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Oklahoma City Bombing stories published in The Oklahoman and NEWS 9.
'Oklahoma City changes us all'

By Ken Raymond, The Oklahoman

Bettie Lewis stood beside her daughter's empty chair at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and smiled so brightly it was clear her grief was overshadowed by pride.

On her blouse was a large pin - roughly 6 inches in diameter - bearing an image of her daughter, Charlotte Andrea Lewis Thomas, affectionately known as "Puddin."

To Lewis, the 10th anniversary of Puddin's death in the Oklahoma City bombing wasn't about grief or tears or sorrow; it was a reunion of sorts, a chance to further friendships forged in tragedy and keep the lost alive - by remembering, by sharing and most of all by smiling.

"She was a wonderful person," Lewis said. "That's why everybody's stopping by talking about her. Everybody loved her."

Love was manifestly evident at the memorial Tuesday, as those with ties to the bombing joined together in sometimes sad, sometimes funny remembrances of lives that were cut far too short. Children unborn at the time of the catastrophe played in the grassy Field of Empty Chairs, peeking around corners at each other and filling the solemn space with laughter.

'It still feels like the same day'

Former President Clinton joined in the laughs, teasing friend and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, and Vice President Dick Cheney, during memorial services at First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City.

Clinton, Cheney and other notables honored those who perished on April 19, 1995, and praised those who have found the strength to live on.

"Goodness overcame evil that day," Cheney said. "We want to remember not only a single act of malice, but also 10,000 acts of kindness."

Clinton, who was president in 1995, said Oklahoma's response to the bombing was a triumph of the human spirit.

"In this life, Oklahoma City changed us all," Clinton said. "It broke our hearts and lifted our spirits and brought us together and reminded us of what is truly important in life."

Even so, some of those broken hearts still show cracks.

Regina Bonny knelt - weeping - before the seat dedicated to Carrol June "Chip" Fields. After several minutes, Oklahoma City police chaplain Jack Poe put his arm around her and consoled her in the grassy field.

She then walked to four other chairs and placed wreathes on them, rubbing each nameplate slowly. Five of her friends died in the bombing.

Ten years ago, Bonny was a Midwest City police officer assigned to the Drug Enforcement Agency. Although injured in the explosion, she helped others escape.

"Every year at this time, it's not easy," she said. "I remember everything - the smells. Everything triggers it."

Ron Kephart and Richard Spaulding, both medics at Will Rogers World Airport's fire station in 1995, had never been to the memorial before Tuesday. Both helped with rescue operations after the bombing, and both still bear the emotional scars.

"It was senseless," Kephart said, chin trembling as he fought back tears. "A totally senseless situation."

Spaulding also battled to keep his composure. "We have a lot of friends in here," he said, gesturing toward the empty chairs. "Raymond Johnson - I had known him since I was about 26. He was pulled out the day I wasn't here. He was a ... good man, a good family man. This shouldn't have happened. It shouldn't have happened."

Tracy Thompson and Harold Taylor, who lost their mother in the bombing, said they live with the pain every day.

Their mother, Laura J. Garrison, had come to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building a decade ago to file retirement papers with the Social Security Administration. She was "in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Thompson, of Phoenix, Ariz.

"To me, it still feels like the same day, the first day," Thompson said. "I knew she was gone. I could just feel it."

Tuesday, Thompson and her brother, who lives in Florida, returned to the memorial for only the second time. They recalled final conversations with their mom - Thompson spoke to her on the phone the night before the bombing and Taylor ended a visit to Oklahoma City just a few days before that.

"Normally, I would've come out about three weeks later," Taylor said. "But she called me up and wanted me to come out, so I got in my car and drove all the way out here." He paused, closing his eyes tightly and turning his head away. "I'm glad that, uh ... I'm glad I came here."

Aren Almon-Kok said she was amazed that people she doesn't know still remember her family.

"People have brought out teddy bears and stuff," she said wonderingly. "It's nice. We're going to bring flowers ourselves ... but all these teddy bears are from other people. It's nice to know that people still care this much this many years later."

Almon-Kok's daughter, Miss Baylee Almon, became the heartbreaking face of the tragedy. Amateur photographer Charles Porter IV's Pulitzer Prize-winning shots of firefighter Chris Fields cradling the 1-year-old's lifeless body in his arms were reproduced worldwide.

"I'm getting better," Almon-Kok said. "It's still hard. I still have bad days and bad times, and the milestones - yesterday would've been her 11th birthday. Things like that are sad. They make me sad."

Amid the sadness is inspiration.

"We learned so much from the Oklahoma people," New York City police officer Kerry Hyland said. "You folks have so much strength. ... I wasn't here in 1995, but these guys all came up and helped us after 9/11, and I can't thank them enough for their strength and the love they gave us.

"I came out to support and hug and love the friends that I've made in Oklahoma, and even the people that I just met here. You guys are like one great big family. I'm thinking about moving here."

Contributing: Staff Writer Chad Previch

2005 The Oklahoman, NEWS 9 and Oklahoma City National Memorial.
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