Jessica Dean had just finished the Army 10 Miler. She was stretching her quads and listening to alternative metal in her earbuds by the Bluestone Bike & Run sign. As she was leaning into the stretch with her head toward the ground, she paused her music — then there was a boom.
‘I had no idea I was hurt’
Without seeing what happened, Dean, an ROTC cadet and senior kinesiology major, said she knew it was an explosion. With her ears ringing, her first instinct was to place her hands over them to muffle the intolerable sound. That’s when the pain began.
“I felt this really terrible pain in my fingers,” Dean said. “I had no idea I was hurt or bleeding or anything … other than just my hand hurting.”
Everyone ran away from the explosion. Shouts filled the air instructing Dean to crawl under a vehicle — to take shelter in case of a secondary explosion — but the cars were too low to the ground. Dean followed a crowd running toward El Charro.
As she was running, another cadet shouted, “Dean, you’re hurt.” She had several abrasions on her back, right leg and both arms. But all she could focus on was getting her smartwatch off her left wrist, where the pressure was unbearable. She couldn’t feel her hands and they were covered in crimson red.
Meanwhile, Nelle Fox, a running ambassador for Bluestone Bike & Run who cheered on participants before the explosion, pulled out her phone to call 911. Her hands were shaking so much she couldn’t dial the numbers — she ended up using the iPhone shortcut to call 911 by pressing down on the buttons on the side of her phone.
“You would think it wouldn't be that hard to dial 911,” Fox said. “But like, I could barely feel my fingers.”
Then Fox turned around and saw Dean. Blood was gushing from her arm. Fox, who has some basic first aid experience, approached Dean to help.
“Can you help me get my watch off?” Dean asked.
While taking Dean’s watch off, Fox’s hands were smeared with blood. Dean apologized while Fox was looking for someone to help address her wounds — she didn’t care about the blood in the moment.
“When you are in a situation like that,” Fox said. “If you don't start doing something to make yourself useful, you feel worthless.”
Then, James Giknavorian, a sophomore kinesiology major and ROTC cadet, approached Dean. He said the explosion was the “loudest noise” he’s ever heard and quickly began checking on others.
He said out of all the people he checked on after the explosion, his memory of Dean is most vivid. Giknavorian was practicing the triple C’s: tactical combat casualty care, which is when someone calmly checks another person for injuries after a traumatic event. Luckily, there weren’t any casualties from the explosion, but he said emotions were high and many weren’t aware of their injuries until after someone pointed them out.
When going over the three C’s with Dean, he noticed several bloody spots on her body. Despite the hectic atmosphere, Giknavorian was able to make Dean aware of her injuries.
“I wanted to make sure that she was aware of her injuries but also calm about them,” Giknavorian said. “I didn’t want her to freak out about them.”
Giknavorian — along with other cadets — checked on Dean. He said his top priority was to make sure everyone who was injured received the care they needed.
“Not only my thought process but the thought processes and feelings of the other cadets were ‘We need to take care of each other. We need to make sure that we're OK,’” Giknavorian said.
Dean was walked over to sit under a tree next to Wendy’s and wait for first responders to arrive.
Dean said all she could remember was things shaking and falling down from inside the vehicle because they were driving so fast. She said all she could think about once she arrived at the hospital was about her dachshund, Ozzy. The four-year-old dog hadn’t been taken to the bathroom all day and she was worried about him.
“He hadn’t gone to the bathroom since 9 p.m. the previous night,” Dean said. “I was worried.”
Looking back and moving forward
Within four hours of the explosion, Dean’s mom made it to Harrisonburg. Later, her sister Tess came up as well. Four days after the explosion Tess is still helping her sister with simple tasks like changing and typing.
Her left arm — the one the watch was on — has been the most affected by the explosion. Most of her fingers on her left hand were immobile.
“I get this wet feeling on my arm sometimes, like even though it's not wet,” Jessica said. “It feels like an electrical pulse going through my arm sometimes.”
Tess said she’s not good with words, and instead of being interviewed she decided to write a letter about her sister after the incident. In the letter, she said Jessica hasn’t let the explosion stop her from being herself.
“She is the meaning of spirit — always in an upbeat, goofy mood,” Tess said. “Her heart is so big and caring.”
The explosion affected Jessica immediately physically, but the emotional repercussions didn’t rise to the surface until about two days later. She said she was working on an assignment for class and was struggling typing on her laptop. She stared at the keyboard and the next thing she knew, tears welled up in her eyes.
“[I was] just thinking about like, man,” Jessica said. “Am I ever gonna be back to normal?”
As of Tuesday, Jessica gained some feeling and mobility back in two of her fingers. The only uncertainty is the condition of her fingers. Beyond that, she has several bruises, but she said everything’s healing properly.
Jessica said that she and her fellow cadets have planned a “celebration of life” for the weekend. Because of the explosion, she said she has a new appreciation for life.
“Living itself is a risk of your life,” Jessica said. “It's so worth it, though.”
Contact Katelyn Waltemyer at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.