In the final moment before being knocked to the ground by the Boston Marathon bombing, Amanda North recalls thinking, "This is perfect." The radiant sky mirrored what North -- a Silicon Valley tech executive who was at the race to watch her daughter, Lili -- was feeling.
"There were families and friends, and everyone was cheering," she says. "I remember having tears in my eyes thinking how happy I was. This was the most spectacular day, and I was so proud of her."
As North lay on the ground after the two bomb blasts -- with three dead and 264 injured -- she believed she might never see her Woodside home again. "We thought we were under attack," she says. "I thought it could be the end of all things."
Then she looked over her shoulder and saw a young woman with part of her left leg blown away, and North quickly decided this wasn't the end of anything, it was just the beginning. Even now, two months later, she has difficulty explaining how such a despicable act of terror has changed her life for the better. "Horrific though it absolutely was," North says, "and will continue to be for a lot of people, there's also a lot of goodness and optimism in it."
It started when she held hands with a total stranger.
Erika Brannock, 29, a preschool teacher from suburban Baltimore, was there to support her 57-year-old mother, Carol Downing, in her first Boston Marathon. She had been watching the race from the 26-mile mark -- 385 yards from the finish line -- with her sister, Nicole Gross, and Nicole's husband. They wanted to move closer to the finish, and soon Brannock got a text telling her to meet them in front of a LensCrafters. Though she was happy where she was, she reluctantly answered the summons, arriving just as their mother was approaching from Commonwealth Avenue.
The first explosion went off about 15 feet behind North and Brannock, the pressure-cooker bomb sending a deadly stew of ball bearings and nails knee high through the crowd. "It felt as if someone had kicked you in the legs," North recalls, "and you fell backwards." Most of the bombing victims suffered leg injuries, and 14 people had to have their legs amputated.
Brannock lost her hearing first, and toppled to her back in silence. When the second bomb went off 13 seconds later, she saw flashes of yellow and orange, but heard nothing. After blacking out briefly, she awoke to find someone, still unconscious, on top of her. "I kept trying to get up and it wouldn't work," she says, referring to her legs, one of which was badly broken and the other partially missing. "I laid back down, put my head down and said, 'This is how I'm going to die.' "
She had not yet seen Amanda North, but North had spotted her. "There was a guy with both legs completely blown off," North says. "I could have reached out my arm and touched him. I remember kind of assessing things and thinking, 'Can't do much there.' " That man turned out to be Jeff Bauman, whose rescuer, Carlos Arredondo, became a celebrated figure in the tragedy's aftermath for saving Bauman's life while wearing a big cowboy hat.
North had no hat, just hair that on one side was "shriveled up like a Brillo pad" from the blast's heat. She was crawling toward Brannock just as the younger woman was lifting her head for the first time. "I looked up, and I kind of had a conversation with God," Brannock says by phone from her hospital room in Baltimore. "I said, 'I'm not done yet. I'm not ready to go.' Then almost immediately, Amanda was there. She grabbed my hand and said she wasn't going to let go of me."
And she never did. The metal barricades prevented first-responders from reaching the victims quickly, so as precious seconds -- and blood -- dripped away, it was the work of everyday heroes like North and Arredondo that saved lives. When a bystander told North that Brannock needed a tourniquet on her leg to keep her from bleeding to death, North calmly took off her belt and let the man apply it. "I felt pretty calm," she says. "It was as if somebody else had taken over and told me what to do."
When paramedics arrived with a stretcher, Brannock and North had forged such a tight bond that Brannock wanted her rescuer to come with her in the ambulance. "It was really hard for me to let go of her hand," Brannock says, her voice cracking with emotion. "She held onto my hand until they started pulling me away. So in a sense, she never did let go. We were pulled apart."
At the hospital, where Brannock would spend the next 50 days and undergo 11 operations, there was no angel to hold her hand. "The doctors told me they thought they had lost her on the elevator going into the OR," Downing says. Another doctor later told the family that of all the victims treated that night, Brannock "was the closest to death."
With their ears ringing from the explosion, North and Brannock had misunderstood each other's names. Brannock thought the woman holding her hand was "Joan from California," and North believed she had helped someone named Irene.
Only after she had taken care of Brannock did North realize, "I had a big gaping hole in my leg." And it wasn't until she was being treated in a medical tent that was she stricken with the realization she didn't know how, or where, her daughter was. Her adrenaline wearing off, she suddenly came unglued. "I was quite frantic at that point," she says. They were soon reunited, and Lili -- who had been knocked down by the blasts -- was uninjured.
After she returned to the Bay Area, North was so wired she could hardly sleep for a week, and she spent many of her wakeful nights wondering what had become of the young woman she had hung onto for dear life. As Brannock recovered, she became obsessed with finding the woman she believed had saved her life, and when CNN's Anderson Cooper came to do a story about her, she asked the show's viewers to help her find "Joan from California."
North says she maintains "a zero media environment at home," with her only TV kept in the garage. But relatives began texting her when they saw the CNN story, and told her an email address -- email@example.com -- had been set up to locate her. She sent an email whose subject line got right to the point: "That's me," it said. A producer called almost instantly, and after verifying that she was who she claimed to be, the network offered to fly her to Baltimore, where Brannock was convalescing. The two had an emotional reunion on camera.
Brannock was maid of honor last weekend at a friend's wedding, where she inadvertently drew attention away from the bride. "There was a little moment of embarrassment where, when I came down the aisle with the best man, everybody clapped," she says. But the high point of the weekend may have been her visit to the preschool where she taught this year, a career she can continue "regardless of how many legs I have," she notes with dark humor. "The kids didn't care that I had lost a leg. They were crawling around on me just like they always did."
Their shared experience was life-altering for North, who last week resigned from the tech firm where she was a marketing executive. She will soon become the Santa Clara University Center for Science, Technology and Society's first social entrepreneur in residence. She expects to hold a lot of hands.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.
How to help
After losing her left leg at the knee in the Boston Marathon bombing, Erika Brannock had surgery 11 times and spent 50 days in the hospital. Now she faces a long recovery and more medical procedures. To help defray the costs that she's facing on a preschool teacher's salary, donations are being accepted at www.thebrannockfund.com.