Amid carnage, some small successes COPING WITH TRAGEDY

April 21, 1995|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,Sun Staff Correspondent

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The children's playground has become a morgue.

Behind the blown-apart federal building, sealed off from the public, rescue workers have been pulling badly mangled and crushed bodies from the wreckage for two days now, laying them side by side where children from a day-care center in the building once played.

The tedious, emotional search through the mountain of concrete and twisted steel was starting to take its toll on rescue workers yesterday. If it wasn't for the few success stories, they wouldn't have any hope at all.

"I have to believe there are people in that building, in those voids, and we're going to try to get them out," said Oklahoma City Fire Lt. Gary Thurman, his face smeared with soot and sweat.

But with no sounds of survivors being detected by ultra-sensitive listening devices dropped into crevices of the wreckage, and time running out for those still trapped and possibly alive below, rescue teams will have to cling to the small successes for now.

Dana Bradley, 20, was one of those.

A few hours after the explosion, medics came across her in the basement of what was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Crawling through pools of 18-inch-deep water and cave-like passages made of concrete slabs stitched together with bars of steel, they finally reached Ms. Bradley, her right leg pinned beneath thousands of pounds of debris.

As the medics worked to free her, investigators reported another bomb in the building. The medics were ordered to leave.

"Please don't leave me here," Ms. Bradley cried, said Dr. Gary Massad, a director at Southwest Medical Center and part of the rescue team.

Thirty minutes later, the team returned. They tried tying a heavy rope around Ms. Bradley's waist and pulling her from the rubble. It didn't work. The medics realized they had one option. They told her they had to remove her right leg if she had any chance of surviving.

A firefighter standing nearby felt a tremor in the building. He pressed his hand against the wall. It was vibrating.

Again, the team was ordered to leave, crawling on their hands and knees through the maze of building material, leaving Ms. Bradley behind.

Fifteen minutes later, the team was back in the basement. Ms. Bradley's vital signs were fading. Her veins and arteries had collapsed. It was too dangerous to inject her with painkillers.

Rescue workers cut away pieces of steel bars hanging over her body, clearing the way for the surgery. Medics gave her a sedative. She gave doctors the go-ahead.

"Do whatever you have to do," Ms. Bradley told them. "Get me out of here."

Using a small, hand-held saw, Dr. Andrew Sullivan from Oklahoma Memorial Hospital amputated Ms. Bradley's leg at the knee. Within 15 minutes, she was on her way to the hospital, where she was listed in stable condition last night.

Ms. Bradley, the Associated Press reported, had gone to get a FTC Social Security card for her 4-month-old son when the bomb went off. Her son, a 3-year-old daughter and her mother remain missing. A sister is in intensive care at another hospital. All had accompanied her to the federal Building.

For every small success story yesterday, there were dozens of painful losses.

Several rescue workers reached survivors, only to watch them ++ die under the weight of the wreckage. One of the toughest assignments: searching the second floor, the site of a day-care center that was licensed to hold as many as 32 children.

So far, at least 12 have been found dead.

"Some of the firemen were crying," Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin said yesterday morning. "One walked up to his chief and started to tell him about the kids he found and the body parts and he just broke down in tears."

For most of the people here, losing the children and knowing that other children cannot find their mothers or fathers is the hardest thing to handle.

"There are children in hospitals and we don't know who they belong to," Ms. Fallin said, tears filling her eyes.

For most of his 30-year career, Dr. Paul Heath has been teaching soldiers how to go on after witnessing the horror of war. Yesterday, the psychologist for the Veterans Administration was counseling himself after barely escaping the explosion from a fifth-floor office in the federal building.

The ceiling crashed around him. The side of the wall opened up. Two of his co-workers each lost an eye. A shard of glass sliced off the ear of one of those colleagues. Dr. Heath emerged with a scratch on his left leg.

"It was a little more than luck," said Dr. Heath, a specialist in post-traumatic stress syndrome for the regional office of the VA. "I don't know what it was, but it's OK for me not to know. I did say, 'Lord, let me keep my head so I can survive and help get some of these people out of here.' "

That's exactly what he did. Dr. Heath and several colleagues had just finished a meeting when the bomb went off.

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