Oklahoma City: The Blood of Innocents

IN THE BOMB'S AFTERMATH, TALES OF HORROR AND HEROISM

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How much practice did it take to plan a human sacrifice? How many mornings had the killers sat outside that federal building, making judgments about where and when to park their bomb, which recipe to use, how to make sure that the full force of the blast hit the building square in its belly? And when the day finally came, the truck loaded and the time set, did they wait and watch the children go in, hand in hand with their parents, before they drove away?

The whole world watched the children come out. The lucky ones sobbed and bled and called brokenly for the parents they had left only minutes before. Most of their friends remained buried inside. The rescuers wept as they cradled them, limp and weightless; fire fighters could not bear to look down at the children in their arms. "Find out who did this," one told Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. "All that I have found are a baby's finger and an American flag." That may turn out to be a poignant, gruesome icon. How easy it was to assume that the attack must have come from outside. America may no longer be safe from imported terrorism, but we weren't supposed to grow it here at home.

IN OKLAHOMA THEY'RE USED TO TWISTERS, those ugly storms that arrive across the prairie to savage the towns, tear them apart and leave, tossing houses behind them. To live there means understanding that nature is not evil, only whimsical. Human nature, on the other hand, proved incomprehensible at 9:02 Wednesday morning. The blast came at the very height of the morning rush. A red-orange fireball lit the sky, and the north side of the building dissolved. The carcass left standing looked monstrous, drooling cable and concrete onto the plaza below, huffing gas and smoke and dust into the sky above. Glass fell like sharp rain over whole sections of the city. Parking meters were ripped from the ground; roofs collapsed; metal doors twirled around themselves. There were toys scattered everywhere, haphazardly mingled with arms and legs, as if some immense, wicked child had ransacked her nursery and dismembered her dolls.

Out of the smoke the survivors staggered, some in their underwear, their clothes ripped along with their skin, barefoot, walking over glass, covered in blood, dust, plaster. One man tottered down the sidewalk, blood on his face, declaring that he was heading home--only he didn't know where that might be and couldn't remember his name. Others stumbled in shock, unaware they were hurt until they felt their shoes filling with blood.

Survival depended on where the people in the building were sitting when the blast went off, whether they had got up to go to a coffee machine or visit a friend down the hall. On the top floor, the explosion peeled the roof back and sliced the building in half, sparing many on one side and sending hundreds of others crashing down, floor after floor, into the rubble below. The chief of a housing program was spared because he had just left the building for an inspection trip and was taking his car out of a garage when the blast hit; a secretary was away from her desk; another male employee had just got up to go to the bathroom. The others in his office--perhaps four or five in all, who were in their normal places--were not so lucky.

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