Bombing Survivors Tell Their Stories Of Hope, Healing
OKLAHOMA CITY — ABOUT 100 feet from the spot where a two-ton truck bomb exploded last year, there's a tree.
It wasn't much to look at before the blast - a short, gnarly elm whose two trunks jut awkwardly sideways. The bombing sheared off limbs, charred the bark, and pierced the trunk with shards of glass and metal.
This tree could easily be viewed as a sad reminder of the nation's worst-ever terrorist attack, a memorial to the 168 Americans who died in the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
But on the tips of its remaining branches, the elm tells another story. Not with words, of course, but with buds. Hundreds of them.
"That tree is a source of inspiration for all of us," says Paul Heath, co-founder of the Murrah Building Survivors Association.
Here in Oklahoma City, where the prairie wind blows warmly now, people are returning to the corner of Fifth and Robinson to view the earthen wound where the federal building once stood, now covered with sod and ringed by a chain-link fence.
On April 19, the first anniversary of the attack, church bells will peal, the names of victims will be read at 10-second intervals, and fighter jets will thunder by. It will be a time to mourn, to reflect on the hatred this crime revealed and the lessons it has taught.
But it will also be a moment to witness the resilience of this city and its people, to meet the men and women who escaped that ruined structure.
Many survivors do not want to talk about their experiences. For some it is too painful, others have moved on. But on the whole, survivors of this tragic attack are not seething with hate. They concentrate on the positive. They cherish their families and search for ways to repay the gift of life they feel they have received.
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Bill Hathaway was combing his hair in a fifth-floor bathroom of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when the bomb exploded at 9:02 a.m. There were no emergency lights in the small space, no windows. He was alone in the darkness.
When a firefighter found him, 45 minutes later, he was under the sink, clutching the drainpipe with both hands and staring into space. He does not remember being led out. At the time, he was thousands of miles away. Back in Vietnam.
"I knew it was a bomb," says the Air Force veteran. "I had heard that sound many times before." Under the sink, Mr. Hathaway remembers, he could smell jungle, see faint outlines of trees.
After the bombing, Hathaway slowly began to recall, piece by piece, an 18-day period during the Vietnam War that he had packed away in the crawl spaces of his mind. He was in a remote village when a firefight broke out. A mortar shell landed in his bunker. He was the only survivor.
For 25 years, Hathaway carried this smoky image with him almost unwittingly. Sometimes it nagged at him like an itch between the shoulder blades. It took another bomb to crack the shell, to free the images.
Hathaway has thrown himself into healing. He dropped out of a work-study program at the Veterans Administration and sought counseling. He had "several long talks with God."
"It opened up that portion of my life and allowed me to deal with it," he says. "None of it was pretty."
The experience, he says, has changed him. Today, he mostly plays golf, takes care of the pigeons he keeps behind his trailer home, takes long walks with his wife, and laughs a lot.
"I like sunny days, I like rainy days, I like cool breezes at night," he muses. "I don't worry about what others want me to do anymore. I take stock of what I have."
For Hathaway, the Oklahoma City bombing completed a circle begun in the jungles of Southeast Asia. "I've been shot at, I've been blown up twice, I've seen death no one should see," Hathaway concludes. "Sometimes, I guess, the only way to make something stronger is to put it in the fire."
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Ruth Heald Schwab answers her front door in blue jeans. Her two youngest children, joined by a brood of friends, take turns flopping on a backyard trampoline. It is Saturday, and her afternoon has been occupied by finding lost baseball caps, fielding questions about dinner, and dispensing band-aids.
Her daughter, Sarah, darts into the living room, ponytail bobbing, and plops down on the couch. Her mother has begun to talk about the bombing, about the wreckage and the smoke, about losing an eye.
As she speaks, the sixth-grader hugs her, strokes her hair, fusses with her sweater. The child's expression is oddly protective, as if her mother was a favorite doll, lost for a time, then pulled miraculously from some dusty chasm.
"It's hard for me to say goodbye to the kids when they go to school," Schwab says, "and it's hard for them to leave. Hardly a day passes when they don't stop to give me a kiss or a hug."
Hours after the bombing, she recalls, her youngest children were too frightened to look at her. Today her glass eye is barely discernable. She looks like mom again.
"I've got great kids," she says, flashing a teasing smile in Sarah's direction. "I wish they'd clean their rooms a little more often, but they're still great kids."
Schwab, who says her vision is poor, has not been back to work since the blast. She twists her fingers when she talks about her job at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). She longs sometimes for the chaos and satisfaction of her days finding housing for low-income native Americans.
But since the bombing she has reconnected with the community that embraced her. She speaks at schools, churches, and civic meetings, and volunteers as a substitute teacher. And she has found sustenance in her family.
After the bombing, Schwab told her then-fiance, Art Schwab, that he could walk away if he wanted to. "I know this is more than you bargained for," she told him. "It's OK if it's too much."
He did not leave. They were married in February. He and his two children moved in with her, and their two-story house has become a favorite way station for a nomadic herd of neighborhood kids.
"Before the bombing, I put my career before my family," she says, brushing a stray strand of hair from her daughter's eyes. "Now I'm making up for lost time."
Like many fellow survivors, she does not plan to attend the April 19 memorial ceremony. She worries that it could attract the attention of another madman. "I'm going to be like the mother hen that day," she says, "with all my chicks close by."
She will not be invisible, though. She has appeared on television and tells her story every time she's asked. Many survivors feel they were spared for a reason, and Schwab is no different. She has made it her mission to help make the legacy of the bombing one of hope and triumph.
"There's been so much bad, so much sadness," she says. "It's good for all of us to see someone who survived."
Before the bombing, Calvin Moser was a handshake guy. It was his reflexive greeting for officemates, sales people, even close friends. It was appropriate in every occasion.
But since the bombing ripped through his office at HUD, killing nearly half of his co-workers, things have changed. Those who survived have come to view each other as treasures. Traditional expressions of concern are no longer sufficient.
"Handshakes are just almost gone now, because you hug each other," Mr. Moser says. "In our society, it's not uncommon for women to be expressive of their emotions, but men don't do that quite as readily, especially man to man. Now, there's no thought, no comment about it. We just hug each other. I think that's one big effect the bombing has had."
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Beverly Rankin, too, knows this special bond. As a service representative at the Social Security Administration, she had frequently worried that someone in the office might get hurt. The representatives spent much of their time dealing with furious and irrational people, and threats were common.
Although this sense of danger made her officemates close to begin with, the bombing has made them a family. They were on the first floor, in the back of the building, when the blast occurred, Mrs. Rankin remembers. As the smoke cleared, they called out to one another and groped over collapsed desks and toppled filing cabinets to gather. Holding hands in a human chain, they weaved and wobbled to the exit.
That connection continues, she says. The group goes to movies together, holds potluck dinners, and lobbies for stricter antiterrorism legislation. Instead of attending the anniversary ceremony, they plan to visit the site together beforehand.
"I need the people I work with as much as I need my own family," Rankin says. "Oklahoma City is a big place but it's got a small-town mentality. We count on each other."
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How has the bombing changed his life? Paul Heath chuckles at the question. Since the blast, he has dedicated himself almost solely to providing comfort for survivors and their families, largely through the survivors' group he runs.
Working 12 to 14 hours every day, Dr. Heath organizes dinners for survivors, honors those who played leading roles in the rescue effort, publishes a newsletter, and serves as an advocate. Last week, he encouraged a local attorney to file a lawsuit to provide closed-circuit television coverage of the bombing trial to survivors and victims' families in Oklahoma City.
"This is a choice that I make," he says. "It's a deliberate choice. I do a great deal of helping others. It's one of the ways I cope with this tragedy."
Heath's service began shortly after the bombing, when he helped three injured co-workers at the Veterans Administration out of the structure and made 17 trips in and out, retrieving files and personal effects.
One night this month, he organized an informal dinner at a buffet restaurant here for survivors and their families. Over pork chops and cherry pie, they traded stories. Cindy McClain, a US Labor Department employee, announced that she has opened a new office and gone in for the first time. Martin Cash expressed concern that once the anniversary passes, people will close the book on an event. They remember those who did not escape.
"So many people died so quickly and we had so many funerals at once, it was virtually impossible to grieve individually for those people you worked with and everybody else," Heath says. "These meetings give us an identity and bring us together. While we were all together to start with, we're in 17 different offices now."
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These are only some of the stories. While the bombing shattered many lives, it has also forged lasting relationships. It was a catastrophe - and a catharsis.
Jack Gobin isn't certain what meaning the bombing holds for him, but he's certain that there is one. "I don't know what I was saved for," says the US Department of Agriculture veterinarian. "I haven't had any big revelation, and I haven't gone into the priesthood. I don't know what it is, but it must be something. I'm looking for it every day."