Oklahoma City Restoration Takes More Than Mortar

SMOOTHING one of his survey maps with a weathered hand, Oklahoma City public works director Paul Brum traces the damage wrought by last month's terrorist bomb. The wave of destruction radiates out as far as a mile and a half from the federal building.

''Everybody who designs a building has some misgivings about the way it was constructed,'' Mr. Brum says, ''But who would have thought their building would have to face something like this?''

Ten buildings collapsed, 25 were left structurally unsound, and 350 bear broken windows. All were hit by the explosive blast wind that ripped through the city in excess of 200 miles per hour.

Reconstruction may take five years and $1 billion to complete. City planners will be deciding how to rebuild in a way that also contributes to healing the tattered emotions of Oklahomans.

Bricks and emotions

''Architecture is more than just bricks and mortar,'' says Jim Bruza, the city's main construction contractor. ''It deals with human emotions.''

Since the April 19 explosion, engineers and architects have flocked to the blast site, which has become a laboratory for those who want to check beams, joists, and girders to see how their designs withstood the explosion.

Inside, Brum says, the damage is surprisingly consistent with that of a type of disaster Oklahomans are used to: tornadoes.

The source of most of the destruction, he explains, was not the heat or fire from the bomb, but the blast wind. This pernicious gale buckled walls and smashed windows with such force, Brum says, that in some structures, bits of glass sliced through Sheetrock walls, leaving inch-wide holes.

While several gas lines ruptured, the buried water mains and electrical wires near the federal building survived intact, he says, even near the crater caused by the truck bomb. Filling that gaping hole, Brum says, ''Is just a matter of a dump truck and a cement-mixer.''

Although some phone lines need repair near the blast site, Southwestern Bell line worker Debi Cummings says that the first rescue workers inside the building after the blast could hear telephones ringing in the rubble.

Amazingly, Brum says, the two largest buildings near the blast, the YMCA and the 24-story Regency Towers apartment complex, will likely stand. Built with reinforced concrete in the era of fallout shelters, they are structurally sound. But structures like St. Joseph's Cathedral, just two blocks from the bomb site, suffered irreparable damage. The old cathedral lost all of its stained glass windows except one.

Jim Loftis, the architect of the Alfred P. Murrah building, maintains that while the structure might be salvageable, it carries a stigma now. And there's growing sentiment here that the site should be converted to a memorial for the victims.

Both Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick and Gov. Frank Keating have requested that the federal government not rebuild the Murrah building.

Blast site park

According to assistant city manager Joe Van Bullard, the leading idea is to turn the blast site into a park with trees and ''some sort of water feature.'' Governor Keating calls for a bronze statue depicting the now-famous photograph of a firefighter cradling an infant in his arms moments after the bombing.

Other suggestions, Mr. Van Bullard says, include statues of children, a wall with victims' names, or a playground. Radio talk shows buzz with callers who say they could never go back to the site.

Priscilla Salyers, a customs agent who was pinned in the rubble for four hours after the blast, says she ''couldn't imagine'' setting foot in the building again.

When the last hard hats are hung up, the refurbished downtown may not look much different from the old one. With the possible exception of the federal building, most Oklahomans agree that even if it costs more and takes longer, every building that can possibly be salvaged, should be.

It's a matter of healing.

''We don't want pocket parks everywhere a building had to be removed,'' Brum says. ''It's important to everyone that we rebuild what we can, that the bombers don't always win.''

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