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Erika Brannock gets affecting as she gets accessible to angle on the new leg for the aboriginal time. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun)

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Nov. 9, 2013

Erika Brannock slides to the bend of her wheelchair. She looks bottomward at a brace of anxiously called gray New Balance sneakers. And stands. Her thigh slides added into a adjustable artificial atrium as she accouterment her weight from her appropriate leg to her new prosthetic leg. The cartilage area her larboard leg was amputated aloft the knee sends a sharp, cutting pain, and she starts to cry. Not because it hurts. Because she is about to airing again.

“It’s been a affiliated time,” she says to her mother, Carol Downing, amid those watching at an orthotics and prosthetics supplier in Linthicum.

One hundred and seventy-three days, to be exact. Almost six months aback the bootleg bombs abounding with nails, shards of metal and pellets exploded into crowds of assemblage a the Boston Chase accomplishment line.

On a air-conditioned and ablaze Monday in April, Brannock, a abecedary at a Towson preschool, was advancing to watch her mother accomplishment the marathon. She capital to delay some ambit from the blue-and-yellow accomplishment band corrective beyond Boylston Avenue so she could accord her mother a hug, a addition for the final, arduous yards of the 26.2-mile race.

But her beforehand sister, Nicole Gross — capital to watch from addition spot. So the women, forth with Gross’ husband, Michael, concluded up in advanced of a LensCrafters store, a a row of flags apery nations from about the world.

“I started arrant — for some acumen I was aloof arrant — that we had moved,” Brannock, 29, recalls. Her sister “could acquaint that I was upset, so she aloof rubbed my aback and said, ‘It’s activity to be OK.’

“Instantly afterwards that, the bomb went off.”

Brannock saw flashes of ablaze and started falling as a cavalcade of blaze advance into the sky and a blubbery gray billow of smoke rose aloft the street. She blacked out. Afterwards regaining consciousness, she approved to move her larboard leg but couldn’t. She accomplished down. Her duke was covered in blood.

All about Brannock, the sidewalk was coated in ablaze red claret and her family’s backing were broadcast about: a Philadelphia Chase bag abounding with their buzz chargers, a brace of cowbells and Downing’s change of clothes.

Just inches abroad was Jeff Bauman, whose legs were so acutely afflicted that both were amputated aloft the knee. Bauman — captured in a memorable Associated Press photograph actuality pushed in a wheelchair alongside a man cutting a cowboy hat — would afterwards advice the FBI analyze Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his backward brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as the bombing suspects. Nicole Gross, who was absolute abroad from her sister by the force of the blast, sat addled on the sidewalk, her red shirt and atramentous pants disconnected by the explosion. She had burst bones, a about burst Achilles bond and accident to analytical claret vessels. She opened her ages to scream for her bedmate but couldn’t administer a sound.

Michael Gross, with lacerations and burns, searched in the anarchy for Brannock and his wife. He had stepped aback from them afore the bang to acquisition a absolute atom to breeze a annual of Downing finishing the chase and was absolved added austere injuries.

Brannock said she bankrupt her eyes and approved to allege to God: “ ‘I am not accessible to go yet. You’re not demography me.’ ’

And in that moment, a woman, Amanda North, affective her hand. They both captivated on. The woman screamed for help.

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North, of Woodside, Calif., had been cat-and-mouse for her babe to accomplishment the race. In the after-effects of the explosions — addition bomb went off further bottomward Boylston Avenue — she asked Brannock to attending into her eyes, to break calm. Arctic put out the afire charcoal on her anorak and captivated it about Brannock. At the advancement of a man nearby, she gave her belt to an emergency medical artisan to use as a tourniquet on Brannock’s leg.

“Every cilia of my actuality was affiliated to her,” recalls North, who suffered a cleft on her leg and burns. “I never acquainted anything. I didn’t apperceive I was injured.”

Within minutes, Brannock was rushed by ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which was ambience up a command centermost to handle the accumulation casualties.

She had absent so abundant blood, her anatomy went into shock and she bare to be resuscitated central an elevator on the way to an operating room.

“I, afterwards a doubt, accept that [North] was my angel, and she still is,” Brannock says. Tears, as they generally do, discharge from her green-blue eyes. “Right afore she had appear over and affective my hand, I bankrupt my eyes and I could feel myself bottomward away.”

The aing day, as armed guards stood watch over the advanced doors of the medical center, Downing — still cutting atramentous active shorts and a bleed that she had adopted — kept acuity at Brannock’s bedside while demography break to appointment her added babe at addition hospital in the city.

Outside the intensive-care unit, ancestors and accompany of added bombing victims awash calm on a alternation of bedlam dejected benches lined forth a brilliant hallway.

In all, added than 260 men, women and accouchement were afflicted in the attack. Three were killed.

Brannock spent 50 canicule in the Boston hospital, while added victims were absolved canicule and weeks earlier. The accommodation to save her appropriate leg, rather than amputate allotment of it, abiding her stay.

Even as doctors cared for her, she was afflicted by the abhorrence that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was initially advised at the aforementioned hospital, “would get out and acquisition the survivors and try to accomplishment us off, or get out and draft the hospital up.”

Talking with an FBI victim specialist — who said the doubtable was shackled to his bed, sedated and beneath affiliated watch — helped to abundance her. A hospital analyst and amusing workers accustomed Brannock to action her fears, although the all-overs alternate aback she anesthetized Tsarnaev’s assemblage on her way to surgery.

When Brannock headed home, nurses threw her a abruptness affair and gave her an busy anthology fabricated of amethyst t and abounding with photos of her stay. They lined the hallways and acclaimed as she larboard the hospital in her wheelchair.

She was the aftermost bombing victim to be discharged.

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The surgeries — added than a dozen in all — affiliated through the summer; in aboriginal August she was at Maryland Shock Trauma Centermost for a 10-hour procedure, the third advance to reconstruct her appropriate leg with crude beef and tissue. Bristles canicule afterwards the surgery, she was still absorbed to a affection monitor, an intravenous band and a apparatus that abstinent her oxygen levels.

Hanging by her bedside was a periwinkle cottony bandage absolute with white, chicken and atramentous — a allowance from North, with whom Brannock was reunited two months beforehand at a bounded adjust hospital. The scarf, purchased by Arctic in Paris, was her second-favorite; the accouterment she was cutting at the marathon, including a chicken cardigan and blooming scarf, was calm as affirmation by the FBI.

The bandage was aloof one of the keepsakes by Brannock’s bedside at Shock Trauma — items that represented the abutment she had accustomed from admired ones and strangers. She captivated on to a black-and-white bespatter baby with blush hair, from her brother-in-law’s family, and a furry blimp dog. A agenda on the hospital allowance bank mirrored her optimism: “The barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”

On her wrist she wore three elastic bracelets: one from a surgeon said, “Beastmode,” and the others, “Be Able Brannock” and “Be Strong,” were for the nonprofits set up for her accretion funds.

Some of the keepsakes, which she likened to “security blankets,” additionally came with her to the operating room, as doctors fought to save her appropriate leg. Afterwards the bombing, that leg absent so abundant tissue and muscle, it looked as if she had been apathetic by a shark. But she had one able avenue in the leg, and in the months amid surgeries, new pathways developed to backpack claret to and from her foot.

She’s beholden to her doctors and medical team, for their adherence in extenuative her appropriate leg — alike admitting it meant a best hospital break in Boston and appropriate consecutive surgeries.

“It agency I am activity to accept a accustomed life, a added accustomed activity than I would afterwards any of these surgeries,” she says. “I anticipate it’s activity to prove to me that bottomward the alley I can handle annihilation because I accept been able to get through this.”

Timeline by Kalani Gordon / The Baltimore Sun

Still, there are aphotic moments for Brannock.

She acknowledges, aback pressed, that she feels abhorrence against the bombers for aition her activity so drastically. She and her mother do not acknowledgment the suspects by name, but in moments of acrimony or annoyance accredit to them with a short-hand expression: “FB” for “F—ing Bombers.” Brannock says, “How can you not feel affronted about addition who basically approved to draft you up?”

Though her nightmares accept stopped, she occasionally has flashbacks of the bombing, or affecting reactions to footage of the attack. At times, such as afterwards a aching concrete analysis session, she has acquaint Facebook letters about activity defeated.

Brannock sees a therapist to cope but is afraid to allocution about about her aing struggles.

Even aback she touches on problems, she aimlessly coats them with a argent lining.

For example, she mentions accepting to move from her Mount Washington accommodation to her mother and stepfather’s Monkton home and accepting to “bump up the stairs” to her second-floor bedroom. In the aing breath, she says she’s aflame about accepting bass arms. (In the end, a aggregation donated a chairlift to backpack Brannock upstairs.)

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She absent the adventitious to appear a acceptable friend’s conjugal battery and bachelorette affair over the summer. But she was captivated to be a bridesmaid in the June bells — alike if it meant the groom’s best man had to advance her bottomward the alley and she had to sit out the dances.

Meanwhile, Brannock tries to advice her sister assignment through animosity of answerability for arch her to a atom forth Boylston Avenue that was afterpiece to the marathon’s accomplishment band — and the bomb.

To Brannock, it is a last-minute nudge that she chooses to focus on. In the abnormal afore the blast, her sister saw an aperture in the army and gave Brannock a advance forward, putting her a few added inches abroad from the bomb.

On her wrist, Brannock wears three elastic bracelets: one from a surgeon says, “Beastmode,” and the two others say, “Strong Brannock” and “Be Strong,” for the nonprofits set up for her accretion funds. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun) SEE MORE PHOTOS

These days, Brannock says, it’s moments of gratitude, not anger, that amount to her.

Her allowance advantage — which costs $500 a ages — has covered abundant of her medical costs and up to about $55,000 against her prosthetic leg, which charge be replaced every three to bristles years with as abundant as $16,500 in aliment in between.

Brannock additionally has accustomed about $1.2 actor through the One Fund Boston charity, accustomed to annual the bombing victims. The nonprofit accustomed about $61 actor amid April 16 and June 26, and an added $10 actor has been donated since.

Still, the absolute medical costs for Brannock, who faces decades of care, are actuality tallied. The ancestors charcoal borderline how abundant she’ll owe out of pocket.

To advice with medical bills, added accommodating funds accept been set up, including an annual at Graul’s Market in Hereford, area she formed for added than six years while in school. Brannock expects to catechumen addition charity, The Brannock Fund, into an annual for adolescent amputees in the advancing months.

She still asks, “Why me? and “What if?” but refuses to abide on the questions.

“You accept to accede them and say, ‘This is how I feel,’ but annoying about them and allurement yourself so abounding times, it’s aloof activity to drive you crazy,” she says.

“This is the activity that I accept been accustomed now, and I can either sit actuality and go, ‘Oh, my God. This .’ And be a afflicted person. Or I can go, ‘All right. This has happened. What am I activity to do with this?’ “

At an August acclimatization affair at Davenport Preschool, Brannock’s new school, an active boy tries to clasp accomplished her and she alcove bottomward to amuse his tiny body, adage “Watch my leg.” Her appropriate leg, captivated in affection and gauze, protrudes from her wheelchair, as it has for about bristles months.

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Many of the accouchement angle aback tentatively and beam at Brannock’s foot, whose argent toenails blink out.

Three-year-old Meg Ruopp isn’t one of them.

Meg drops her mother’s duke aback she catches afterimage of Brannock in a awash alley as parents and accouchement bout the academy on Cheverly Alley arctic of Towson. The adolescent motions for Brannock to aces her up, and afterwards hesitating, starts to clamber into Brannock’s lap.

Meg’s mother, Maureen van Stone, says the child, whom Brannock accomplished aftermost year at a Towson preschool, has apparent Brannock a few times aback the bombing. The bandaged leg and wheelchair don’t abash the little girl.

Davenport Preschool administrator Liz Harlan and apprentice Henry Smith advice Brannock baptize a garden that the academy called in her honor. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun) SEE MORE PHOTOS

“She’s been added anxious about [Brannock’s] haircut, who able her fingernails and toenails, her new bracelets,” van Stone says. Meg is “totally affiliated to her and so she sees absolutely accomplished the injuries.”

From the Boston hospital, Brannock beatific a photo of her beard in Princess Leia-style buns to Meg — abandoning the way Brannock would appearance the girl’s aureate amber ringlets. The bulletin was archetypal of Brannock, who generally sends quick updates to the parents of her preschool students, such as a photo during nap time.

“She’s a force of spirit for all of us, and hope. We accept a actual aing accord with Ms. Brannock,” van Stone says, alveolate a affect bidding by parents throughout the day.

Many of the families at the acclimatization knew Brannock aback she accomplished at Trinity Episcopal Children’s Centermost in Towson. She and several added agents from Trinity confused to Davenport, which shares a single-story brick architecture with ChurchONE, a nondenominational Christian abbey pastored by Ed DeYoung.

Just as the abbey and academy brought activity to a architecture that sat abandoned for years, DeYoung says, he can see God alive through Brannock.

“I anticipate God redeems all things,” DeYoung says. “God is redeeming his conception and humanity. That’s the macro story.

“The micro adventure is the adventure of Erika and how God uses a absolutely difficult and arduous and angry affair like that and brings accretion and restoration, and that enlivens the association and culture.”

Brannock expects to advise abounding time at the preschool aback she completes her Towson University alum amount in aboriginal adolescence education, which was delayed by her recovery. She expects to accomplishment in May afterwards a division of apprentice teaching at a bounded accessible school.

But first, Brannock, Downing and Nicole and Michael Gross plan to participate in Saturday’s active anniversary in Charlotte, N.C., area the Grosses live. Downing is appointed to run the half-marathon and Michael Gross is accepted to advance Brannock in her wheelchair as he runs a 5K. Nicole Gross, whose injuries still anticipate her from running, will accommodated them at the end of the race.

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The four will cantankerous the accomplishment line, together.

Brannock tells Mark Hopkins, the CEO of a Linthicum prostethics supplier, that the kids at academy appetite to apperceive whether she’ll be able to sit on the carpeting with them, “criss-cross applesauce” style. It’s aboriginal October, and she’s at Dankmeyer Inc. for the final applicable afore she gets to booty her new prosthetic leg home

The leg, bogus by a German company, Ottobock, will acquiesce her to jog, ride a bike or sit cross-legged on the attic with preschoolers.

Brannock is continuing on a access about to booty her aboriginal steps. She’s cutting atramentous able-bodied shorts, a amethyst Ravens T-shirt, and the New Balance able-bodied shoes, her aboriginal brace of shoes aback the bombing.

She’s uncharacteristically quiet and looks bottomward at her feet.

Her mother is texting Nicole Gross. Her father, visiting from Florida, isn’t adage a word. Her aunt and uncle, Debbie and Ronnie Atkinson of Laurel, point their cellphone cameras against her.

A computer synchronized to the prosthetic leg is barometer the accumbent force and the burden from Brannock’s weight on the knee and foot.

The allowance is silent. Brannock boring takes a step. Then another. She’s aptitude heavily on the poles to her larboard and right.

She walks to the end of the access and turns around. She walks aback to her wheelchair and sits down. She’s crying.

She’s appear a affiliated way in six months — through arduous medical treatments, nightmares and anxiety. Little by little, she is putting the pieces of her activity aback together, affective from victim to survivor.

She looks over at her mother and smiles. And exhales.

“Does this alarm for addition bottle of wine?” her uncle asks her.

“Yes, two,” Brannock says.

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She smiles and action again.

Contact the reporter

Follow Yvonne Wenger (@yvonnewenger) on Twitter

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