|I felt the earth move.
Oklahoma City, 1995
Wednesday morning, April 19, 9:01am
As soon as I stepped into the bedroom, 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 and into the backyard. Baffled, I assumed it was a sonic boom, although, I'm not sure those even happen any more.
Went out the front door to check on, not sure what, but this was not normal. I wondered if I was dreaming or in a movie. Maybe I hadn’t woken up, yet. A quick look around the neighborhood told me I was in real time. No dream. The neighbor two doors down, an elderly but active retired schoolteacher, looked at me with a look that conveyed she was as confused as I. I walked towards her house. She anxiously asked,
“Did you feel that? What was it?”
“I do not know.”
I answered, feeling a bit better that I wasn’t alone in the experience. It was now a shared experience.
Back at my house, the dogs were at the front door, looking for me. And possibly just as curious. I went inside, turned off the music and turned on the television. A newsreader was speaking,
“. . . felt it too. A gas leak or an explosion in downtown Oklahoma City. We have a crew on the way there now.”
Then live images from the news copter as it passed over the Federal Building. Into view came the smoke plume, the absence of an entire wall, and the debris in the streets.
They surmised it might be a serious tragedy. I hit the 'record' button. I stood enraptured, 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 - was it an accident or intentional. In that moment, 9:02am, a catastrophe would fully occupy our thoughts. The city, state, and country would change forever. My morning routine was the same - shave, shower, eat breakfast - but, the whole time, it was not the same.
At about 10am I left the news reports to go dismiss my morning class - it just didn't seem right to hold class on that 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. I was in no condition to teach a class for two hours. The note was short and simple:
Professional Practice will not meet today.
A student came over to my house and asked if I was okay. 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.
I wasn't okay. 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. Wind shear had pushed the plane down onto the highway, crushing a car and killing the driver, and then colliding with two water tanks, and disintegrating. The crash killed 137 people.
I had wanted to help that night in Dallas, 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 time (as college friends do when they return to their hometown to get caught up). I was so uncomfortable - 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.
Within hours, numerous investigative agencies were on site and in the field seeking clues as to who did this and why. A report came in that three Mideast-looking men had stayed overnight in a motel on I-35, south of the city. Apparently, they landed at DFW airport the afternoon before, rented a Toyota, and drove north for almost 3 hours to the motel. The motel desk manager was interviewed. Only one of the men had checked into the motel. The reservation name sounded odd - it didn’t fit the man’s complexion or dress. He seemed nervous and all business. No chit-chat. According to witnesses, the next morning, three men left the motel and drove north. Going back the way they came seemed less likely. This was likely just speculation. In a quest for an explanation, a few dots had been connected. If terrorists wanted to make a statement in the USA, striking the middle of America, the heartland, would do it.
The public knew by this time that children had been in the Murrah Building daycare center, and were no more. Once people got past the disbelief and the horror, they were angry. They needed someone to be angry at. Terrorists made an easy target. Some suggested the three men be captured and simply set free in the middle of the city. Let the citizens impart some prairie justice.
Saeed Shariq was a former student who was teaching some design courses as an adjunct. He was a great designer and an even better teacher. Concerned, I called him. The ringtone awakened him. I asked if he was okay. He was confused - why wouldn’t he be? I realized he did not know what was going on.
“Turn on the TV. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
I didn’t need to, he called me right back. He sounded scared.
“I hope this isn’t Muslims. I won’t be able to leave the house for a while.”
The media had already bought into the notion of the foreign terrorists. It made sense. Most people accepted that an accident was unlikely - this was deliberate.
I asked if I could bring him anything.
“No, I’ll be okay, I’ve got food here. Thanks.”
That evening, after dusk, he was walking back from 7-Eleven when some guys slowed down next to him and rolled down the window.
“Go back to where you came from!”
Saeed felt fear and loneliness. He got home in a hurry, after checking to make sure he hadn’t been followed.
The campus where we teach had responded immediately. The President offered facilities to the blood institute or any agency needing space. A construction crane was driven to the Federal Building to help move debris. 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 near campus. 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 the time to be concerned about design history.
I left the unusually quiet campus 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 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 another human; 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.
Thursday, April 20
Investigators found, in the middle of a street a block away, the axle of the truck with its VIN number. That allowed them to get a sketch of the man who rented a yellow van at a car rental in Kansas. The day before, about an hour after the explosion, a man had been arrested on the highway to Kansas for a traffic violation. He matched the witness description and image. The anger and confusion took a twist. The perpetrator may be one of their own. The suspect was a US Army veteran who held a deadly grudge; the US government killed innocent people in a religious cult near Waco. Some people and media preferred the Murrah bomber to be foreign not domestic. Mid-East, not American.
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 a few 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
A plea was broadcast for dog shoes or boots. The paws of the rescue dogs were getting cut by the bomb debris. A few hours later, another request,
"Please stop bringing dog boots.”
The response had been immediate and plentiful. As were the requests for supplies, food, socks, and clothes for the response teams.
I had to get out of the house and away from the news coverage, so I drove to the store. When I turned onto a major street I saw that all the cars coming toward me had their lights on, even though it was mid-afternoon. The word had been spread for drivers to turn on their lights as a show of respect and remembrance. 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 store, I saw my doctor and told him I hadn't slept since Wednesday 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 day before the detonation, I was there at Oklahoma State University to jury their student art show and to critique senior portfolios. The show was to open Sunday and I needed 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 yellow van and if I had, why I didn't force him off the road. The mind plays some weird games. McVeigh didn't even drive to OKC until the next morning. I didn't feel much 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
President Bill Clinton and Hillary, Governor Frank Keating, and the Reverend Billy Graham spoke at a Memorial Service that was broadcast nationally from the arena at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. After watching the service, I got in the car to take a drive. Without consciously seeking it, I ended up near the Federal Building. Oddly, 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. Wednesday 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 reverently peering through. 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 and 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 the damaged buildings have 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 discussing terrorism, violence, and people’s feelings and responses.
For many days after April 19th, there was some item on the news about the event: the families and survivors, multiple funeral services each day, and numerous obituaries in the paper. 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 fraternity that I sponsor worked across the street from the Federal Building. You may have seen him on television. 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 the news 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 were 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 study group, one a Secret Service agent. He, like many, 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 Email Text
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