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Oklahoma City rises from the ruin THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING


OKLAHOMA CITY -- This is a city trying to comfort itself.

Eleven days after the nightmare bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the funerals go on. The rescue workers -- by now certain they are not going to rescue anyone more -- continue their struggle to recover bodies.

The families who have heard nothing still wait, as volunteers -- strangers -- hold their hands.

This is a place where 300 clergy members signed up to counsel families and another 300 volunteered to talk to the hundreds on weary search teams, where schoolchildren decorate pillowcases for the rescuers' cots with thank-you messages.

This a place where the medical examiner cried at a news conference.

Since 9:02 a.m. April 19, when a terrorist bomb tore through federal offices, Oklahoma City has been consumed with the work of saving victims and giving solace to the grieving.

It has been enveloped in care from around the country.

President Clinton came, calling the blast that killed more than 100 and left almost as many missing "this terrible sin."

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson arrived at midweek, describing the disaster as "the act of the devil."

Fresh rescue teams landed at the airport to relieve the exhausted. Network anchors did their newscasts with the ravaged federal building as a backdrop.

But soon, the city knows, the desperate activity will end. The visitors will pack and leave.

And like a family trying to cope privately after the funeral guests have gone, Oklahoma City, with a gash through its heart, will be left to itself.

Then the hardest work will start.

"Our efforts here have been to give immediate relief," said the Rev. Brad Yarbrough, who coordinated chaplain services for grieving families.

"But what are we going to do for the long haul?

"It's like the rescue workers," Mr. Yarbrough said, his eyes filling with tears after more than a week of dealing with bereavement on a scale he'd never imagined.

"They cleared the easy areas first. Now they're down to the rubble.

"And here, we're down to the rubble of people's lives."

Residents and volunteers who have been working here since the explosion say the city will never be the same. There are many, however, who say it may, in a sober way, be better.

"Disaster doesn't produce good," said the Rev. Don Alexander, pastor of the First Christian Church, where relatives of the missing assemble each day to await word from the medical examiner. "But it can reveal it.

"There are people here [at the Red Cross volunteer center] who forever will be kinder people" because they've been so moved by the disaster, Mr. Alexander said.

"We will have a greater heart."

Juliana Witten, a nurse at Baptist Hospital, remembers doctors and nurses pausing as they treated the wounded to say, "I want to go home and hug my children."

"This has reminded us what's important," she said.

There is unembarrassed talk all over Oklahoma City about goodness and kindness and caring for your fellow man and putting more trust in God.

"People are just nicer now," a police officer said on a call-in radio show. "I can see it."

Dose of defiant pride

And there is also a defiant pride.

"We can't let this get us down," said Laura Bode, 32, a Social Security claims representative who was dragged out of the debris by a co-worker.

"The people who are responsible for this want to mark this as a victory. We're not going to let them."

"After the rescue workers leave, we're not going to be alone," said Robin Griffin, who has been a Red Cross volunteer at the command center since the day of the blast.

"You don't get over it. But we have each other."

Over and over, people in Oklahoma City say they cannot imagine why this happened here.

This is a city of nearly a half-million, with a symphony and a ballet, with drug problems and crime. But it is also a place that's proud to be part of solid, Bible Belt middle America.

Bombings happen in New York and Beirut, people here say, not in Oklahoma. Children are burned by acts of war in Bosnia, not on a downtown-America street.

A day after the explosion, Ms. Griffin said, "I keep thinking to myself, 'I'm not here. This isn't real.' "

A week later, she added, "We thought we were safe. We thought our children were safe. They weren't."

"We were tested in a way we never expected to be tested," said Dr. Catherine Shaw, a psychologist at the Veterans Administration medical center who volunteered to talk to families on the day of the bombing.

Loss touches everyone

The scope of the tragedy is so broad that it's hard to find someone who doesn't feel personal loss.

Jeannie Ciupak pushed her 17-month-old daughter, Lacy, in a stroller as close as she could get Wednesday morning to the site, where rescue workers removed their hard hats and paused for a moment of silence at 9:02 a.m. to mark a week since the explosion.

Her husband's company had donated infrared equipment to help in the search. Her neighbors were missing. Her husband's high school friend had not been found.

"This is a searching city," said Chris Brewster, a music teacher at Capitol Hill High School in downtown Oklahoma City. "It's weeping."

Four of 25 seniors in one of his classes lost a relative, Mr. Brewster said. He wasn't even aware of one soccer player's grief until the boy wandered in after practice and started talking about his dead uncle. Mr. Brewster attended the funeral.

At Wilson Truck Sales near downtown, Wade Hendrix said he's spent every evening since the blast with his cousin, Michael Meek, whose wife, Claudette, worked in the Federal Employees Credit Union. A week after the explosion, there was no word of her.

April 19 was the birthday of both Mr. Meek and his daughter. When they were allowed to go into town to retrieve Claudette Meek's car, they found it filled with birthday presents that she never got to deliver to her husband and her child.

"The day before Easter Sunday, we spent all afternoon with Mike and Claudette and their kids and parents," Mr. Hendrix said. "And we talked and laughed. I saw them at church the next day. I never imagined that would be the last time I'd see her."

He is haunted, too, by the image of another missing woman, a member of his church who worked with Mrs. Meek.

At Easter services, he remembers scanning the room. She looked up, "And we made eye contact. I right now can see her eyes. And it's destroying."

"You think you're the only one this has happened to," said Paul Howell, whose daughter still was missing at week's end. "Then I went to a Lion's Club meeting Tuesday night and one of my good buddies buried his niece that day."

No refuge from grief

Across Oklahoma City, there is no refuge from the grief.

"It's 24-hour pain that you can't get away from," Mr. Brewster said. His students are "totally surrounded by it."

"You drive down the street and every flag's at half-staff," he said. "You turn on TV, it's there all the time. You listen to the radio, it's there."

Laura Bode went to five funerals last week for Social Security co-workers she loved. Of 53 people in the office, at least 16 were lost.

Sitting in her living room in suburban Edmond, she drew a diagram of how the desks were arranged. Hers was the last one spared. Three feet beyond her, nine stories collapsed into one; "pancaked" is how the rescue teams describe it.

The Social Security office was on the first floor. Had she looked out the window, she would have seen the yellow Ryder truck that investigators say held the explosives that blew the building apart.

She wonders why she lived. She worries that she could have done more to help her co-workers.

"A woman who retired last fall came up to me today at a funeral, crying, and said, 'If I hadn't retired, I could have been there and helped.' "

Shirley Chater, the Social Security commissioner, came to Oklahoma City Monday to console employees, visit hospitals and meet with families. When Ms. Bode began sobbing uncontrollably, Ms. Chater "rushed over to me and held me. And she held me for the rest of the meeting. She was wonderful."

Ms. Bode wants group counseling sessions. And she wants the building torn down.

"I do not want the building replaced," she said. "I want a monument with trees and flowers. I want it to be a place where people can go and remember the people who died."

When she was released from the hospital the night after the explosion, a neighbor she doesn't know well arrived to mow her lawn. A friend of her father, who knew Mr. Bode would be spending time with his daughter, arrived to cut his grass as well.

She was amazed to find even strangers nowhere near Oklahoma were touched by the bombing. When Ms. Bode called a credit card company to say she'd need a replacement, the company representative asked what had happened to the original.

"I said, 'Well, my other one's in the federal building in Oklahoma City.' And she paused and said, 'Were you there?' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Oh, God, I'm so glad you're alive.' "

Ms. Bode began to cry.

"Think of it this way," her mother, Carol, said. "Laura has lost 16 family members all at the same time. So did her co-workers. They're mourning for more people at once than the average person will mourn for in a lifetime."

"It's so hard to say goodbye," Laura Bode said.

And yet, amid the wreckage, residents are trying to convince themselves that they are tough enough to make it through.

You can see it in the ribbons that flutter from trees and telephone poles, hang like wreaths on church doors, decorate the lapels of store clerks and rescue workers and television anchors. You can see it in the headlights that motorists keep on all day, driving through town and along the interstates as if they were all part of a giant funeral procession.

You can see it in the American flags that fly defiantly from each floor of the ravaged federal building and from the top of the tallest of the cranes leaning into the bomb site to lift concrete slabs from the rubble.

Signs of solidarity

And you can see it in the signs everywhere.

Outside a men's clothing shop, the sign says, "God Bless You, Oklahoma. Pull together."

On the chain link fence at the rescue headquarters, set up about four blocks from the federal building, a banner reads: "Thank you Lord for our Oklahomans. Our rescue teams, law enforcement, doctors and hospitals and community support. They saved lives and protected our city. We are a Proud Oklahoma."

What help are ribbons and lights?

"It's a tribute," said Debra Rogers-Hey, who used to work in the Murrah building's Social Security office. "It shows we care."

"The lights make you feel a unity, that you're thinking about the same things," said Richard Kunkel, who was visiting Oklahoma City from Enid, Okla. "A lot of people are searching for a way they can be part of it."

Downtown is full of people with video cameras and binoculars trying to see for themselves. They walk the perimeter of the site, which is cordoned off by yellow police tape. Shards of glass are scattered over the pavement.

The streets are blocked by barricades policed by all levels of law enforcement: Oklahoma City police, Oklahoma State Highway Patrol, the National Guard.

The building, still looking solid from the south, is exposed to the world from the north. At night, it is lighted bright as noon while workers crawl through the ruins.

Mr. Hendrix and his wife were among the visitors one night: "We went out of respect."

Mesmerized by the building on television for a week, he had not expected to be so moved by it.

"Every American should see this," he said. His wife, quiet as they walked through downtown, went home and "cried for an hour."

Impromptu shrines have sprung up on street corners. Around one downtown telephone pole, people have left bouquets of roses, bunches of chrysanthemums, artificial cemetery sprays. A miniature American flag was stuck in the ground. A larger flag was wrapped around the pole. And a small pink stuffed rabbit was leaned against a cross.

One night, a gospel choir arrived at the corner after dark to sing for the crowd and for the victims.

Officials in FBI and ATF windbreakers are everywhere. Rescue teams in khaki coveralls stride solemnly toward the Murrah building to begin 12-hour shifts. Tired crews walk back to the command site for food and rest.

Across the several blocks reserved for the rescue teams, Salvation Army workers provide food. Red Cross workers travel in golf carts. Reporters and photographers, kept away from the central command post, have staked out parking lots that are filled with roaring generator trucks, their cables snaking across the pavement.

At week's end, Oklahoma City's public works director announced that 312 buildings had been damaged by the explosion, including 10 that had collapsed and 25 found to have severe structural damage.

His department began to post "Unfit for Habitation" signs.

Beginning to rebuild

In downtown buildings less severely damaged, property owners spent the days after the blast nailing plywood over blown-out windows. Last week, they began replacing plate glass.

Each day, recovery workers give upbeat answers to the question of how the work is going, even on days when sharp wind and cold rain have stopped them. How long recovery teams will fight their way through the Murrah building wreckage is not clear. The Red Cross workers acknowledge that their rescue mission will come to an end soon.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration will provide long-term counseling and support for the families, but the emergency volunteers will leave.

Oklahoma City residents say they are not daunted.

"When Oklahoma City is alone, that's when the real healing will take place," Mr. Brewster said. "When the outsiders leave, there won't be any sense of loneliness, because these people have come so close together."

Will the intensified sense of community that Oklahoma City feels linger?

Mr. Alexander smiled. "We are human, and I guess that's the original definition of backsliding."

Then he pulled from his jacket a quotation he'd been reading from "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"I still believe in spite of everything," the girl wrote, "that people are truly good at heart. . . . When I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty will end and that peace and tranquillity will return."

Mr. Alexander tucked the paper back inside his jacket.

"We have to believe that," he said.

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