Lesson From America's Worst Bomb Attack

Residents pull together but ask: Why here?

SHELLEY DAVIS, a Red Cross volunteer, pauses from handing out lemonade and snacks a few blocks from the devasted federal building here.

''You think you're safe in Oklahoma,'' says Ms. Davis, glancing toward the arc-lit hulk eerily reminiscent of the 1983 car-bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. ''People are just not going to forget.''

A mixture of shock and outrage reverberate through this city in the heart of America's Bible Belt two days after the worst terrorist attack in history on United States soil.

Like any place after a disaster, Oklahoma City has taken on a surreal feel. The downtown has turned into a ghost town. Rescue workers with tiny cameras work to find survivors, even as an armada of satellite-equipped news trucks beam images to the world of heriosm and destruction from this latest symbol of America's vulnerability to attack.

Local residents are reacting numbly to their losses, while pulling together with an outpouring of small-town generosity. Hundreds are lining up to give blood. Churches are opening their doors for special services. Donations are pouring in around the state.

Kegy Ruark drove for three hours to offer free meals from his Bar-B-Q wagon. ''It's my way of paying [the rescue workers] back,'' he says.

Air Force Sergeant John Brozek spent Wednesday and Thursday as a volunteer, searching the building for survivors.

Few people have been found alive amid the collapsed structure strewn with shattered concrete, overturned file cabinets, desks, and computers. ''With 200 people still missing, you've got to hope that there are more left alive,'' he says wearily.

Behind the activity, there's an incredulity that this could happen here. This, after all, is a city far removed from the war-ravaged Middle East.

Middle America

Oklahoma City may not be the pastoral place portrayed in the Rodgers & Hammerstein play. But it is heartland America. Cowboy boots are at least as common as wingtips. Few people lock their cars. Folks passing strangers on the sidewalk are more likely to say ''Howdy'' than look away.

''The people that worked there wouldn't even know what foreign relations were, let alone feel threatened by it,'' says Ron Vickers, an Oklahoma City insurance salesman who has two friends, as yet unaccounted for, in the building.

Yet the town's seeming innocence may have been the reason it was singled out for such senseless act, at least according to early theories from experts and common folk alike. ''Whoever did this wanted to prove that no one is excluded [from terrorism],'' says Mandy Hunt, a college student.

The car bomb used in the blast was similar in size and style to the one used in the World Trade Center attack in New York in 1993, though this one was more lethal.

At press time, more than three dozen people were confirmed dead. Six died in the New York attack. With some two hundred people still unaccounted for, officials expect the number of fatalities to go much higher.

Emergency crews flown in from around the country are working around the clock to find survivors. They are using acoustic listening devices, fiber-optic cameras, and trained dogs.

''Right now, you're looking at some brave people in there, because they don't know what's holding it up,'' says Greg Bright, a National Guardsman whose house 15 miles away was shaken by the blast. ''The thing that most encouraged me about this disaster,'' he adds, ''is the way people came together.''

The scope of the destruction is sobering. The entire side of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building was blown away. Other buildings sustained broken windows up to 10 blocks away, even on their sheltered sides.

Sidewalks were sprinkled with broken glass. Three blocks away, a single-story building had caved in, crumpling a pickup truck under baseball-sized chunks of cinderblock.

''Can you believe fertilizer and gasoline would do that?'' muses Jason Hearne, a security officer at the command post. ''It took a bite out of it.''

As much as the physical damage, the blast has shaken Oklahoma City's soul. Some local commentators even suggest that the tragedy has inflicted spiritual damage that can never be undone. Not so, says Jeremy Williams, a Southern Baptist chaplain who prayed with rescue workers seeking emotional comfort.

''People can recover from anything that they choose to recover from,'' Mr. Williams says. ''Jesus left his peace with us. We try to share that. That's the best system for recovery.''

Public outrage

But many residents and officials are angry. ''It's just horrible,'' says Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R). ''It's a very tragic thing that it could happen in America, certainly middle America.''

''People are feeling disgust,'' adds Mr. Vickers, the insurance salesman. ''It's deplorable, an act like this. If you bring them to trial, what have you achieved?''

Early Thursday, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said it found a Chevrolet Cavalier that may have been involved in the bombing, and that ''follow-up interviews'' were being conducted.

The El Paso Times had reported that Texas authorities had been searching for ''two men of Middle Eastern appearance,'' possibly wearing bloodied clothing, driving a Cavalier or Blazer toward the Mexico border.

Police Sgt. Kim Hughes said today that authorities believe the 1,000-to-1,200-pound bomb was carried in a National Car Rental minivan with Texas license plates.

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