April 19, 1995
Feeling the Oklahoma City bombing
Wensday morning, April 19, 1995, 9:01am
I switched, as I usually do, from Good Morning America to Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and went back to the bedroom. Kaboom! The house shook. A loud wave of rumbling - from the back yard, through the house, and out the front door to the north. The dogs ran barking through the house to the outside. Baffled, I assumed it was a sonic boom (do they still do those?) Within minutes, the news came on the tv about some smoke or fire or explosion, maybe a gas leak, in downtown Oklahoma City. I went back into the living room to watch the news helicopter transmit live shots as it passed over the Federal Building. They surmised it might be a serious tragedy. I hit the 'record' button and still have the tape of that first fly-over. I stood still, not knowing the full impact on my community and my life. it was obvious something major had just happened but it would be a while before we could comprehend the full extent. The morning routine was the same but different - shave, shower, eat breakfast but, the whole time, it was just not the same. At about 10am I went up to school to dismiss my morning class - it just didn't seem right to hold class on this morning. As I entered the Art & Design building, I noticed a crowd in the lobby watching a television someone had pulled out of an office. The crowd was quiet. Engrossed in the news. I wrote a note on the board in the classroom and went back home. A student came over to my house and asked if I was okay. I wasn't. I don't deal with these tragedies well. I experienced the same feelings when a Delta plane crashed at DFW while I was living in Dallas. That was the crash where wind shear had pushed the plane down onto the highway, crushing a car and killing the driver, and then bouncing off the field at the end of the runway. I had wanted to help that night but kept hearing recommendations to keep the area clear. Maybe I could donate blood? But, I had plans to meet up with a former student and go out for drinks. It just didn't feel right to go drinking while this tragedy was unfolding, but I couldn't get a hold of Yolanda to cancel, so I went. Big mistake. She and others were having a good old time (as college friends do when they return to their hometown to get caught up). I was so uncomfortable - a few miles away people were suffering and dying. Rescue teams were searching rubble and I was at a night club. Couldn't do it. I excused myself, hugged Yolanda and said goodbyes. Even though there was nothing I could really do, I could at least not have fun. So, I just went home to watch the news.
My friend said he knew something was amiss when he saw me wearing dark glasses at school. How silly of me. I wore the dark glasses to hide my red eyes, thinking I could go incognito. The dark glasses brought more attention to my eyes than the redness would have.
The campus had responded immediately. The University President offered facilities to the blood institute or any agency needing space. A construction crane was driven to the Federal Building. People trained in first aid - campus police officers, nursing majors, and athletic trainers - all went downtown. Hundreds of students, faculty, and staff lined up to donate blood at a collection center in Edmond. At about 2:00 I went back to school. By then I had learned that classes had been dismissed for the rest of the day, but I didn't know if all students would get the notice. I had scheduled a major test for this day. This was the note I wrote on the board:
History of Graphic Design will not meet today.
Please do what you can to help those in need: donate blood,
donate food, talk, hug a friend; anything to help overcome
the feelings of helplessness in times of catastrophe.
Tragedies help us put things in order of importance.
This is not a good time to be concerned about design history.
I left to donate blood but was too late. People were stationed in the parking lot to turn away the people arriving to donate. The turnout had been overwhelming; there was no longer a need for blood. I felt depressed. I was going to give blood as a way of helping, of participating in the response. Now, I couldn't. I felt empty, alone, and disconnected. I just sat in the car in that parking lot. Now what? I drove around quietly and went home. I went to the gym that night to work out some of my anxiety and depression. I didn't know what was so upsetting - was it the innocence lost; the anger at humanity; the disruption of our relative serenity; or the helpless feeling of not knowing how to help, how to make a difference, or how to make things better. I still don't know.
Thursday, April 20
I went to school with the intention of dismissing another class. I hadn't slept, I felt unprepared, and I was not yet emotionally equipped to teach. About half the class showed up (usually attendance is 100%). One of those students had been up all night with her best friend whose mom was still missing (her body was later recovered). We talked a while about about feelings and emotions. I checked on afew things in my office, then drove back home. I stayed home the rest of the day wanting to watch television and not wanting to.
Friday, April 21
I had to get out of the house and away from the news coverage, so I drove to the gym. When I turned onto a major street I saw that all the cars coming toward me had their lights on even though it was about 3:00 in the afternoon. The word had been spread on the radio to turn on lights in remembrance. Someone mentioned it was the city's largest funeral procession. I counted the cars and fully 100% of them had their lights on. I have never known Americans to be or do 100% of anything. I was overwhelmed at this unified show of support and had to pull over to regain my composure. At the gym I saw my doctor and told him I hadn't slept since Wensday morning and couldn't get over the feelings of anxiety. He commented that many were suffering from the same symptoms and prescribed an anti-anxiety sedative. It helped, a little bit.
Saturday, April 22
I drove to Stillwater, up Interstate 35. Tuesday, the 18th, I was in Stillwater at Oklahoma State University to jury their student art show and to critique senior portfolios - a lot of fun, but exhausting. The show was to open Sunday and I wanted to deliver my Juror's Statement to mount in the gallery. The drive, about an hour, was therapeutic. I had dinner there and drove on home, remembering that I was on the same highway Tuesday evening that Tim McVeigh would be on to and from Oklahoma City. I tried to remember if I had passed a Ryder van and if I had, why I didn't force him off the road. The mind plays some weird games. I didn't feel any guilt but many here did. FEMA said that 3,000 people had taken advantage of the counseling services it provided. Many of those suffered from guilt: "why didn't I do something?" "Why am I still alive?"
Sunday, April 23
After watching the memorial church service, broadcast nationally from the arena at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds, I got in the car to take a drive. Without consciously seeking it, I ended up near the Federal Building. There was a lot of traffic. I parked on 10th Street (the Federal Building was on 5th) and noticed when I got out of the car that none of the buildings around me had glass in their windows. I walked to the fenced perimeter. Wensday evening, fences had been erected in a 10-block area around the building. There was one entry, guarded by the FBI. The rescue command center had been set up in the parking garage and inside the Southwestern Bell Building. That building had been turned over to the rescue efforts for about 2 weeks. (a friend who went to his office to get something discovered someone sleeping under his desk.) At the fence, there were hundreds of people peering through. At one spot, the Folk Memorial had already begun. It was a grassy area filled with flowers, teddy bears, ribbons, notes, and mementos. Visiting the site was necessary to begin healing. I, and many others, needed to connect to the magnitude of the tragedy, to get beyond images on television. The site is still visited by hundreds. What surprised many visitors was the extent of the damage. Numerous buildings were destroyed (one victim was on the street, others were in neighboring buildings). Many of these buildings have already been razed.
Monday, April 24
I made a conscious effort to return to normal. I did not turn on my car lights during the day as I had done all weekend. I returned to my classes although we spent the whole period just discussing people's feelings and responses.
For many days since April 19th, there has been some item on the news about the event: the families and survivors, numerous obituaries, the trial, the memorial plans. It had engulfed this community for months. No jokes made the rounds. We were still too close and too many people still hurt.
No one here is very far removed
• The past president of the UCO fraternity that I sponsor worked across the street from the Federal Building. You may have seen him on tv. He had removed his shirt to cover someone's wounds. His family, in Colorado, knew he worked nearby and was concerned about his condition until they saw him on tv helping comfort others. They were relieved. As of August, 1995, he was still in counseling and may suffer permanent hearing loss. I live 15 miles away and was shaken by the rumble and the blast noise so I can appreciate how loud it must have been at the site.
• A few years ago, the university hired a Director for our computer lab. He was a freelance designer with a woman as his one other employee. When he got this job he closed his studio and let her go. She got a job in the Federal Building. He suffered severe guilt thinking that she would be alive if he hadn't laid her off.
• The two men I hired to tile my bathroom are Oklahoma City firemen. They worked rescue shifts. They mentioned that every shift was sandwiched by a pre-briefing and a post-briefing. They said the area in the building where they worked looked as if someone had wadded up a bunch of people like Play-Doh and thrown them up against a concrete wall. They didn't find bodies as much as they found parts of bodies. As of August, they said 15 firemen were still in counseling and had not yet returned to duty. Many of those are Vietnam vets suffering from flashbacks.
• A faculty colleague lost two members of his Bible study group, one a Secret Service agent. He, too, has sad stories.
• Many of our 16,000 students commute from the metro area and have some direct personal involvement. Some are in Guard units who were called to duty, others had friends in the building, some simply felt their community violated.
No one here is very far removed.
After the bombing, Central Oklahoma was close to a Utopian society: people cared for each other, people were tolerant of differences, and we were unified.
Because my entire being felt the shock wave of the rumbling blast and heard the sound of the bomb thunder, and experienced the response, I doubt I will ever forget.
© James Robert Watson, PhD, 2016