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Author: TexSilver Big gold star, 5000 posts Old School Fool Add to my Favorite Fools Ignore this person (you won't see their posts anymore) Number: of 193150  
Subject: The Worst Time of My Life (In Memorium) Date: 4/19/2000 11:55 AM
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This is going to be very long. Skip it if you'd like. But I've got to spill this or it's going to blow up inside of me.

Five years ago this morning I was running a little late for work and was in the back of the house when a crack of thunder rattled my house. I thought a bolt of lightning had let lose right over my roof. It had been a clear day outside when I had looked earlier, but in Oklahoma, things can change quickly. So I looked outside; the sky was still crystal blue. I couldn't figure out what had made such a noise. I wondered if a plane had crashed. I looked for smoke but couldn't see any. So I didn't give it another thought and went on about my business.

When I went back to the front room a few minutes later, I looked at the TV and saw a picutre of the shell of a building with smoke pouring out around it. My first thought was "What the heck happened in Lebanon now?" Then I saw the caption on the TV: "Oklahoma City 9:06 a.m."

When they bombed the World Trade Center a few years before, I had turned to my wife and said that wouldn't scare America, because the mainland of the country expected weird things to happen in NYC, LA and DC. If anyone really wanted to terrorize the US, they would have to bomb someplace like OKC or Kansas City... somewhere in the middle of the country that was considered "normal" and "safe." (this is not meant to show any lack of consideration for those affected by the WTC bombing... only to suggest a psychology of terrorism). And so I looked at the building on the screen and thought,

Oh my God! They did it!

It took awhile to piece together the reality with the sound I had heard earlier. I live 15 miles north of downtown. How could anything that far away have sounded like it was right over my house?

The following days were confusing, but I remember most of it with incredible clarity. I knew that they would need ministers down there as the recovery efforts began. But I didn't know for sure if I would meet the qualifications (I didn't know at the time our city's emergency planners had no criteria for allowing us into a disaster area... we still don't). So I sat for the next hour and a half watching the TV coverage wondering what I should do.

The first thing I did was try to get on the phone and check on the safety of a couple of my church members who worked downtown. That was some job as the phonelines were jammed. But I was finally able to get through on my cell phone and ascertained everyone was okay. Then I went back to my chair and my TV. I hoped they would tell us where clergy should report. They never did.

If you've ever wondered about how confusing the situation was, here's an example. Our TV reporters, who are usually as self-possessed as anyone in that profession, were telling people to stay off the phones unless it was an emergency and also telling people to call the Red Cross if they wanted to help. Usually in the same breath. They even had the ARC's phone number blazened across the screen. And they never seemed to notice the contradicition.

After awhile, I finally decided to get down there. As I drove down to the Red Cross, which is downtown, I heard on the radio that they had found a couple of pipes which could be secondary or dud bombs and were clearing the area. Like a moron, I never even thought of the fact I was driving right towards that scene and kept on driving. When I hit the exit ramp for downtown, I was stopped by a sheriff who wanted to know my business. When I told him I was clergy on my way to the ARC, he waved me on.

Then I entered the Twilight Zone.

Downtown was like they show war zones in the movies. The streets were deserted, with the exception of emergency vehicles driving all over... on the wrong side of the street, on the right side, in the middle. It was surreal.

I finally got over to the ARC and they had a line of people 3 city blocks long (or longer). I was prepared to stand in line, but just then, the National Guard showed up with several cases of bottled water. I grabbed a couple of those and was admitted straight in. After snaking through the wall-to-wall crowd and dropping it off, I found someone with an ARC badge and told her who I was. She seemed overjoyed to have a clergy member there and asked me to wait there while she found out where I was supposed to go.

I won't go into the way I was passed around in a hurry up and wait attitude before I was finally handed over to someone who told me they had no idea what to do with me and suggested I just report to a hospital. But that was the upshot of it all.

The ARC here is HQ'd near the university medical complex, so I went over to Children's Hospital as that's where the complex chaplain's office is located. When I finally found the chaplain, he didn't have time to talk (of course) as they were matching up parents with children as quickly as they could and needed to be with the families. He told me to just hang around in the waiting room and do what I could.

I spent the day sitting with parents who didn't know where there children were. You may all remember Edie Smith (now Edie Stowe) who was on TV quite a bit in the ensuing months as she lost two sons. She was also the one who went public about some people's suspicions there being a conspiracy. At any rate, I was not with her, she was pretty well sequestered, but spent some time with some of her family members.

The first official death notification wasn't performed until Thursday night, but Edie's brother was a cop. And in the early afternoon, he came in to tell her they'd identified one of her sons. The crying and wailing over the next 45 minutes to an hour will remain with me the rest of my life. Just as she was beginning to regain some sense of calmness, her brother returned with news of her second son. And the dam broke again.

In a sense, she was lucky. She was one of the few people to find out that day. The others had to sit there wondering. Were their children in another hospital and just not identified yet? Were they here but not identified? Or had the worst happened?

Mid afternoon, I experienced my first post traumatic shock symptom along with everyone else in the room. As I said earlier, the weather can change in a heartbeat here and a thunderstorm did, indeed, move in. When the first clap of thunder struck, we all jumped. And we all looked at each other. I told one woman, "It's just thunder." She replied, "God, I hope so!"

I spent that afternoon, not knowing what to do. I wanted to try to keep hope alive without instilling false hope. That's a fine and nerve-wracking line to walk. So mostly, I stood there and understood much later that I did serve a purpose in reminding the people, just by my presence that God was with them through all of this. What an amazing realization that was to be able to be such a powerful symbol simply in standing by someone's side.

When they do a debriefing after these types of experiences, one of the questions they ask is "What images did you bring out of this experience?" In the early evening, they moved everyone over to a church which would serve as the "Compassion Center" for families over the recovery effort. As we were all getting ready to move, I noticed one new couple who hadn't been there that day. I went to them and in the mother's face I saw the image that will remain when all others have faded. She was like the madonna in a pieta, a sad, resigned, face that wanted to burst into tears but seemed to have too deep a grief to even cry. I talked to them awhile and then we all left.

For ten of the next fourteen days, I virtually lived in the compassion center. The first five days I walked the family holding area sitting with families and other survivors and just holding their hands. I talked with them and let them talk. I helped them cut through some red tape and made sure they were eating and helped them get phone access, etc. I watched their expressions of hope fade to resignation.

Due to the sheer enormity of the task, death notifications were handled in the church. That Sunday, I was moved upstairs to the death notification center. I sat in a bolier room with other clergy and mental health workers waiting for a "chance" to do our jobs. Most of us went home having never worked. I wasn't one of those and was part of a team that told a wife her husband had been identified and was dead.

On Monday, I was assigned to helping coordinate the rooms for death notification. That job called for making sure each room was straightened up and furnished with tissues, beverages, and other things that might be necessary. I was essentially the gatekeeper. I was there to make sure the right family got into the right room and that any needs not provided for were met. This included anything from dispatching a national guardsman to get medical attention (which was needed more than you might think), arranging a military escort for the families to their cars (to keep the frenzied media away) to escorting someone out for a smoke or in one bizarre case, sending a national guardsman to find the "monkey lady" (a woman who'd brought a monkey and other animals down to the center for pet therapy).

I was also the one who was notified when the Medical Examiners got a new name and transferred it to the lady who was in charge of the boiler room. One afternoon, the name of the couple, the madonna, came to me and I told her I was going to take that notification. I somehow knew I needed to. Throughout the notification, she maintained that same expression she'd had at the hospital. It never varied. My heart broke.

The one advantage to working my job is that I wasn't restricted to 3-hour shifts like the rest of the death notification personel. I was able to work as much as I could handle (up to 10 hours one day). But living in death for 10 days took its toll.

I used to be a man who prided myself on my ability to cry when I felt like it. During that period of my life 5 years ago, it seems I cried out all the tears I have. Or nearly so. I have cried twice since then. The day my son drove away to another state with my granddaughter. And this morning.

In the past 5 years, my marriage went south. I left the pastoral ministry. I have post traumatic stress which often makes me feel as if I'm having week-long panic attacks. Not a day out of 1,827 has passed where I haven't thought of that period numerous times. Life will never be the same. Things will never return to the way they were. It is a daily work to try to reconstruct a life that was torn apart by this act of terrorism.

This has been a very long post. A long story. There are so many things I've left out. But I have included what I needed to dump.

This has been my story. Compared to the loss of life and health and family, it's a relatively insignificant one. There are hundreds of others. There are other clergy like me, mental health workers, people who pushed the paper around that made our jobs possible. There were constuction workers who had to move blocks of concrete never knowing what grissly sight they would uncover. Chefs who interrupted a convention they were having to prepare meals for the people working at the bombsite. Local members of the press who worked long shifts keeping us informed and sharing things about their faith with us, that most people never get to see in local pseronalities. All of us with no training or preparation for the jobs we were to undertake, but we did them, proudly, nonetheless.

There were people who could only help by giving blood, or making some sandwiches for those of us who were working and waiting, or donating goods, or making sure those donated goods were delivered. And I am wrong here.

I should not use the word "only" to describe their contribution. They were every bit as much a part of the recovery effort as anyone. And every bit as necessary.

I write this in salute to them and to myself. You will never see our stories on the news. We're not as newsworthy for some reason as the emergency professionals, administrators and family members. Please know I have ultimate respect, admiration and grief for each of those. I just think there are many stories of the "unsung heroes" which need to be recognized, as well.

So, I write in memorium. Not only for those who died, but for that bit that died in all of us 5 years ago. I write in memorium for who I was and who I will never be again. I write in memorium for those people who used to feel safe in OKC and never will again. I write in memorium for all of those around the country and around the world whose lives were irrevocably and indelibly changed by the Murrah Buillding bombing.

Thanks for reading,
Tex
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