Connie Mendoza stood near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, feeling a mixture of elation and exhaustion like so many others who had completed the historic race.
Connie Mendoza (right) and friend Mary at the Boston Marathon
The office assistant in All Children's neurology department and avid distance runner had donned her sweats, waiting for a friend further back in the pack to finish. That's when it happened - a bone-jarring explosion, followed by billowing smoke and the sight of blood spattered everywhere.
Momentarily disoriented, Connie knew in her heart that a bomb had just been detonated. She saw people falling to the pavement amid a surreal blur of screams and shouts and quickly checked to see if she had been hit. Realizing she was fine, she looked up and saw a man lying in the middle of the street, his legs mangled from the blast. Then the second explosion rocked the air and complete chaos engulfed the crowd of thousands.
She remembered what her father, a member of the Mexican military, had taught her as a child. If a person needs help in an emergency, you always lend a hand. Without thinking, she raced into the turmoil and peril of an unfolding national story, one that continues to hold the country in its grip, to do what she could.
"His skin was off his legs and I tried to put it back, but I couldn't, and then someone came behind me - an EMT, and he wrapped the man's legs and took him away," she recalls.
Her hands and sweats were covered with blood. And she stood there, in a semi-state of shock, when her thoughts turned back to her friend, Mary, a St. Petersburg woman who had traveled to Boston to compete with Connie.
She knew Mary's marathon time would put her a good half hour from completing the event, so she began running to where she thought her friend might be on the course - all the while hoping Mary's husband and daughter at the finish line hadn't been injured by the blasts. But police on the scene wouldn't let her or anyone else pass.
"They had stopped the race a mile from the end, so I knew that Mary and the other people back there were okay," Connie says. "They were trying to get everybody out of there. You just assisted people to move the other direction so all the ambulances could get through."
Cell phone service was out so Connie couldn't call or text anyone, and word spread that the public transportation was shut down - meaning she had no way to get back to her hotel, change and catch her 6:30 p.m. flight from Logan International back to Tampa, and her job at All Children's Tuesday morning.
"The best thing to do at that time is get out of the way and let the emergency people do their job," she says. "And the whole time, you're thinking, 'Is this really happening?' "
Connie suddenly remembered a friend from Boston who was working as a race volunteer. She knew he had parked his car around the finish area and had offered to drive her and Mary to the hotel. She began jogging to where she knew he would have been working, near the buses. And amazingly, she spotted him in the crowd.
"He's elderly and I held his hand, and I said, 'Where did you park?' and he was confused," Connie says. "So I go, 'Let's take a deep breath. Think, where did you park - does that building look familiar or that one over there?' I'm pointing and pointing, and finally he remembered and found his car."
That's when cell phone service came back on and Connie received a text from another friend in the race - she relayed news that Mary was fine, and so were Mary's husband and daughter.
Buoyed by the news but feeling emotionally drained, Connie settled into the passenger seat as the man drove her the airport hotel. She grabbed her belongings and splashed water on her face and arms. It was already past 5:15 p.m. and there was no time for a shower if she was going to catch her flight.
Outbound planes were delayed by the crisis, allowing Connie to make it to the gate in time. Her concerned co-workers from All Children's had flooded her cell phone with texts, and she assured them and members of her family that she was fine.
She arrived home after 1 a.m. Tuesday, her thoughts still swirling in disbelief at the tragedy she'd witnessed. She looked at the medallion she had been handed as she'd crossed the finish line in a time of 3:34 - some 34 minutes ahead of the attacks - and it carried none of the sense of joy or achievement it was meant to signify. Instead, she was overcome by a wave of guilt and sadness - a feeling that she had survived unharmed while so many others had lost loved ones in the senseless act.
She cried hard and was unable to sleep. Walking into work at 8:30 Tuesday morning and greeting her friends, sitting down in her cubicle with a full load of work, proved to be a welcome diversion from the anguish. But as the steady flow of news reports provided more details of casualties, including an 8-year-old boy who had been killed, she was unable to feel anything but heartache over her participation in the marathon.
Wednesday morning, her emotions were still raw. She had spoken by phone with her father, and a sister who had done four tours of duty for the U.S. in the Afghanistan, and they tried to give her perspective.
"My sister has been through war and she said she understands what I'm feeling," Connie says. "There's a tradition that you're supposed to wear the medallion the day after the race, and I tried. But I just couldn't. I know it's supposed to be a big deal, but it doesn't feel that way to me. I just don't feel like I deserve to have it. I feel guilty. I wish there was something you could have done, but there wasn't."
Connie wants to get back to running right away. In fact, running helped put her life back on track after some personal losses left her in turmoil in 2007. She had never been a runner, but her then high-school-aged daughter entered her in a 5K race as a way of giving her a new focus in life.
The race made Connie physically ill, but she persevered. And she quickly developed a passion for running. She joined a running club in St. Petersburg, and gradually became a running coach. In October 2011, though she had never run more than eight miles at one time, she competed in and finished the Marine Corps Marathon. In the process, she automatically qualified for a race she'd never heard of: the Boston Marathon - an invitation good for two years.
In March 2012, Connie followed with a personal best in the Los Angeles Marathon at 3:06. After running in another Marine Corps Marathon last October, she decided to compete in the 117th running of the Boston Marathon - with some coaxing from Mary. She tuned up last month by competing in her second LA Marathon and headed to Boston this past weekend.
Saturday and Sunday were like a dream for her, mingling with fellow runners from all over the world at the marathon Expo. But then came Monday's nightmare and the flood of conflicting feelings that remain painfully fresh: the searing memories of the bomb scene, the blood and screams, the injured man she had rushed in to try to help - remembering the lesson her father had taught her as a child.
"I cannot imagine anyone, if you're okay and you see another human life in danger, it doesn't matter who or what," she says. "You just have to do something. There's no choice involved. You do it."
Connie did, without giving it any thought or concern for own safety - one of many acts of heroism on a dark day in Boston and for the nation. And the next morning she was back at her All Children's desk, ready for the day's work helping with Spanish translation and making appointments. There were smiles for her friends, but tears as well.
"You think about the mother who lost her daughter who was running, or the little boy who died," she says. "And you realize that all the little complaints or troubles you have in life are so small."