Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I don't know why, but something I wrote 8 years ago appeared on my desk last night. I've decided to share it with you, somber as it is.

I remember the day well. I was between classes at the OU School of Law and had just settled down at a table in the lounge with my friend Jon. It was our daily ritual to spend the 9:00 hour working the crossword puzzle, debating life and idly chatting with anyone who wandered our way. Suddenly, probably about 9:10, a friend of Jon's ran by saying a building in downtown Oklahoma City had blown up and they were plugging in a television upstairs to watch the news. We went.

Jon and I were among the first at the television. All we could see from the helicopter cameras was a big cloud of smoke. We were amazed at the size of the cloud. The newscasters were guessing it was caused by a natural gas explosion. As they learned about the building (the "Murray" building), they told us what they knew - but it was hard to tell from the sky just which building had blown. There was speculation in the crowd that it might be the federal court house (where many law students worked, just south of the Murrah building). As the smoke cleared, we began to see the devastation to the building. As the now-famous site revealed itself, tears began to flow. It was apparent that death was inescapable.

Was it a foreign terrorist? I don't recall whether the newscaster or a fellow student first posed the question, but my head was reeling. Terror struck me. I felt a strong urge to extricate myself from the public building and go home. Had someone started a war? I went home.

The television on, I watched the morning unfold. Cameramen were on the street and bloodied people were sitting, walking, crying...the confusion and fear on their faces. I felt helpless. We were warned to stay away from downtown. The emergency services feared traffic jams that would delay help to the wounded and dying.

A threat of another bomb was announced. Rescue workers had detected another bomb and cleared the area. I watched as people ran from the site. My heart stopped. I was sobbing.

50 Penn Place was evacuated because it was home to the FBI. I had studied terrorism in college and knew terror is best caused by random violence. I was thinking terrorism had come to the United States - and they had gone first for the heart. I became determined to fight the fear.

James called. My parents called. I promised to stay home. Then Rob called. Rob had been a good friend through law school. Our friendship was built on our similarity of heart and morals. He wanted to go to the building. I told him we would do more harm by being on the roads...we would be in the way. He said he would be by to get me in 15 minutes. We would take the back roads and walk the last two miles.

I called James to tell him my plans, then changed my answering machine message to say, "This is Jan. I'm okay. I'm not in Oklahoma City. Thank you for calling."

Rob arrived and rushed me into the car. It was noon. We stopped by his house, where he started taking piles of his own sweatshirts and stuffing them into a trash bag. He said, "Its going to rain. People are going to need something warm to wear." I was amazed at his generosity, and embarrassed that I hadn't brought anything! Rob didn't have much to give, but he didn't hesitate. He didn't sort the shirts and save his favorite or most expensive. They all went.

We took country roads and drove up to the University Hospital. We parked his car in a vacant lot and began walking. We expected to be stopped, but Rob was determined to get the shirts in. Nobody stopped us. Four blocks from the site it began to rain and we came upon a group of people loading a pickup truck from a larger truck. We asked if they needed help and they asked if we would ride on the truck to the triage area and unload the supplies and food there. Rob said yes. I was scared.

We rode in and went to work immediately. Several RVs had parked about two blocks from the building and had opened themselves up for workers to take a break. They offered me a rain jacket, which I gladly took. There was an area in the parking lot where people were beginning to set up food and supplies. I was amazed at what was already there. Restaurants had sent truckloads of sandwiches, pizzas, colas, bottled water....there were boxes of umbrellas, flashlights, batteries, tables, medical supplies. People were driving up with more supplies every minute. We took them and sorted them. The Red Cross truck pulled up and someone suggested we load all the food donations to keep them out of the rain. I hopped in the truck and people brought me boxes of sack lunches. I stacked them to the ceiling until it was full. Then the Red Cross staff started arriving. I was fired.

No matter. I found Rob carrying tables to triage and joined him. A tent had been erected outside the old post office (triage) and they were setting up tables of food for the rescue workers. I went into the post office and announced my availability. Without hesitation, I was handed a box of goggles and sent to the south entrance of the Murrah Building.

The triage was at the northwest corner of the building. The streets were covered with glass. Debris was everywhere. I saw an axle. As I started my walk, I passed a van that was at the stop sign. It was just sitting there in the street. All the glass was broken. Parked cars were smashed up. It was a war zone.

The church to my right had lost its windows, and tree limbs were scattered about. I could touch the building. I prayed there was not another bomb inside. I braced myself for what I might see. I thought of my answering machine..."I'm not in Oklahoma City..." No, just touching the building.

The south side of the building was an elevated pavilion. I made my way up the steps and across the terrace. There were civilian rescue workers receiving instructions - ready to search the inside of the building. They offered that I might join them. I declined. I handed out goggles and looked up at the building. It was creaking. Just below a window I saw a large spot of blood. Someone had jumped or fallen and hit the side of the building. I looked at the ground. Glass, blood and soot. Tiny splashes of blood.

I walked to a bench that faced south, sat down and cried. But, a rescue worker came to me with a supply request. - hats with lights. They needed hats with lights. I had to help.

I made several trips between the building and triage. Nobody had hats with lights. But they sent a radio request and I know the need was announced by the television stations.

Rob and I decided to go home around 6:00. The rain had let up, but it looked as if a huge storm was on its way. We walked north, dragging from exhaustion and feeling guilt for not having done more. The fences were going up and security was tightening, but we were leaving so nobody questioned us. As we crossed a street several blocks north of the building, a small car with 5 Iranians drove by slowly, windows down, as they looked at the bombed-out building. They scared me. I wondered if they were the terrorists. At that time, nobody dreamed a Timothy McVeigh was at work. I thought it was a gas leak or terrorism.

The two-mile trek back to the car seemed to take an eternity. We listened to the radio on the way home and heard that it was the 2-year anniversary of Waco. Madness.

I don't recall much detail of the following week. I remember looking at the building the day I was there and thinking it would take days to clean it up. It wasn't until later that night that I realized how many dead bodies were buried under that building where I had stood hours before. I can't understand how I could have stood on the threshold without understanding the true impact. I suppose I was more optimistic than I thought.

All of Oklahoma watched the news non-stop. I had finals in two weeks and my wedding in four, with graduation stuck in there, but I couldn't study. The emotions were overwhelming. The families were waiting...waiting.......waiting for theirs to be found. I suppose the hope they would find someone alive kept us watching. It didn't happen.

Oklahoma was somber. I have never experienced such widespread sorrow. People drove slowly, lights on, and you could see tears. People talked quietly. Everybody wanted to help, but nothing seemed sufficient.

One year later, Channel 4 did an update on the survivors. I was moved by the story of Dot Hill. She lived - but she didn't want to. She felt she wasn't saved by God, but that the devil had saved her to torture her. What must she have seen? I still pray for her and watch for her in the news.

When I think of the horrors the survivors and rescuers witnesses, I tremble. One rescuer killed himself to end the pain. I feel more for the survivors and rescuers than I do for the dead. They suffer. I wish I could hug them all.

Timothy McVeigh's act of violence was far-reaching; death, destruction, disfigurement, maiming, scarring, psychological trauma. It touched the victims, the families, the volunteers, the rescuers. There are children and adults alike afraid of sirens and regular citizens who feel guilt because they couldn't help.

Timothy McVeigh has been sentenced to death.


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