As I’ve mentioned previously, in 1995, my daddy, the late James R. May, worked in Oklahoma City for the ABLE Commission. He was just down the street at the time of the horrific bombing that took place 23 years ago at the Murrah building. He jotted down some of his thoughts, which were published in the Claremore Progress. While it’s a change from our typical upbeat posts, I think it certainly bears repeating, especially on the anniversary. The articles were published in two parts, so I will do the same.
Glimpse into hell: Evil dark spreads across Oklahoma City
It has been less than two hours since I saw the cloud of pure white smoke rise over the heart of Oklahoma City. The cloud, so out of place in the blue morning sky, drifted westward in the cool spring air. Quickly, he base of the smoke column turned an angry, evil black as it spread across the downtown buildings.
Rapidly on radio and television bulletins, the word was flashed. St. Anthony’s Hospital needs all medical assistance available, another nearby hospital announces “code black”, the dreaded signal that the facility can take no more victims. Capacity has been reached. The Red Cross issues an urgent appeal for blood. State buildings are ordered evacuated by order of the governor. Heavy traffic begins to pour out of the Capitol complex.
As I started moving toward the disaster site with agents of the ABLE Commission, the heavy flow of traffic becomes more noticeable. Helicopters are seen circling the shattered remains of the Federal Building. About 10 blocks from the city center, we pass the first uniformed officer. A State Lake Patrolman is trying to restrict all but emergency vehicles into downtown. He is helped by a truck driver wearing an orange safety vest, using his big rig truck as a traffic barricade.
The police radio in our car announces the finding of what is believed to be a second bomb. Emergency personnel scramble away from the scene in confused haste, fearing for their own safety but reluctant to leave casualties behind. Falling back a block, a command post is quickly established. Another report of yet another bomb and the command post and assembly area are moved back a second time. A hurried look around the new command post site, and I quickly realize that it has not moved all that far from the site of the initial explosion. Pieces of a car, shards of glass and chunks of concrete litter the ground. Even the pigeons, normally so active, are in hiding or dead.
The command post is finally established on a grassy knoll at Seventh Street and Harvey. There will be no further retreat. Looking south from the command center toward the devastated remains of the Federal Building, the intensity of the blast is evident. The north half of the once-proud building lies shattered. Floors are pancaked atop each other and the crumbled remains spill over into the street. And an even higher structure lies just to the west. Atop that building is a large air conditioner. It looks like a block of cheese hard served by a hungry rat. Not a single pane of glass remains in the building. Scores of white drapes hang out of the shattered windows and flutter as if in surrender.
Out of the initial confusion, order begins to emerge. Scores of firemen form in loose but anxious ranks. Their instincts are to mount an immediate orderly attack on the smoke and flame. Ambulance rands form in the side streets and parking lots. Utility service employees in bright yellow hard hats form up on another parking lot while their large trucks stand rumbling at the curb. With each passing minute, more help gathers inside the emergency perimeter. A smell from the past floats on the morning air. It is the acrid stench of detonated high explosives. More helicopters whir overhead. Word comes at last that the rescue effort can begin in earnest. Battalion chiefs order their personnel into ranks and shout out assignment details. Wave after helmeted wave moves off down Harvey Street, laden with heavy rescue gear. More people and equipment move into the area.
As the hours move on, necessity requires that thought must be given to the rescuers as well as the rescued. Cases of bottled water appear around the burgeoning command center. Volunteers arrive with sandwiches, fruit and bottles of juice. Toilets are off-loaded from flatbed trucks. Utility workers move among the turmoil to shut off gas lines and to check for exposed power cables. Phone lines are hastily hung from street light standards. Throughout the morning, a security cordon encircles the area so that only official personnel are allowed on site.
As the day wears on, exhausted rescue workers straggle back toward the command center. Most are somber and there is little talk as they brush away the grime, but they cannot brush away what they have seen. One young rescuer breaks into wracking sobs. He blurts out, “The baby had no head.” He is quickly supported by his friends. A man in green work clothes, his hand freshly bandaged, sat on a curb and stared blankly at nothing. A nurse knelt beside him. “I was late to work this morning. That’s all that saved me.”
Other brush away dirt and give. Water bottles and sandwich wrappers along with discarded rubber gloves and bandage wrappers begin to collect in freshly delivered trash barrels. Fresh uniforms can be seen moving off toward downtown. The scene is repeated throughout the day.
In the evening, the urgency of the efforts of the hundreds of rescuers from dozens of agencies continues, but is frustrated by the need to move agonizingly slow. Victims are uncovered. A few barely alive. Most are beyond help. A storm front of high winds and hard rain pelts down on the scene. Barricades are blown down the cluttered street by the 60 mph gusts causing rescuers to scurry out of the way. As quickly as the storm came, it blew away, leaving the living and the dead wrapped in wet plastic.
As darkness grows, generators growl to hold back the night. Flood lights spill out their brightness across the surreal scene. It is a scene that we have witnessed on television and in our newspaper’s wire photos. Scenes from Tel Aviv, from Algiers and from Beirut, and now, scenes from Oklahoma. Hell has come to America’s heartland.
-by James R. May