte Bacon on Mile 1 and all the way to Allison Wyatt at the 20th mile. Her mom cheered me on when I was running. So I feel like each mile did mean something to the families."
Each of the last six miles was run in honor of the educators who were shot.
"I felt strong coming across the line," said Nowacki, who finished the race in 3 hours, 28 minutes, 55 seconds. "I felt like I came and did what I meant to do and you heard the cheers for Newtown all the way along. It was a good thing. And then we got back to the hotel and started hearing the sirens."
David Oelberg, another Newtown Strong runner, had crossed the finish line on Boylston Street about 12 minutes earlier in his fourth Boston Marathon — a line he was thrilled to see.
"When you turn down Boylston and see that finish line, there's nothing but sheer happiness in your mind and that's forever going to be stained in mine," he said. "When I make that turn onto Boylston and see that finishing banner, I can't imagine that I'm going to have the same sheer joy ever again."
He's not even sure he'll run his "favorite race" again, fearing it might be a target for similar acts.
"I've told my kids I'm going to run a marathon when I'm 90," said Oelberg, a 49-year-old pulmonary physician at Danbury Hospital, who trained at Massachusetts General Hospital where some victims were taken Monday, "but I'd be lying if I said I'm going to be only targeting large, big-city marathons. At this point, there's something to be said for some for those smaller low-key events, too."
Tom Abrams will be back. No question. And he hopes Newtown Strong will continue to participate.
At 58, he ran the Boston Marathon for the fifth time but, for the first time, didn't finish. He was stopped at around the 22nd mile after the explosions.
All along the course, he had heard spectators cheering, "Go Newtown."
He saw military volunteers calmly controlling traffic at intersections as they do every year.
"Then three hours later you see them in a flak jacket carrying an M-16, guarding the Marriott in Copley Square," Abrams said.
He realized something was wrong when an unmarked state police vehicle raced by with sirens blaring. At first, he thought a runner might have tripped on a curb or been struck by a car. But he knew "something bad happened" when he saw three motorcycle policemen "tearing by."
Still, he thinks the bombings will strengthen the resolve of the runners to carry on.
"I think we'll see the running community bond together," Abrams said. "This is the running community's quintessential event and when something like this happens I would anticipate seeing the running community with even more determination going forward.
"If there's any human way possible, I'll be at the start line in Hopkinton next year."
Despite the trauma of the past couple of days, Nowacki also plans to continue with her running and her dedication to a new cause — to help the victims of the Boston explosions cope.
"We are Newtown Strong and we want to help them be Boston Strong," she said. "We want to help with what we've learned. We want to pass on some of that."