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.
Candy Avey, 48, had just parked her car at a meter outside the building and was heading for the Social Security office. "I was blown back, wrapped around the meter, and my face hit the car," she says. Her arm and jaw were broken, and her face quickly swelled and turned purple. "A man in front of me was just about to go through the door of the building," Avey recalls. "His arm was blown off. But he was in such shock that he didn't even notice it. He just kept on going, attempting to help others around him."
Many of the victims seemed most concerned not with their own injuries but with the fate of their friends. As co-workers struggled to rescue one another, a retired policeman pulled out his badge and began directing traffic away from the carnage. An employee of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was in an elevator at the time of the blast; he went into a six-story free fall. But having landed safely and climbed out of the rubble, he immediately went to work tracking down leads.
Trent Smith, 41, was lying on a bed across the street at the YMCA when the blast hoisted him seven feet in the air and tossed him toward the window. His 240-lb. frame shattered the glass. The next thing he knew, his body was hanging halfway out the square hole that was once a nice view of the federal building. Had he weighed less, he says, he would have been on the street. Groggy and bleeding, Smith backed away from the window, aching and exhausted. The more he limped, the more his leg hurt. He heard a man down the hall screaming. "He said he couldn't walk," Smith said, "but I told him that you gotta get outta there because there might be another bomb: 'You gotta get out!'"
The sirens summoned medical students and off-duty cops, paramedics, firemen, nurses and priests, blood donors and structural engineers, anyone who could provide help and advice and comfort and expertise. Rescuers swarmed from all corners of the city and eventually the surrounding states as well. So many nurses showed up so quickly, said one witness, that after half an hour there was at least one nurse for every victim. A priest in purple vestments and latex gloves tried to comfort the grieving and pray for the dead.
The sobs from inside the rubble told rescue workers instantly that children were still in the building, still alive. They plunged into the debris, turning over cribs and furniture, hoping to find signs of life, catching their breath at the sight of babies burned beyond recognition. "We started moving bricks and rocks," said police sergeant John Avera, "and we found two babies." Firemen tenderly carried the infants, as paramedics wrapped them in long white gauze like christening dresses. Several toddlers were found wandering around the underground parking lot, searching for parents. The parents in turn scrambled through the chaos, frantic to find their children. "You haven't seen my daughter, have you?" one woman asked everyone she passed.
Nurse Shirley Moser began tagging dead children. "Their faces had been blown off," she says. "They found a child without a head." Children from the YMCA day-care center across the street who survived the explosion tumbled into the street, sliced by the flying glass. They looked for parents and were scooped up by strangers, fearful of more tragedies.
WHEN EDYE SMITH DROPPED OFF HER SONS Chase, 3, and Colton, 2, at the day-care center in the federal building, she still had the powdered sugar on her cheeks from where they had kissed her, their mouths full of doughnuts. Both boys were in a playful mood. Smith bent down to give Colton another kiss and he pretended to cry. As she turned her back to walk away, Colton called out joyfully to his mother and ran to give her a big hug. "I love you, Mommy." Chase also rushed forward to embrace his mother, and declared his love. That was the last time she spoke to her sons.
The young mother jumped into her car, and headed to her secretarial job at the IRS five blocks away. Her colleagues had bought a cake and soda in celebration of Smith's 23rd birthday on Friday. As she stood up to slice the cake, she heard the blast and the building shook. From the windows they could see the smoke rising: "We thought it was the bank," recalls Smith. "I turned to a co-worker and said that's so sad. That's some little child's mother that's been killed."
Office workers started flooding into the streets below, and Smith and her co-workers followed. As Smith and her mother Kathy Graham-Wilburn, who also works for the irs, got closer to the area of the blast, they felt their stomachs constrict. They made their way through the crowds, past the bodies, listening to the children crying in the streets and studying every bloody face carefully. She found neither Chase nor Colton.
What had been the day-care center lay at the bottom of a crumbling layer cake stuffed with metal and concrete. Smith fell apart, crying and screaming the names of her sons, Graham-Wilburn recalls. The two women waited three hours in the vicinity of the blast, waiting, hoping, praying for good news of the children. Smith's brother, Daniel Coss, 25, an officer with the Oklahoma City police department, found his nephews. He identified Colton at the temporary morgue that had been set up near the former day-care center. Three hours later, Coss located Chase's body at the medical examiner's office.
WITH EACH PASSING HOUR THE RESCUE forces swelled. The national-disaster plans designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency fell into place so smoothly that the whole scene looked like a hideously realistic drill. Air Force and National Guard units and fbi counterterrorist teams and forensic specialists began to arrive in early afternoon. They joined 60 fire fighters from Phoenix, Arizona, summoned for their skill in extracting bodies from rubble. A planeload of 100 of the city's leading doctors heading for a medical retreat in Houston heard the news when they landed, got back on the next plane and came home to work.
Like an awful parade, the cranes and backhoes and heavy equipment marched in, as did the specialists with listening devices and remote-sensing equipment, and dogs to help sniff out victims. The animals discovered at least 50 people, none of them alive. One trainer brought a dog specially trained to find babies, who smell different from adults. But the only child they found was already dead.
The Phoenix Urban Heavy Rescue Team deployed its ropes and rigging equipment, special optical cameras with lights that can fit into small holes or spaces in debris, listening devices that can detect human heartbeats several feet away. Every so often the order went out for total silence: the chain saws stilled, all two way radios and cellular phones shut off, the helicopters and heavy equipment were sent away. "The idea is to get very quiet, don't even breathe, just drop the devices in and listen," says Gary Morris, deputy chief of the Phoenix fire department. "These devices are very sensitive."
Suddenly a fireman heard a thin voice crying for help as though from deep in a cave. Dana Bradley, 20, lay in the darkness of the basement under a pile of cement girders, bleeding and her body dangerously cooling in a foot of water. But when a team of four fire fighters found her, they faced one harsh decision after another. That southwest corner of the building was highly unstable; there were girders smashed everywhere, with hundreds of tons of the remaining building above them. Bradley was lodged in a space so small that the doctors could scarcely reach her. "Two of us tried to get an IV into her, but we couldn't get it done," says Dr. Gary Massad, a volunteer doctor who arrived on the scene shortly after noon. "The space was just too small, and she had rebar over her so we couldn't get a needle into her. But we felt we couldn't wait." Rebars are the steel reinforcing bars that were at that point holding up what was left of the building. The only way to reach her was to remove them. At the same time, Bradley's blood pressure was dropping, and she was in the early stages of shock. Then the walls began to vibrate, sending the doctors and fire fighters racing out. "Please don't leave me!" Bradley pleaded. They returned 20 minutes later, only to have to leave again when word spread that another bomb had been found. "My greatest fear," says Massad, "was that I would be ordered to leave the building, that I would have to leave her trapped there. I would have carried that to my grave."
Finally, the team decided to cut the rebar to reach Bradley. But the space was still tiny for the three doctors. "You had to crawl in on your hands and knees in about a foot of water," says Massad. The doctors told her the only chance to save her would be to cut off the leg crushed beneath the girders. She begged them to try another way. "She was in shock, but very alert. We said, regardless, we are going to do it." The risk, the team agreed, was that without immediate surgery, Bradley would quickly lapse into a coma and die.
It was an operation no modern surgeon outside of a battlefield thought he would ever perform. Giving her much painkiller would also increase the risk of coma, so as Dana screamed, a surgeon used surgical saws, scissors and scalpels to remove the leg below the knee. When they were done, they hauled her out with a chest harness and carried her 100 yards on a gurney to a waiting ambulance. Only later did the doctors learn that she had lost her mother and two children in the blast.
Outside the building other doctors and paramedics had set up triage stations, including four surgical units in a nearby warehouse, to assess the injuries and get help for the most grievously wounded. Area hospitals meanwhile launched their emergency plans, clearing out as many patients as they could to make room for the casualties. Within hours 100 volunteer doctors had shown up at St. Anthony, the hospital closest to the scene. Fifteen members of Boy Scout Troop 120 arrived to help with blood collection.
Many of the injuries were "soft tissue" cuts from flying glass. "When you see what it does, you can't believe it," said Nurse Moser. "It's as though you filled a shotgun shell with slivers of glass and shot it at someone." One man was pierced in 100 places; there were slashed throats, punctured lungs. Dr. Richard Crook treated patients with "blast trauma." "We saw ruptured eyeballs and rib fractures," he said. "One man was driving by the building when the bomb went off and had his window open. It ruptured his eardrums."
The waiting rooms filled quickly with desperate friends and families. Thu Nguyen rocked back and forth in his chair in the lobby of Children's Hospital of Oklahoma. "I was at work in Norman," said Nguyen, 40, who works for a company that makes air conditioners in that town 18 miles south of Oklahoma City. When a friend told him about the explosion, Nguyen went numb. His five-year-old son Christopher was in the day-care center. "I didn't want to believe it," Nguyen said. "When I got to the messy streets of Oklahoma City, I had an empty feeling. I didn't know where my baby was or where my wife was." After two hours of searching, he found Christopher in the emergency room at Children's. They moved him to intensive care, and then Nguyen and his wife, like so many others, could only sit and wait. And seethe. "I've seen war, O.K.? I've seen soldiers I fought with in Vietnam cut this way, cut in half, heads cut off. That was war. These are children. This is not a war. This is a crime."
For those sad, waiting parents, the terror was not over. Children's Hospital received a bomb threat. They faced the awful decision: evacuate, or hope it was the cruelest of hoaxes. Parents who were stunned and grateful to learn their babies had survived the disaster were unwilling to leave them again. When hospital officials ordered evacuation, the most seriously injured children and the doctors and nurses caring for them remained behind.
As the search dragged on into the night Wednesday, floodlights made the plaza shine like noon, and the crews kept pressing deeper into the rubble. The effort proceeded an inch at a time, on hands and knees, with crowbars and axes. Rescue workers were on two-hour shifts and were ordered to visit counselors to help them cope with what they were seeing. But many wanted only to get back inside the building while there was still some hope that someone might still be alive in there.
The spirits of rescuers and the millions of people watching rose around 10 o'clock that night, when another girl was heard calling out from the chaos. By the time they reached her, Brandy Liggons, 15, had been trapped for nearly 12 hours. "You can't imagine what it looked like where she was," says surgeon Rick Nelson, who had to climb over corpses to get to her. "She was completely covered in rubble, twisted metal framing and electrical conduit of about two inches in diameter. She seemed to be wrapped around a metal chair." It took three hours to extract Brandy, while Nelson gave her oxygen and cheered her along with small talk. "I told her she was being treated by the best-looking surgeon in Oklahoma," he said. "Stuff like that."
ALMOST EVERYONE NOW KNOWS AREN Almon's daughter Baylee. The photograph of the one-year-old cradled in the arms of a fire fighter has become the symbol of catastrophe all over the world. "Hard Copy has been bugging me for an interview," said Aren. "I said no, and the guy just kept taking pictures." Baylee had just marked her first birthday on April 18. At 7:45 the next morning, her mother left her at the federal building's day-care center and went off to her new job at an insurance company. "She was learning how to walk," Aren says, her voice breaking. When she heard the explosion, Aren thought, "Thunder in the middle of the day?" Then she saw it was the federal building. "And then we heard that they had found a baby with yellow booties, and I knew it was her." The family wants to keep Baylee's funeral private. "We don't want any press there," says Aren's mother Debbie. "We just don't want this to be a circus." Says Aren: "I know my daughter is in heaven. I know she is."
For the families still waiting for word, it was hard to know which was worse, the uncertainty or the news that another body had been found. Over at the First Presbyterian Church, survivors and families passed around photocopies of pictures, snapshots or posters with descriptions of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, hoping someone might have seen them alive. They faxed descriptions to hospitals. On Thursday, at least 300 people flooded First Christian Church bearing dental records, descriptions of birthmarks or other features that might help in the dreaded identification process. Forensic dentists, fingerprint squads and X-ray teams combined to examine the remains for clues, not only to the victims' identities, but also for bits of wire or shrapnel that might help lead investigators to the type of bomb used. Visual identification by relatives was a last resort.
Even as the doctors and rescuers went about their work, the rest of the city searched for ways to help. People waited in line for six hours to donate blood at the Red Cross. At one relief center housed in St. Luke's United Methodist Church, the McDonald's hamburgers, Domino's pizzas and sandwiches from Ruby's were piling up faster than they could be eaten. The international relief group Feed the Children has its headquarters five miles west of downtown. After the organization's boss, Larry Jones, went on local TV to ask for volunteers and donations for the victims and rescue workers, hundreds of cars began filing through the parking lot of the company's warehouse, the drivers asking what was needed and offering plastic bags and boxes full of everything from infant formula to flashlight batteries, food and paper goods. A sporting- goods store in Stillwater shipped every single one of its kneepads to the rescuers scouring the wreckage. Nearby Tinker Air Force Base sent a truckload of helmet lights.
On Wednesday alone, more than 400 people showed up to help sort and pack donations. "We're taking all kinds of things," said Tim Baker, 45, a senior official with Feed the Children who supervised the frantic loading and unloading of supplies. "At one point they needed rain gear and flashlight batteries. At another point all they wanted was aspirin and cold drinks." He estimates that in a 12-hour period on Wednesday, his volunteers, all of whom showed up that day, moved 100 pickup loads of supplies to the disaster area. People approached from all sides, handing him checks and cash.
"I WOULD NOT HAVE THOUGHT/ DEATH HAD undone so many ." wrote Dante of his descent into the inferno. What was most remarkable, in the aftermath of Oklahoma's sorrow, was that the people were not undone; the sturdy cliches about Midwestern fortitude came to life as an entire city refused to buckle in grief. "We hate and despise the people who did it," said Senior District Judge Fred Daugherty, who survived the blast in his courthouse office next door to the federal building. "But we're a strong and simple folk. We'll rebuild and roll with this thing. We're going to be holding court this week."
That courage will be necessary in the weeks ahead, when all who have watched the carnage unfold will have to reckon with its meaning. It was one thing to imagine the threats from outside, the killers seeping across porous borders, waging war for causes beyond understanding. It was quite another to behold the ring of police cars descending on a pristine white farmhouse nestled in acres of cropland and wonder what hatreds are growing here at home, next door, right in plain sight.