Oklahoma City rises from the ruin THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING

April 30, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Correspondent

OKLAHOMA CITY -- This is a city trying to comfort itself.

Eleven days after the nightmare bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the funerals go on. The rescue workers -- by now certain they are not going to rescue anyone more -- continue their struggle to recover bodies.

The families who have heard nothing still wait, as volunteers -- strangers -- hold their hands.

This is a place where 300 clergy members signed up to counsel families and another 300 volunteered to talk to the hundreds on weary search teams, where schoolchildren decorate pillowcases for the rescuers' cots with thank-you messages.

This a place where the medical examiner cried at a news conference.

Since 9:02 a.m. April 19, when a terrorist bomb tore through federal offices, Oklahoma City has been consumed with the work of saving victims and giving solace to the grieving.

It has been enveloped in care from around the country.

President Clinton came, calling the blast that killed more than 100 and left almost as many missing "this terrible sin."

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson arrived at midweek, describing the disaster as "the act of the devil."

Fresh rescue teams landed at the airport to relieve the exhausted. Network anchors did their newscasts with the ravaged federal building as a backdrop.

But soon, the city knows, the desperate activity will end. The visitors will pack and leave.

And like a family trying to cope privately after the funeral guests have gone, Oklahoma City, with a gash through its heart, will be left to itself.

Then the hardest work will start.

"Our efforts here have been to give immediate relief," said the Rev. Brad Yarbrough, who coordinated chaplain services for grieving families.

"But what are we going to do for the long haul?

"It's like the rescue workers," Mr. Yarbrough said, his eyes filling with tears after more than a week of dealing with bereavement on a scale he'd never imagined.

"They cleared the easy areas first. Now they're down to the rubble.

"And here, we're down to the rubble of people's lives."

Residents and volunteers who have been working here since the explosion say the city will never be the same. There are many, however, who say it may, in a sober way, be better.

"Disaster doesn't produce good," said the Rev. Don Alexander, pastor of the First Christian Church, where relatives of the missing assemble each day to await word from the medical examiner. "But it can reveal it.

"There are people here [at the Red Cross volunteer center] who forever will be kinder people" because they've been so moved by the disaster, Mr. Alexander said.

"We will have a greater heart."

Juliana Witten, a nurse at Baptist Hospital, remembers doctors and nurses pausing as they treated the wounded to say, "I want to go home and hug my children."

"This has reminded us what's important," she said.

There is unembarrassed talk all over Oklahoma City about goodness and kindness and caring for your fellow man and putting more trust in God.

"People are just nicer now," a police officer said on a call-in radio show. "I can see it."

Dose of defiant pride

And there is also a defiant pride.

"We can't let this get us down," said Laura Bode, 32, a Social Security claims representative who was dragged out of the debris by a co-worker.

"The people who are responsible for this want to mark this as a victory. We're not going to let them."

"After the rescue workers leave, we're not going to be alone," said Robin Griffin, who has been a Red Cross volunteer at the command center since the day of the blast.

"You don't get over it. But we have each other."

Over and over, people in Oklahoma City say they cannot imagine why this happened here.

This is a city of nearly a half-million, with a symphony and a ballet, with drug problems and crime. But it is also a place that's proud to be part of solid, Bible Belt middle America.

Bombings happen in New York and Beirut, people here say, not in Oklahoma. Children are burned by acts of war in Bosnia, not on a downtown-America street.

A day after the explosion, Ms. Griffin said, "I keep thinking to myself, 'I'm not here. This isn't real.' "

A week later, she added, "We thought we were safe. We thought our children were safe. They weren't."

"We were tested in a way we never expected to be tested," said Dr. Catherine Shaw, a psychologist at the Veterans Administration medical center who volunteered to talk to families on the day of the bombing.

Loss touches everyone

The scope of the tragedy is so broad that it's hard to find someone who doesn't feel personal loss.

Jeannie Ciupak pushed her 17-month-old daughter, Lacy, in a stroller as close as she could get Wednesday morning to the site, where rescue workers removed their hard hats and paused for a moment of silence at 9:02 a.m. to mark a week since the explosion.

Her husband's company had donated infrared equipment to help in the search. Her neighbors were missing. Her husband's high school friend had not been found.

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