Oklahoma City bombing: 16 years ago ‘on the edge of abyss’
Sixteen years ago, a bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, ripping the guts out of it and tearing off the north wall. It killed 168 people, 19 of them children. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols set off the bomb in what is still the worst homegrown terrorist attack to take place on U.S. soil. Reprinted below are excerpts from two stories from The Washington Post archives that ran the day after the bombing.
A story of despair, by Thomas Heath, April 19, 1995:
As he walked the halls of St. Anthony's Hospital here, the Rev. George Young tried to explain to 4-year-old Katie, cradled in his arms in a bloody jumper, why her little sister died under a pile of rubble.
“She was very introspective about it all,” Young said.
Katie was one of the lucky ones who survived the explosion that rocked the federal building today. She was in the building because it was home not just to federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the DEA, but also to a day-care center serving children of federal workers and families from the community. The powerful bomb that went off this morning exploded in a car parked just yards away from the second-floor room where the 30 or so children believed to be at the center were about to eat breakfast.
Authorities tonight said they had found 12 bodies of children from the day-care center but held out little hope of finding many survivors, given the location of the bomb.
If the bomb had gone off a little later, during the playtime, the story might have been different. Many children might have survived because the playground is on the opposite side of the building, where it was shielded from the bomb's blast.
Instead, the bomb literally wiped out “America's Kids,” as the center was known. Rescue workers who searched for victims reported a horrific scene of mangled and decapitated bodies and toys scattered in the rubble. At another day-care center at a YMCA across the street, many children were injured but there were no known fatalities.
“This is your nightmare come true,” said Ron Phelps, chaplain at Children's Hospital, where about a dozen of the injured children were taken.
A story of survival, by Guy Gugliotta, April 19, 1995:
First the ceiling collapsed. Then the wires fell. Next the pipes sagged, broke and crashed down, crunching jagged shards of broken glass that covered every surface. A fog of white dust hung in the air.
“I've got to get out of here,” thought Brian Espe, hunkered down beneath a massive conference table on the fifth floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building moments after a car bomb ripped its guts out and peeled off the north wall. “But I've got to be very careful.”
Espe, 57, an Agriculture Department veterinarian, picked himself up gingerly from the rubble and looked around. He noticed that some USDA offices, like his conference room, had been turned upside down as if by a cyclone, but most of the fifth floor was simply obliterated: “the north side of the building disappeared,” Espe said. “I could walk through a wall and step into space.” Fortunately, he was on the south side, far from the explosion but still teetering on the edge of oblivion.
Hours after Espe had climbed down an aerial ladder to safety, he was still “on an adrenaline high,” incredulous to be alive and still numb to the realization that among perhaps a dozen USDA employees working in the Murrah Building, it appeared that “only three of us walked out ... It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
The Murrah Building is a nine-story reinforced concrete shell with light, soundproofed ceiling material and offices separated by drywall partitions, Espe said. The explosion carved a gigantic hole in the north side of the building as if a giant hand had clawed it apart from the bottom up. For Espe, perched on the edge of the abyss, there was little immediate danger of being crushed as many people apparently were in the pancaked debris below him.
Espe reacted to the emergency as if to an earthquake, sliding from his seat to crouch beneath the conference table. Glass, furniture, pipes wires, fixtures and furnishings rained down.
Close by, in what remained of the south side of the building, he saw two colleagues, a man and a woman, moving around. Both were covered in drywall dust. The woman had cuts on her legs, and the man a single, slight gash on his forehead. Espe, thanks to his conference table, was untouched.
“The only place where we could see anything was the south side, and when emergency personnel started to show up, we signaled that there were three of us and that we were fine," Espe said. “They told us to just wait and they would get us down.”
It took 45 minutes before the top of an aerial ladder appeared over the edge of the fifth floor on the building's shattered north side: “I don't like heights,” Espe acknowledged. “But I also decided I didn’t want to stay there any longer.”
The rest, he said, was a blur. He kept asking people whether they had a cellular phone. Finally someone did.
I'm all right, he told his wife. Yes, she replied, I know. His escape, it turned out, had been televised, and daughters-in-law in New York, Texas and Maine had called to tell her to tune in.