Father keeps vigil at edge of wreckage

April 23, 1995|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,Sun Staff Correspondent

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Each day, Paul Howell stands a dozen feet away from the massive concrete tomb in the middle of town. He speaks softly to his 27-year-old daughter trapped deep inside.

"I stand there and I pray," says Mr. Howell, 57.

"I tell her,'Baby, if you can hear me, I'm out here.

" 'We're doing everything we can to get you out.' "

Paul Howell is but one of the many in this city who each day confront the loss of someone loved in the explosion that last Wednesday mangled the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

But Mr. Howell, a retired military man, has used his ties with the military and police who keep people at a distance to ease through the lines and keep a vigil each day in front of the shell of the nine-story building where his youngest daughter is trapped.

"I have to be there," said Mr. Howell, a retired recruiter for the Oklahoma National Guard.

"I know that if I'm up there, in that area, I will know what's going on, who they're finding, where they're finding them. The more I know what's going on, the better I can handle it."

For people in this city, yesterday seemed a day dedicated to starting on the long road back.

With a suspect in custody and others being hunted, and a windblown, cold rain crippling the rescue effort, Oklahomans began confronting the loss of what promises to be as many as 200 people, maybe more.

For the first time since the bombing, local television stations began broadcasting the names of the dead.

Psychologists held mass counseling sessions for family members and others devastated by the deadliest bomb attack in the nation's history.

This afternoon, President Clinton comes to town to attend a huge prayer service at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.

Mr. Howell knows tragedy. His father died when he was 5. His mother and brother died of cancer.

His son-in-law perished in a game of Russian roulette.

His oldest daughter is behind bars, serving three 12-year prison terms for drug trafficking.

Despite the cold and rain, Mr. Howell kept the vigil yesterday, hoping for some word of Karen, mother of two and a loan officer who was working in the third-floor federal credit union when the bomb went off.

Her office was one flight above a day-care center and two flights above the Social Security Administration -- on the side of the building hardest hit by the blast.

When Mr. Howell is not standing in front of the building or walking through the ruins, he stays with his military friends inside a rescue command post next door to his former high school.

He relays the latest updates to his family in the suburbs of Oklahoma City.

"I know a lot of people there," he says of the command post in the Southwestern Bell building. "They tell me what's going on. If I didn't know every detail, I don't know what I'd do. When I'm down there, they're talking. I'm talking.

"They hold me. They hug me. They make sure I'm eating.

"It feels so good when someone comes over and sits down next to you and says, 'Paul, we're doing everything we can.' And you know it's true, because you've seen it."

It also helps him to speak to his daughter and the others trapped inside the building, even though he knows chances are fading fast that anyone else will be pulled out alive.

"I talk to all of those people in that graveyard," Mr. Howell says, his voice cracking with emotion.

"I tell them, 'Keep your hopes up. Do everything you can to stay alive. Everybody's working as hard as they can to save you.' "

Karen is one of three children. Mr. Howell and his former wife raised her in Oklahoma City, a town that revolves around family and God.

As a lifelong resident and former recruiter for the National Guard, Mr. Howell knows Oklahoma City. And Oklahoma City knows him.

When Karen needed a job, he called an old military colleague who ran the Friendly National Bank in town.

When Karen wanted to change jobs in 1989, he called a friend at the Federal Employees Credit Union.

When the federal building was bombed last Wednesday, he called his friends at the police department and the National Guard and asked them if he could cross the lines and stay close to his daughter on Northwest Fifth Street.

They agreed.

The day of the bombing, Mr. Howell was on his way to school. Retired from the National Guard since 1992, he is taking business and computer classes while working at the Veterans Hospital.

"I heard the explosion. I saw the smoke. Then it came on the radio. The federal building had been blown up," Mr. Howell says.

"I thought, 'My daughter. I know she's in there.' I saw all that smoke and I drove down to the county jail, parked my car and started running.

"I started looking for my daughter. You don't want to know what I've seen."

Two blocks away, Mr. Howell found his daughter's Ford Taurus parked on the street. The windshield had been blown out.

Karen was nowhere in sight.

"I knew she was still in the building," Mr. Howell says. "I started getting scared.

"I knew if she was all right, the first thing she would have done was get in that car and drive."

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