WASHINGTON -- Her voice breaking at times, Social Security Commissioner Shirley S. Chater yesterday praised the 16 SSA employees believed killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, saying they left behind "a legacy of dignity, of strength and of being there for others."
Ms. Chater, who returned to Baltimore from Oklahoma City Wednesday night, also praised the dozens of Social Security workers from Texas and elsewhere who immediately headed to Oklahoma to help with the workload there in the wake of the bombing.
"They are people who have chosen occupations that give them the opportunity to help others," Ms. Chater told reporters in Washington. "They so clearly demonstrated how caring and compassionate public servants can be."
Social Security, which is based in Woodlawn, was among the hardest hit government agencies in the bombing that devastated the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building last week. In addition to the SSA workers, more than 30 people with business in the agency's first-floor offices are thought to have perished in the blast.
Three Social Security offices near Oklahoma City have taken over most of the downtown location's responsibilities. A new, temporary office is set to open in two to three weeks.
In Woodlawn yesterday, more than 2,000 employees gathered for an interdenominational memorial service honoring the victims of the attack.
"It's very somber," said Phil Gambino, a spokesman for the agency. "We're going about our jobs, but we've lost part of our family. Everyone here feels the loss."
"The mood of Baltimore employees is one of sadness, one of wanting to do more than they are already doing," Ms. Chater said. "There is a great deal of sympathy for the children, for the JTC family members of those who are dead and a great deal of concern for those who are missing."
She added: "All we can do is to be there to help. I met with employees in homes, hospitals and meeting sites to extend sympathy and support."
In addition to their physical wounds, SSA workers in Oklahoma City "have some very deep and painful emotional and psychological injuries," Ms. Chater said.
Counseling is being made available, she said, and employees are being encouraged to form self-help groups.
While in Oklahoma City, Ms. Chater said, she was repeatedly told by workers who survived the bombing that they do not want the temporary SSA office there to be located in a high-rise building.
Social Security workers outside Oklahoma are worried about their safety as well. "Everyone has a question about security," Ms. Chater said, pointing to the bomb threats that dozens of SSA offices around the country have received in the past week.
The planned visit yesterday of up to 2,000 children to Social Security headquarters as part of a "Take Your Child to Work" program was called off because of the threats.