BY TOM DALTON and JONATHAN PHELPS
---- — Dawn Cobak made the turn onto Boylston Street and was headed to the Boston Marathon finish line when the first bomb exploded.
“I almost thought it was fireworks,” she said.
When the second explosion followed moments later, the 42-year-old Beverly woman stopped in her tracks. This was louder and closer, with more fire and smoke.
“You knew people got hurt,” she said.
Still trying to process what was happening, Cobak was startled again. Marathoners up ahead were turning around and running back toward her. They were running away from the finish line. Many were “hysterical,” she said.
Standing in the road, Cobak thought of her husband and mother in the stands waiting for her to finish. They were right across from the blasts.
She took out her cellphone and started to text. Now, she was crying.
Salem fire Capt. Dennis Levasseur was also in the stands. He had gone to watch his fellow captain, Kevin Koen, run his first Boston Marathon.
Levasseur had worked security last year for the Boston Athletic Association in this same general area. As soon as he saw the blasts, he went to see if he could help, while his wife assisted elderly people out of the stands.
“I jumped over a fence and ran across to help out people who were injured,” he said.
“After 26 years being in the fire service, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Levasseur said. “There were quite a few critically injured people by the time I got there.”
The first responders were doing a good job of getting the badly injured over to a medical tent, Levasseur said.
Levasseur, an EMT, said he helped put people on backboards and in wheelchairs. It was like “war zone stuff,” he said.
“So many people were hurt ...” he said. “People were giving up their belts to use for tourniquets.”
There were other North Shore residents in Copley Square yesterday around 2:50 p.m. when two blasts ripped through the crowd, killing three spectators and injuring more than 140, many seriously.
For anyone who was there, it was horrifying.
“I was right there,” said Beth O’Grady, a runner from Salem. “It literally went off a minute after I crossed the finish line. ... It was so loud you could feel the impact in the air.”
After the second blast, things got chaotic.
“Everybody just started screaming and crying and running,” said O’Grady, a member of the Wicked Running Club. “It was definitely pandemonium for a minute.”
Beverly City Councilor Paul Guanci was getting a medal placed around his neck by Gene Wood of Beverly, a BAA volunteer, when the first explosion sounded only a short distance away.
“You just saw smoke and people running,” he said.
Guanci’s wife, Kristin, and their children, were already on their way to the nearby Marriott Copley, the recovery zone for Guanci and other charity runners for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“My wife said there was a stampede of people trying to get inside” the Marriott, he said.
Chip Tuttle of Salem was in the “chute” waiting for his medal when police started sprinting toward the site of the explosion.
“You knew it was a very serious situation,” said Tuttle, the chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs.
When he reached a nearby hotel, Tuttle encountered a lot of anxious runners who had not been able to reach family and friends waiting near the finish line — near the explosions.
“Many of them had no idea whether or not the people who were watching them finish were OK or not,” he said. “It was a very chaotic scene.”
Jeff Stinson, a former Hamilton selectman, was at the Red Sox game with his girlfriend, cousin and a friend when they decided to catch some of the marathon.
They were on Exeter Street walking toward the finish line near the Prudential Center when they heard the first explosion.
“We looked quick to see what was going on and that is when we heard the next explosion,” he said. “We told people to keep moving in the other direction because we didn’t know what was going on.”
He said they feared possible other explosions.
“The worst part about it was not knowing where to go,” Stinson said. “We didn’t know what direction to head because you don’t know what was going on.”
Shari Hewson, 50, of Beverly, who was running the marathon with a team, was diverted off the course with a mile to go.
“They told us the race was over, and we didn’t get to finish the race,” she said. “Nobody knew what was going on.”
Her husband and son were headed to the VIP seating area near the finish line but weren’t there when the explosions happened. They all met each other at a hotel.
Hewson said it was difficult to get in touch with people because her cellphone was in a bag at the finish line, and cell reception was difficult.
“Police did the best they could, but they really didn’t know where to tell us to go,” she said.
Earlier in the day, David Gravel, a Peabody city councilor, and his wife, Cathy, were watching their daughter, Katrina, 24, run her second marathon from the bleachers near the finish line. But they left before the explosions.
“I can’t believe it,” Gravel said. “I was watching TV and said, ‘We were sitting right there.’”
Lisa Rizzo of Peabody was in the bleachers when the first bomb went off waiting for her husband, Jerry, to cross the finish line.
It “sounded like a cannon went off,” she said. “I turned my head, and there was smoke billowing out of the store. We didn’t know what to do.”
In the meantime, Jerry was a half-mile out when the race stopped.
“All of a sudden, everything just stopped,” he said. “Nobody knew what the hell was going on.”
Salem State University had a staff member and two students studying athletic training in one of the tents assisting runners at the finish line.
“We are all reeling from the senseless violence and tragedy that occurred at the Boston Marathon ...” Salem State President Patricia Meservey said in a statement.
“At this time, we know of no faculty, staff or students who were injured. However, we do know that several of our faculty and students were in the area of the explosions and helped provided emergency care for some of the injured. We are very proud of their efforts during such a chaotic time.”
Several area police departments responded to calls for assistance from Boston police.
Salem sent in K-9 officers Tim Salvo and Ryan Davis, seven members of a regional rapid response team and two civilian employees trained in tactical dispatch.
For anyone there yesterday, it was hard not to ask “what if?” and “why?”
O’Grady couldn’t fathom how someone could be “sick enough and full of such hatred” to do something like this.
Levasseur thought of how lucky he was.
“The crazy thing is, before we got into the stands, my wife and I were walking on that side of the street, probably 20 minutes to a half-hour before.”
Gravel, like many people, wondered how something so horrific could happen on a day when so many people ran a marathon to help others.
“It is such a joyous, beautiful event,” he said. “To have something like this happen is horrible. It is just very sad.”