City Crosses Emotional Threshold In Demolition of Federal Building

MATT STORY stood alone behind a chain-link fence, watching a prairie sunset paint the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in hues of red and orange.

Like thousands of pilgrims who have come here since last month's terrorist attack, Mr. Story studied the nine-floor ruin for shards of meaning, knowing that soon it would be gone. ''I see a beautiful building, a strong building,'' he said, smiling faintly through a glaze of tears. ''Then I see the empty space where my mother's desk used to be, and it doesn't make sense.''

At daybreak May 23, after a demolition crew imploded the husk with a dust-spitting roar, some walked away with a feeling of closure. But to Mr. Story, who lost his mother, Frances Williams, in the April 19 blast, the search for answers will endure long after the tons of steel and concrete are hauled away and the last conspirator tried.

While the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 will likely head chapters in tomorrow's history books, its lessons are still a mystery to a city, and a nation, unaccustomed to wars within.

''My children have asked questions in the past that I haven't been able to answer,'' says Bliss Morris, who came to the site with her husband, John, and their two small children. ''But never before have I felt so unable to explain something. Children can tell.''

Three weeks ago, the Morrises buried their friend, Teresa Alexander, who had gone to the Murrah building to get a Social Security card for her eighth-grade son.

''Teresa wasn't part of the federal government,'' Mr. Morris says, keeping a tight grip on his son, Hunter.

''We wanted to show our children what anger and violence is all about, wherever you find it,'' he says.

Throughout the bomb site, from late May 22 to dawn May 23, a steady stream of people walked the perimeter of the doomed building, snapping photographs and whispering prayers.

They came from Dallas and Omaha, St. Louis and Little Rock. Some wore ribbons, others carried stuffed animals and stenciled banners to hang on walls and fences.

Marilyn Bretches came from Wichita, Kan., where she works at a YMCA day care center, just like the one that was destroyed by the 5,000-pound truck bomb. That act, she says, brought home the danger of terrorism like nothing else.

Personal tributes

Scanning the shell of the Murrah building, and the rows of dried flowers and handwritten prayers taped to the chain link fences surrounding it, Ms. Bretches vowed to redouble her efforts to reach out to troubled children.

''All parents,'' she says, ''have to be more concerned about how they raise their kids.''

The latest emotional threshold for Oklahoma City -- and the nation -- came abruptly. At 7:01 a.m. May 23, under leaden skies, a siren wailed a two-minute warning. Another siren hailed the one-minute mark, and a tense silence settled over the roughly 1,000 spectators nearby.

The eight-second demolition went according to plan. The 150 pounds of dynamite, burrowed into the building's support columns and set with timers, allowed the reinforced-concrete walls to collapse inward, preventing collateral damage.

A shroud of brown dust rose skyward as the building fell, settling silently over the scene minutes later like an unexpected snow.

During the blast, there were gasps, and tears. Those too young to understand the gravity of the event were visibly excited, as if the demolition was part of a sequence for a ''Die Hard'' movie.

But most of the spectators walked quickly away with none of the breathless chatter that accompanies crowds who have witnessed history. To most, the moment brought a slew of contradictory emotions, from joy and liberation to despair.

Conflicting emotions

''At first, when the building went down, we all got a little teary-eyed but then we went inside [the demolition site] and it was exhilarating,'' Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating said. ''We all felt like kicking the rubble and saying, 'So there.'''

But to some onlookers, the demolition was a tragedy on top of a tragedy. Jack Stevens, a construction consultant from Dallas, not only helped build the Murrah building, but also spent 14 days assisting with the rescue effort.

If it was up to him, Mr. Stevens says, he would have left the building standing. Razing it completely, he argues, ''is exactly what these warped people wanted to happen in the first place.''

Leaving the structure, he says, would allow future generations to understand both how fragile a democracy is, and the danger of unchecked hatred.

''Just because you build a nice park doesn't mean that the act was any less evil,'' he says.

A memorial park

In the week ahead, bulldozers will clear the rubble, which is expected to fill some 600 semi-trailers. Some of the concrete will be crushed for gravel, and the girders melted down for reuse. Several granite panels from inside the building have already been removed for use in a possible memorial.

But before the whole heap can be removed, workers will have to recover the two or three victims still believed to be buried in the building. Earlier efforts to rescue them were abandoned out of fear the building would collapse. The area where they lie has been sprayed with orange paint and draped with netting and a black shroud to mark their location.

For Matt Story, the opening of the memorial, whatever form it takes, will offer another milestone in his search for answers, and another chance to honor the memory of his mother, who worked for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on the eighth floor of the Murrah building.

''A few days before the bombing, we were watching TV and I asked my mother what she would want to do if she could travel back in time. She said she would walk with Jesus and hold his hand.''

Story's eyes well over. His voice cracks.

''She got her wish,'' he says.

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