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Spectator from Colorado Springs recalls frantic, frightening experience in Boston Marathon

April 19, 2014 Updated: April 21, 2014 at 7:15 am

Those are bombs, an authoritative voice shouted. And for perhaps the first time in human history, those words actually brought comfort.

Until that announcement from a veteran well-versed in that area, Elaine Derbenwick, along with her daughter and granddaughters, was among the horde scurrying for cover. About 25 feet from the first explosion at last year's Boston Marathon, those in the Lenox Hotel feared they had heard gunfire and that a shooter might soon enter the crowded lobby.

"He said, 'Don't worry about a shooter coming in,'" Derbenwick said. "And that did lessen the panic of everyone trying to hide and find a place to be."

Even when the horror subsided, the chaos and fear did not for Derbenwick. She was in Boston to support her husband, Gary, who had finished the race about 11 minutes prior to the bombings that killed three spectators.

The Derbenwick family's experience summed up the horror felt by runners at the race and by the loved ones on hand to watch them.

Because the young girls - 5 and 3 - had come along, Elaine opted to watch the race behind the crowd and near the Lenox with the girls on shoulders rather than up front near the temporary fence barricade. It was there that they watched Gary run by and complete the race.

The women and girls then retreated indoors so the little ones could work on their congratulatory signs for their grandfather.

That's when the bedlam erupted.

"It was very frightening," Elaine said. "Somebody screamed that there was a shooter. We all ran for corners, trying to protect the kids and ourselves and not knowing what it really was."

The Lenox was evacuated shortly after the bombings. Guests were given a brief period to return to their rooms and grab a few items. Knowing they had a slew of electronics in tow, Elaine went to retrieve chargers. In the process, she put her phone on a desk and forgot to take it with her.

At that point, the family had no way of knowing if Gary had been caught in the bombings. They knew only that he was supposed to have walked back to the hotel after finishing, which would put him in the vicinity of the explosions.

It turns out that Gary was on his way back and indeed witnessed the bombings, but he was safe. All the while, nobody could make contact.

Gary made his way back to the family greeting area, hoping that Elaine had the same thought. Also without his phone and in an age where phone numbers are programmed instead of memorized, he didn't know how to reach anyone.

"He had no idea where we were and I think that was the scariest part for him," Elaine said. "He didn't know where we were on the route except that we were going to be close to that hotel. And that was close to the bombs."

For a while, Gary was shuffled through the Westin hotel - the same place Elaine and the kids had been taken after the Lenox was evacuated - but a connection wasn't made. It wasn't until Gary called the company of one of the couple's other daughters and was given her cell phone number in California that a connection was finally made with his wife through an iPad.

Once everyone was accounted for, the family's focus turned to the girls.

"There were a lot of tears and it was very scary," Elaine said. "The older one did some drawing, and it was kind of amazing to see what she pictured. She pictured airplanes going over the building dropping bombs. It's a 5-year-old's perception - it's a bomb, so it's coming out of an airplane, I guess in her mind. But she talked through it a lot. She said, 'Now I'm going to throw this away and forget all about it.' They still do remember it."

A scrapbook was made for the young girls, showcasing only the positives from the trip - a carousel ride, swan boats, all the "fun stuff."

Elaine was hardly enthused about the idea, but Gary signed up immediately to return for this year's race (Monday). He wanted to support the city and stand up to the terrorists. Runners were cheering each other on as they made the commitment.

Elaine has never missed one of Gary's marathons, so she'll return.

"I just feel it's important that families be supportive in hobbies and interests, so I did not consider not going," said Elaine, whose husband also plays violin in the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. "I considered both of us not going.

"I will probably stay very close to the hotel and not do a lot of venturing too far away."

Elaine has noticed herself looking around more often in crowded environments. In June, Gary ran a marathon in Seattle while the couple was visiting another daughter. On the corner where they stood a bomb squad truck pulled up. Later, a man with a backpack started rambling and was confronted by police. Mental illness was clearly a factor and no one was injured.

It was all unsettling, but nothing like those hours in Boston.

"It was just kind of an amazing, traumatic experience," Elaine said. "It took us a while to work through it all."

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