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City struggles with shock of deadly bombing

By Penny Owen

April 20, 1995

Oklahoma City will never be the same.

This is a place, after all, where terrorists don't venture. The heartland, people kept saying. Car bombs don't kill children here.

Wednesday changed everything. In an explosion felt at least 15 miles away, the fresh, innocent morning turned to horror. In five seconds, witnesses said, floors at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building "cascaded on top of each other. "

Those there drew all kinds of initial conclusions: A plane crashed. An earthquake hit. Armaggedon.

Once the smoke cleared, even hard-core police and rescue workers were stunned. Hundreds injured, many dead. Worse, as those dazed and wandering downtown Wednesday kept saying, there were children killed.

"Who would have ever thought it would happen in Oklahoma City? " Clent Dedek, chief investigator for Oklahoma County District Attorney Robert Macy, said.

Dedek saw the explosion from his office three blocks away.

"It was a powerful, powerful bomb," he said. "A lot of people thought it was an airplane crashing. You remember seeing pictures of the atomic bomb? It was just a big old mushroom cloud of smoke. "

As shock turned to action and police efforts to organize took hold, a second bomb alert was issued. Chaos returned, and police shouted warnings in the streets, waving people away. Officials of all sorts demanded thousands of bystanders, emergency crews and media to back up - fast - and remove their eyeglasses, for fear of another explosion.

No other bombs were discovered.

Volunteer 1 rescuer Jack Pointer of Norman was catching his breath after he ran some four blocks from the damaged federal building when the fear of a second explosive device was announced just after 10 a.m.

"There was one guy alive when I got there, man, he was trapped," Pointer said. "It looked like he was part of maintenance. He died.

They couldn't get him out. He is still there.

"We got other people out. There was a guy on the third floor trapped because he couldn't get past the crater. So we handed a ladder up to him.

"There were eight people trapped on the second floor, we couldn't get to them. The play school had a bunch of fences and we were using them as ladders. "

Yellow crime scene tape was strung everywhere. Interstate ramps to downtown were closed.

Early on, a man's body was discovered in an alley behind the post office, which is about a block away from the federal building.

Witnesses said he was a passerby.

Several parents and loved ones gathered outside the park area of the federal building, where the injured were being brought out.

At least 30 children were in the day-care center on the second floor when the explosion occurred and knocked a wall on top of them.

With each victim hauled out on a gurney, panicked relatives craned their necks in hopes of recognition. At nearby hospitals, parents taped the names of their children on themselves, so they could quickly be found when a child appeared.

The bomb caused a crater 20 feet wide and 8 feet deep in front of the federal building. The explosion welded parked cars together.

Inside the damaged building, hundreds of rescuers from dozens of agencies pried rubble off the dead and injured. Those there said people were "scattered all over" inside. Some were trapped and crying. By late afternoon, most assumed those left were dead.

"Cadaver dogs," as police call them, sniffed out humans - by late afternoon some 300 body bags were ordered by authorities, 200 from Fort Sill.

"They're having to cut off body parts to get them out of there," said Mike Taylor, director of cardiopulmonary services at Norman Regional Hospital, who helped find blast victims in the debris.

Masked rescuers said they were allowed to work for only one hour at a time due to the hard labor and the stress of finding 1 dead and injured.

"One guy came out with a backpack and just collapsed," Taylor said.

Workers dug through carnage as delicately as they could while using devices such as the "jaws of life" to free people.

"That building could go at any minute," said Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Kyle Greenfield, as he left the building from his one-hour shift. "It's totally shook off its foundation. " Workers pulled out debris from the destroyed building hand by hand, rock by rock.

"Some people still heard kids crying," said Bert Thompson, a Red Cross volunteer who had just left the rubble. "They say it's going to be slow moving. "

One woman rescued in the early afternoon was barely injured, Taylor said, while another woman pulled from the carnage was burned beyond recognition.

"I hope I never see anything like this again. We all know people who are going to be dead in that building," Greenfield said. "You can't tell what an office is. Everything is hanging down. There's dirt, files, papers. "

About a block away, an EMSA worker treated a man who had lost his arms. The injured walked around in a daze with cuts, scrapes, broken limbs. Clothes were blown off of people.

Streets resembled Bosnia or Beirut, not Oklahoma City. They were covered in glass, paperwork, bent pieces of metal that once made sense.

Soon, every official imaginable showed up. There were firefighters, sheriff deputies, tactical police teams, small town police, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, FBI agents, arson and explosive experts, state and federal investigators, disaster team members, state agents, Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives, an Air Force rescue squad, state and national guards, politicians, medical and disaster volunteers.

In downtown parking lots, medics set up makeshift hospitals, spreading blankets on the concrete and hanging IVs on portable metal racks. Leaders warned volunteers over a microphone not to smoke, due to possible gas leaks spanning a two-mile radius.

Nearby restaurants and stores brought food and necessities to the area. Citizens with any skill at all offered their help.

Volunteers handed out water bottles. A hotel-restaurant convention at the Myriad spread their food samples out cafeteria-style for those stuck downtown.

1 Mediflight helicopters landed in parking lots while busloads of authorities were brought in. Efforts were hindered by clogged cellular phones and a late afternoon rainstorm.

Most buildings downtown lost windows. Several lost their roofs, or suffered structural damage. Curtains flapped out of windows at the high-rise Regency Tower apartment building on NW 5. The water resources building, on the same street as the car bomb, had a huge hole in its front several stories tall.

St. Joseph's Catholic Church, adjacent to the bombing, lost all its stained glass windows, as well as part of its roof. A few blocks away at 20 N Broadway, walls collapsed at the Southwestern Bell building, worker Melissa Gardener reported.

Citizens from as far away as Guthrie reported feeling some tremor.

Staff Writers Nolan Clay and Diana Baldwin contributed to this report.

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