As of this morning at 9:02am Central, 11 years have passed and so many new things have happened to hold our focus like September 11th and the war on terror. I can't forget April 19, 1995 as it became part of me and all of us.
I told this story to a few people years ago but I think it's time to tell it again, lest we should forget. Sitting here 11 years later it's all so fresh in my mind. I can still remember every sight, sound and smell as if I was still standing right there as I first saw what was left of the A.J. Murrah building. Part of me wants to forget and part never wants to forget.
It was a Wednesday, just like today, April 19, 1995. I went to work as usual. My wife was attending a class in Dallas all week. I was talking on the phone to a customer in Muskogee who had a server problem. At 9:02am, I was jolted out of my chair in my office three blocks directly south of the Murrah building. My computer monitor bounced three inches high on my desk and smashed its base as it landed. I told the person on the phone something big just happened and I quickly got off the phone.
Little did I know everything would be different after that morning. Several of us first thought of a gas main explosion or an air plane crash, but as we looked out the fourth floor windows to the west, we could only see only a small amount of smoke drifting by with the northeast wind. We all looked at each other with the same look of "oh no . . . "
Assuming what we thought at the time, was the worst, several of us grabbed office first-aide kits and went downstairs to investigate. The instant we reached the sidewalk outside our building we were shocked by the sight of several inches of broken glass covering everything as far as you could see. It was like walking on a sandy beach, but it was slick, jagged, broken glass. It crunched under your shoes as you walked on it. Many, many high rise office windows in a 5 block radius were blown out into the street. We were still three blocks away. As we made our way north, closer to the source of the smoke, we began to encounter a steady stream of bloody, glass cut, and mangled people in their suits and ties pouring out of the surrounding buildings. The farther north we went, there were no intact windows in any high rise building that I could see. I lost track of my office mates in the confusion.
I don't know why I kept going but something pushed me to get there quickly. As I approached the Murrah building from the Southwest, its rear profile looked normal but was veiled in thick black smoke coming from the front. As I came around the NW corner to see the front of the building for the first time, I found myself alone standing in a surreal landscape in front of a building I no longer recognized. There were cars on fire in a parking lot across the street in front of the building. The black smoke they gave off drifted up the street into my face as the morning sun tried to shine through it.
I remember the sound of fire engines coming in the distance but was startled when I turned around and they were upon me. They were the first to arrive. Everything seemed to be in slow motion with every horrible detail vividly and clearly etched in my mind. Standing in the middle of the street at the corner, I could see the massive crater in what used to be the street with a pile of concrete and rubble next to it reaching up into the building on top of where the day care center used to be minutes before. Only then did I see the man lying in the middle of the street in a fetal position. He was not moving. There was no doubt in my mind that he was dead. The firemen started handing out rubber gloves to those of us who were there, no questions asked or words spoken. They were in auto mode and everyone looked at each other knowingly as if to say, "You know what needs to be done". I was horrified by the expression on their faces. It was a look of utter desperation and near panic at the scene in front of us. Mine must have been just as bad.
I looked up to the sky. As high as you could see there were thousands of sheets of paper floating down as if dropped from heaven. Whole filing cabinets, furniture and computers were periodically falling out of the front of the building, down onto the pile of rubble above the crater. I had been there at most only about a minute. More emergency crews began to arrive and as I looked up into the middle of the building, I could see people moving around on bare, jagged concrete slabs that used to be offices. Two tattered women calmly stood together on the fifth floor looking down into the chasm below. There was a man below them on the third floor who had lost both of his arms and was stumbling through the wreckage trying to make his way out. I felt so sorry for him since he could not balance himself. He had to lean his head against things for balance and his face was all dirty.
I found myself climbing halfway up the 3 story concrete pile above the crater to help a fireman tend to a lady who was half buried under concrete and rubble. She was only visible from the waist up. She wore a green paisley patterned dress and had a severe puncture wound to her chest. We applied direct pressure on the wound to try to keep her alive. She had piercing blue eyes and brown hair. She was pleading with us to help her. We did the best we could and knew it could not be enough. The bomb squad had arrived, and an ordinance dog was on the pile searching. His handler started yelling, "There is a second Bomb, everyone clear the site, NOW."
All hell broke lose every where. Everyone was yelling get away, get away now. The lady we were with, heard them and begged us not to leave her. The fire chief below ordered us off the pile. Two other firemen tried to convince the fireman that was with me to leave. As we were arguing that she would die if we left her, I looked down and realized that she had already died. Her blue eyes staring back in disbelief. We had failed. I remember running from the site with a mass of other terrified people thinking we could die at any moment from a second device. I don't remember how I got off of the pile or the drive home. I do remember walking to my front door. I looked down at my blood soaked slacks and loafers. I had not even noticed. I collapsed in a heap on the front steps of my house.
I called my wife's class site in Dallas trying to contact her so she would not worry but was only able to leave a message. It took 45 minutes to get a circuit out. I was upset, which the girl on the other could hear and I told her to just tell my wife there was a bombing downtown and I was OK. Apparently she'd gotten security to pull my wife out of class and give her the message which scared her to death. She was finally able to call me around 9pm. The class was released after they got the news and she drove home the next morning. She said during the entire 200 mile drive EVERY vehicle had its lights on as a tribute. It was very touching but made the drive more difficult. We had 24 hour news coverage on EVERY station for weeks on end, even after other parts of the country seemed to move on.
All of us who worked downtown were sickened by by the distinctive smell of death over the next weeks until the building was finally torn down. Rainy days were the worst. There was no way to escape it.
Sept 11 brought it all back to me again. The 24x7 coverage, the sights.
I apologize if this was too intense, but this is how it was for me. As if it could be worse, I left the worst of it out.
I'm not a veteran, but I think I can understand a little how a person could go to war and come back changed. Some can move on, some can't escape it. 12 rescue workers committed suicide in the 2 years after the bombing.
Even now, every single day, rain or shine, hot or cold, there are visitors at the memorial. New items, a teddy bear, a shirt or hat constantly show up on the fence. The best I can do is drive by. That's the closest I've been in 11 years but I carry them all with me inside.
Even in a town this size, every family was touched in some way by the loss of those 168 people.
The pain has dulled but I'll never forget it. I owe that much to 168 people, 2 of which I went to High School with. Oklahoma City was forever changed as was the entire country. Our innocence was wiped away. This kind of thing is supposed to happen in other places, not here.