I just read a column by Dave Berry, my wife’s cousin and editor for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. It was a personal story about a man and his daughter, who he lost in the Murrah Federal building bombing in 1995. The story was about the bombing, its aftermath, and the heart-wrenching soul searching that still continues today as people remember and “re-view” all the connections they had with other personal stories surrounding the tragedies.
I remember the day. I worked in Oklahoma City at the time; about nine blocks straight south of the federal building. At 9:01, several people were in the office doing what their jobs required. Telephones were ringing. Normal office activity could be observed. A painter was on the west side of our building, in front of a wall of windows, painting the eaves and support posts. A newly hired bookkeeper was trying to grasp what her duties were going to be.
At 9:02, there was an explosion. Those of us who had worked there for any length of time first thought it was a boiler blowing up on our manufacturing site and were concerned about loss of life and property for our company. But, as I rushed out of my office, I saw the painter, out front on his ladder, looking north, away from our office. We went out and saw what looked like dust and smoke, littered with lots of paper. We thought it might be a gas leak in the downtown area and went back inside to turn on the TV. We watched as the news folks tried to grasp the situation and relay the information to us.
Those images recorded by the first helicopter to arrive, as it came around the building from the side opposite the damaged area, were heart stopping. We saw desks, cars, concrete, carpet, all manner of debris. And we saw the inside of the building, because the outside of the building was gone.
Over the next hour, we watched, all of us, as much as we could. The phones did not ring. Not much work was done. We were all just dumb with shock, amazement and bewilderment. We knew the lives lost would be great in number. We did not consider the other lives affected and the huge number of stories we would hear later about who was where; doing simple things, going about their routines. Not for about an hour.
Our new bookkeeper finally got a call from her sister-in-law. She was frantic. “Have you heard from the folks? They were supposed to have an appointment at the Social Security Administration at 8:30. Where is your daughter? Is she with them?”
Her world stopped right there. After a week at a new job, after an hour of watching the event unfold, it never dawned on her that she should be concerned. It was days before they identified her husband’s parents. It was another day before they named her daughter.
I drove her to the gathering place the officials had set up for family members suspecting that their loved ones were caught in the blast. I sat with her as she waited for her husband. We watched as the lists grew. The list of missing people was there; growing larger. The confirmed injured, and their location also grew, only slower. The list no one wanted to watch grow was started. It did not grow. Identities of the dead would be days in coming. Her husband came. I loaned her my cell phone and told her to use it wisely, as the battery would not last more than a day. I would get in touch with her later to get it back.
I never spoke to her again. Two weeks later, I met the sister-in-law and got my phone back. Since then, I have looked for her name among those involved in the news conferences and support groups advocating changes, and memorials, and just trying to get some portion of their lives back. I never spoke to her again.
There have been other stories from people I knew. The grandparents in the bookkeeper’s story also were the favorite aunt and uncle of a man who went to our church.
A man I worked with told of his granddaughter, who, as she left the downtown area at 9:02, felt her car bump hard. She thought she had run over something until she looked in her rear-view mirror and saw the building collapse. He could not tell the story to us without choking up with emotion and grief.
Another man we knew, who took care of our computer and printer hardware, was in the Journal Record building on the second floor. Of course, all of the windows blew out and the building shook. He had been just about to leave. When he finally did get to his car, much later, he found it, unscathed but dusty. But, in the parking spot right next to it, was a piece of concrete big enough to flatten the car, and him, if he had been in it. He came to our office only one more time, about two months later. We had been trying to get him there for weeks, but he always delayed or cancelled the appointment. He never came back down town after that.
My father, who lived in Wyoming, called me two days later. I had not realized that he had worried about me for two days. He had tried to call the first day, but could not get through. The emotion in his voice as he said “hello” kind of rattled me. He had the terrible images from the TV and was worried for me.
I have memories of going to the bomb site, before any formal memorial. I walked the fence all the way around, looking at the pictures and reading the stories, poems and tributes. The pictures of the children at the church yard east of the building were terrible to see, but impossible to ignore. The statue of Jesus, in the small garden west of the site, across the street from where the 9:03 gate would be, was comforting.
I remember going downtown for weeks after, stepping on broken glass on the sidewalk from all of the windows shattered for blocks around. The city tried to sweep it up, but there were pieces of glass there for a long time. Like the glass, little pieces of people’s shattered lives would take days, weeks, or years to gather up and put back together.
Dan Hubbard, 61, was born in Gillette, Wyoming, and moved to Perkins, Oklahoma, in 1970. He graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1977 with a degree in accounting. He has since worked in agri-business management and administration and currently works for the Stillwater (Okla.) Milling Company, purchasing ingredients for the livestock feed manufacturing plant. He is married to Joan Cundiff. They live in Perkins and have two children and two grandchildren.