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Table settings are seen abandoned at a cafe along Newbury street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts April 16, 2013.

SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

Corey Comeau is fairly certain that coming to work on Tuesday morning was the saddest thing he's ever done.

There he found a scene frozen in time. Plates of food deserted mid-forkful. Celebratory drinks barely sipped. Kids' menus and crayons discarded on tables.

Stephanie's on Newbury, the 19-year-old restaurant where he is the executive chef, is a block from the bombings that shook Boston on Monday afternoon.

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After the explosions, everything was abandoned exactly where it was. The next day, a handful of employees returned, dazed but resolute, to clear up what had been left behind. And much like the city itself, they began to pick up the pieces.

There was work to do. Marathon day is the restaurant's busiest moment of the year. Runners pack its ample patio, relieved and euphoric to be finished. Servers in white shirts and ties circulate with trays of crab cakes and hamburgers, ice teas and Bloody Marys.

On Tuesday, the staff cleared plates, removed glasses and picked up silverware. Every motion was accompanied by a strong sense of disbelief, as the small group tried to grapple with the incomprehensible – three dead, scores injured, a city tradition permanently scarred.

"It's hard to put in a nice little neat box," said Mr. Comeau, 39. "Yesterday we should have been complaining about people ordering too many cheeseburgers, not worrying if our family is safe."

He was joined by the general manager, Derek Flodin, and at least three other staff members. Sheelah Scott, Mr. Flodin's girlfriend, also pitched in. She was running in the marathon and had reached the 25th mile when Mr. Flodin called her and told her to stop.

The building had shaken once, then twice. "I've never felt anything like that," Mr. Flodin said. He shepherded the restaurant's staff and customers as far inside as he could, trying to keep people away from the windows. Then he ventured out and asked a police officer what to do.

Smoke was wafting across the intersection. Right on the corner, two people with injuries had been carried from the explosion, stopping in front of a NikeTown outlet. Local police told Mr. Flodin to clear the restaurant and send people several blocks north toward the Charles River, away from the marathon route.

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Returning on Tuesday morning "was spooky," said Mr. Flodin, 24, as he swept the patio in jeans and a Boston Bruins cap. Uncomfortable with recounting his experience, he preferred to focus on the task at hand. "We're going to clean things up and carry on from there."

His girlfriend, Ms. Scott, had planned to join her family at Stephanie's to celebrate her race. Instead, her mother and sister were waiting in the stands when explosions went off nearby. They saw the injured up close. "They're shaken up," Ms. Scott said.

The restaurant did not reopen on Tuesday, not because of any physical damage, but in recognition of the fact that somehow it couldn't – not with the marathon route still a crime scene, not with the staff still in a mild state of shock.

Across the street and down a bit, Jennifer and James Hill wanted to send a message of steadfastness, but in a different way. They made sure to open their kitchen-supply store as usual. Outside they placed a small handwritten sign, with a drawing of an American flag and the message: "Come in and just visits with us."

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