I hurtled down Interstate 40, late for work as usual, barely noticing the beautiful spring morning. I was frustrated with my wedding coordinator, who wouldn’t call me back. And a church staff member had promised me the use of some hurricane lamps for my wedding reception, but I couldn’t reach her either. It was stressful trying to cram all the wedding planning into a few weeks, but my fiancé, Godfrey, suggested that I take up stress management classes at one of the orlando substance abuse centers. So we were trying to complete the major tasks before he moved.
After walking into the clinic, I stopped by my nurse’s desk to check the schedule of patients for the day. She handed me a stack of prescription refills that needed my authorization as I vented about my wedding decor.
She nodded and made appropriate noises, but it didn’t help. I was about to ask her if I was becoming a bridezilla, when my boss, Dr. Crawford, came blustering in, hair mussed and stress coming off of him like sparks.
“There’s been some kind of explosion downtown!” he said. “They think maybe a gas leak. There’s lots of smoke!”
Unaware of the gravity of what had occurred, my nurse and I went back to our conversation. A few minutes later, I noticed how quiet it was in the clinic. It was 9:30. There should have been patients waiting to be seen, phones ringing. Hearing voices, I wandered into the break room, and found everyone gathered in front of the little black-and-white TV.
One of the receptionists touched my arm. “Tiffany,” she said. “It was a bomb.”
I stared at her. A bomb? In Oklahoma City? I looked at the TV. Black smoke poured from the side of a tall building. It was hard to see exactly what was going on, but it looked bad. I stepped closer so I could hear the TV. “…An explosion rocked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 a.m. …” The news anchor went on to list the various agencies housed in the Murrah Building—including a daycare facility. My chest tightened.
The scene on the TV was one of chaos. As some of the smoke cleared, I could see fire trucks and police cars parked haphazardly in front of the broken building. The whole front side was sheared off. Paper, drywall, and pipe dangled from each floor. Piles of rubble formed a bizarre mountain range in front, as if the building had vomited its contents onto the street.
Paramedics ran toward ambulances, pushing bloodied bodies on stretchers. A woman in civilian clothes walked by the camera carrying a toddler, blood dripping from his forehead. The walking wounded wandered the scene, clothes in tatters. In between shouts of direction from rescuers, radios crackled and I could hear people crying and moaning. The scene looked like an old war movie. It felt surreal.These things don’t happen here, I thought. It was painful to watch, but equally hard to turn away from the horror unfolding before me in real time.
In aerial views, the building looked like a giant had swiped at it with his hand, scooping out a third of the structure. Then cameras zoomed in on rescuers climbing over debris made up of pipes, rebar, paper, parts of desks, and broken concrete. Uniformed first responders were interspersed with men and women in business suits, forming human chains to pull victims out of the structure. Bright red blood bloomed like roses on the white shirts of office workers.
The news said something about terrorism. Since when are we a terrorist target?
Then the anchor reported that the military and National Guard was arriving to help. The military? I leaned closer to the TV. Now I saw soldiers in camouflage joining the rescue effort. I squinted at the screen, searching for Godfrey.
No, I thought. Not Godfrey. He wears a suit to work. My fiancé was an Office of Special Investigations agent, which meant that he seldom wore a uniform. The OSI is the investigative arm of the Air Force, and they function like plainclothes detectives.
The chatter in the room stopped as a new pandemonium erupted on the screen. Shaky cameras filmed people running, scattering away from the site. The voice on the TV said that a second bomb had been found, and all rescue workers were ordered to evacuate.
My confidence in Godfrey’s safety evaporated. Even though he’d been at work when the bomb went off, over an hour had passed. He could easily be in the blast zone now.
After a tense stretch of time, the news showed people walking back to the site. There was no second bomb. What they’d found turned out to be a dummy missile used for training.
The clinic phone rang and a staff member snatched up the receiver. She answered, and then held the phone out to me. “Tiffany,” she said. “It’s Godfrey.” I grabbed the handset, eager to hear his voice.
“I’m at ground zero,” he said immediately. I’d expected to feel relief, but knowing he truly was in the center if it all only made me feel worse. “My commander sent me to help in the investigation. I heard from Medric and Jim,” he continued before I could ask about our friends and his groomsmen. “They’re here too. They are OK.” I could tell he was in a rush.
“Be careful,” I said. “I love you.”
Driving home that evening, I wondered if Godfrey would come over. The minute I walked through my apartment door, I flicked on the TV. I quickly changed out of my work clothes and sank into the couch. I was hungry, but I didn’t feel like fixing anything to eat.
A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to see Godfrey standing there, his suit crumpled, and his face lined with exhaustion. I flew into his arms. I remember him holding me, telling me how he’d felt the blast at his desk, how it felt like a vibration in the floor.
Later, we sat on the couch in silence, glued to the TV. As night fell, ground zero was lit by floodlights, which illuminated the grisly scene and threw sinister shadows. Reporters shouted to be heard over the rumble of generators. After a couple of hours, Godfrey left to go back to his apartment. He needed to sleep, because he would be joining the investigation the next day, sifting through rubble for evidence.
After he left, I watched the coverage as rescuers worked for three hours to extricate a survivor from the basement. The last I heard before I fell asleep on the couch was that it was a girl, 15 years old. Another child, I thought. At least she’s alive. Twenty people were confirmed dead that night, including six children.
The next day passed in a blur. At work, I watched the news coverage in between tending to patients. It was surreal to see the hosts of shows like Good Morning America broadcasting from my town. Even weirder was that the local news was reporting facts ahead of the nationals.
On TV, the scenes of the bombsite rolled by in an endless loop. Parents of the 13 missing children stood behind crime scene tape, holding photos of their kids. More than one frantic parent grabbed at rescuers as they passed, crying, “Have you seen my baby?” The current news was interspersed with footage from the first day. Daycare workers from the YMCA across the street from the bombing led the children out in a chain, holding hands, bloodied and crying. At least those kids were alive. One firefighter said that when they brought out the children’s bodies, they were so covered in dust that it was impossible to tell gender or race.
One picture made headlines and later became a worldwide symbol of the Oklahoma City bombing: the photo of firefighter Chris Fields carrying one-year-old Baylee Almon out of the rubble. The way he tenderly cradled the broken, dust-covered body triggered a primal, gut-wrenching sadness in me, followed by an overwhelming urge to protect that little girl.
My mind drifted to the previous week, when Godfrey and I had met with the priest who would officiate our wedding. He’d asked about children—did we plan to have any? We both wanted kids. And I wanted to keep working as a physician assistant as we raised our family. But after this, how would I ever feel safe leaving my kids at a daycare?
The press quickly identified the day of the bombing, April 19, 1995, as being the two- year anniversary of the Waco disaster. Reporters said that when the Branch Davidians set fire to their compound in Waco, Texas, after a long standoff with the FBI, many militia groups blamed the federal government. But if someone wanted to protest the establishment, why kill children? That didn’t make sense to me. I was certain that this bombing had to be the work of foreign terrorists.
But by April 21, Timothy McVeigh had been arrested. He was not only an American, but a decorated Gulf War veteran. Another conspirator—an Army buddy of McVeigh’s—Terry Nichols, surrendered shortly after. The fact that the suspects were some of our own felt like a sucker punch.
I heard at work that one of our patients worked in the Murrah Building and was listed as missing. Up until then, I’d felt lucky not to have any close friends or family in the attack. Now I wondered whom else I didn’t know about.
We soon found out. Jim told us that Valerie, one of the women in our church singles’ group, worked in the Murrah Building. The mother and sister of another friend, Pat, were both federal employees. All three were missing. The thought of losing one relative filled me with fear, but losing two? It was unimaginable. The fire chief said that people might still be alive inside, but I had a sick feeling that the building was now a tomb.
On day three, I watched the morning news in disbelief. The banner reading “Terror in the Heartland” filled the screen as it had since Day One, but was now joined by “Let the Healing Begin.” A surge of anger ripped through me. Who in the hell did these people think they were, telling us when to heal? I thought of all the bodies still buried in the bowels of the building, including our friends. Was the media actually telling those victims’ families to just get over it?
Later that day, the clinic manager dropped a flyer on my desk. It was a request for medical volunteers to staff the Red Cross Compassion Center. The Center, which had opened on Day One at a church near the bombsite, served as a gathering place for victims’ families. Family members had raced from their homes when the news broke, leaving behind medicines and other essentials. The Red Cross needed people to write prescriptions and see to the families’ health problems. I couldn’t wait to go. After days of feeling helpless, I could finally do something to help.
Dr. Crawford and I volunteered that very night. The Compassion Center was set up in a huge mega-church, chosen because of its size and ample parking. A volunteer showed us into a Sunday school classroom that had been set up as a makeshift clinic with cots and medical supplies. We sat at a round table, surrounded by the smell of bleached hospital sheets and antiseptic. A volunteer brought in a man and a woman. The woman walked slowly, shoulders slumped. The man jittered with nervous energy. They both had shadowed, haunted eyes. Their stories came in fits and starts. The man had been riding his bicycle by the building when the blast occurred. He witnessed the carnage up close. He’d heard the screams, saw body parts on the ground. He hadn’t slept since.
The woman worked at the nearby YMCA. No one had died at the Y, but windows were shattered by the blast and many were injured by flying glass. Dr. Crawford offered them both prescriptions, and we encouraged them to use the counseling resources at the Compassion Center. It was too little. But there wasn’t much we could do medically to fix the enormity of what those two people were feeling.
On April 23, a prayer and memorial service was held. I watched the televised service from my mom’s living room because Godfrey was working and I couldn’t bear to be alone. Without others around me, the carefully crafted clinical shell I had built around myself might crack. Then I might fall apart. I couldn’t risk falling apart—I had to help.
Godfrey and I were scheduled to meet with a florist on April 25th to choose our wedding flowers. We rescheduled. When I thought about flowers, all I could see was the chain link fence around the federal building. The barrier had become a makeshift memorial covered in bouquets, notes, and stuffed animals from all over the world. I couldn’t imagine planning my wedding when so many were planning funerals.
The Red Cross Compassion Center became the place where the Medical Examiner’s Office notified relatives that their loved ones had been positively identified. Dr. Crawford briefed me that the person in charge of these family meetings had now requested that two medical personnel be present at each death notification. The previous night, Dr. Crawford had been called in when a pregnant family member of a victim thought she might be having contractions, and again when another woman became hysterical and collapsed, her blood pressure shooting through the roof.
On my first death notification, I joined the team nervously. At every session, there were two psych people, a clergy member, at least one funeral director, two medical examiner representatives, and two medical personnel. If the deceased had worked for Housing and Urban Development, then two HUD representatives were present as well.
The meetings followed a routine. After the family was seated, the ME staff member would tell them that he was sorry to say that their loved one had been identified and was deceased. He would tell them the chief medical examiner was signing all of the death certificates with the time of death of 9:02 a.m. Sometimes the families would have questions. There were never any outbursts or drama at any of the notifications I attended. If anything, as the days marched on, the families appeared to be relieved that their loved ones’ bodies were finally out of the building. Then the medical examiner’s representative would tell the hardest part of the story.
“In all massive disasters like this one,” he would say, “there are what we call ‘common tissues’—tissues that we are unable to identify. These tissues will be buried all together in a common grave.” No matter how many times I heard that particular speech, it always made my stomach lurch. The immediate picture that flashed into my mind was of severed legs, arms, and chunks of skin and bone. Most of these people knew that they were not burying intact bodies. But hearing about the “common tissues” had to bring into stark relief what they already knew.
Valeries’s memorial service was held May 1. I was needed at work, so Godfrey attended without me. I’d only met her once or twice, but she was one of the original members of the church singles group that Godfrey, Jim, and Medric organized together in 1993.
After the funeral, Godfrey appeared at my office unexpectedly. I found him sitting at a table in the break room, a button showing Valerie’s face pinned to his lapel. When he looked up at me, my heart twisted. Tears coursed down his face, and when I put my arms around him the tears turned to sobs. I mentally kicked myself for not finding a way to go to the funeral with him. But I was so backed up at work, from all the time I’d been spending at the Red Cross Center. Plus, up until that moment, Godfrey had seemed fine. Indifferent, almost. I realized then that he’d been holding it all in, just trying to soldier through.
The stories of heroic acts by first responders and civilians were like small bright spots in those dark weeks. One firefighter from out of state said that he hadn’t been allowed to pay for a meal since he’d arrived in Oklahoma. Rescue workers would often either not be allowed to pay by restaurant owners or would find that the bill had been covered by an anonymous patron. I met many clergy, therapists, and funeral directors, some from distant states, who had used their own money and personal vacation time to volunteer. Those stories kept me going while witnessing mothers, fathers, siblings, children, and spouses hear final confirmation of their loved ones’ deaths.
On May 4, Godfrey, my mom, and I sat with our wedding caterer as she listed the options for our buffet. While my mom debated the virtues of pasta versus potato salad, the talk of food took my mind to the tables at the church used by the Red Cross. During my shifts, I would sometimes wander down to the fellowship hall, where the families gathered. Groaning with food of every type, the tables were piled with everything from casseroles to cookies. People kept bringing in food. As if feeding the families would fill the holes in their hearts.
After each shift, all volunteers were required to undergo Critical Incident Stress Debriefing. They say that the critical incident stress is most likely to occur in rescue workers when children are hurt or killed, and can include a range of symptoms from nightmares to depression. In these debriefings, we would sit and talk with a psychiatrist for a few minutes before going home. At the end of each meeting, the therapist would ask, “What pictures will you see in your mind?” He explained that our brains would link this tragedy to painful memories from our pasts. My pictures were of the debris. A child’s shoe. The ripped American flag. My father’s flag-draped coffin at his funeral in April of 1993. I tried to push those images to the back of my mind.
When our friend Pat’s relatives were finally identified, Godfrey and I attended the double funeral on May 9. The service was held in the very same church where we were to be married. I stared at the twin coffins at the front of the sanctuary and wondered if I could walk down that aisle as a bride.
As the weeks waned on, I went about life robotically. Volunteers were supposed to be limited to three death notifications, but I participated in more than that, simply because there was no one else. The last notification I attended was for the family of one of the babies who died in the day care center. Three of the babies were only identifiable by DNA.
After that meeting, I declined further shifts at the Compassion Center because my boss was concerned about my mental health.
But I didn’t feel depressed. I felt numb. Besides, what right did I have to be depressed? What I was going
through was nothing compared to all the families and first responders.
On May 15, the Alfred P. Murrah Building was declared unsafe for further exploration. Although three bodies had yet to be recovered, the structure was scheduled for demolition. I received a call that they were allowing families a last chance to see ground zero, and they needed medical volunteers.
I showed up at the site of what was then the worst terrorist attack on American soil. This was the first time I’d seen the devastation other than on TV. The scene was eerily quiet, with only the sound of the hanging plastic in the ripped side of the structure flapping in the wind. The building looked like a grotesque, broken layer cake. Rebar stuck out at odd angles, and drywall and insulation dripped from every tier. Blown-out windows looked like inky black holes.
Soon a nurse grabbed my arm and asked me to help out at the canopy where the governor and his wife were presenting flags to the relatives. The ground was uneven, so I took each person’s arms and assisted him or her in walking through the tent. Some clutched single red roses; some wept softly. Every person I touched said thank you. Soon the governor had to go to another engagement, and his wife took over. She would take the person’s hand, look into his or her eyes, and say, “Your loved one died for their country.” I recognized many faces from TV. I walked with Aren Almon as she received the flag commemorating her baby daughter, Baylee. As the last people trickled through, I felt like I was standing on the edge of an ocean of tears with the waves crashing over me, growing higher and higher until I thought I might drown.
While a staffer from the governor’s office folded up the canopy, I took one last long look at the building that represented so many shattered lives.
That night, I soaked in the bathtub, a wet washcloth covering my eyes. But I could still see the images of those families, the carcass of the building. The combined grief of all those people felt like a wet wool blanket smothering me. I thought about how easy it would be to slide under the water and not come up. At least the pain would stop. A knock on the bathroom door startled me out of my thoughts. It was Godfrey telling me that dinner was ready.
That dark thought, though fleeting, terrified me. That was my first inkling of how depressed I had become. I wrapped up in a thick terry cloth robe and went to Godfrey. The tears came in a flood, and he held me until I was cried out.
Months after that terrible day in April—when our city, our country, and our view of humanity changed forever—Godfrey and I stood at the altar and recited our wedding vows. When we promised “till death do us part,” the words carried the weight of all we’d lived through.
Originally published in This Land: Spring 2015.