Okla. bomb survivors climb out of their past

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OKLAHOMA CITY -- In the mornings, Marine Sgt. Jack Jocsing finds tiny shards of glass working their way out of his skin, glistening needles shot into him as the Alfred P. Murrah Building was blasted apart.

Laura Bode, who visits counselors twice a week, concentrates on acting upbeat, since cheerfulness no longer comes naturally.

Dr. Paul Heath, who for months without warning was overtaken by tears, says he treats people "a little more gently than I did before."

In Oklahoma City, the people who crawled out of the building and the families who are grieving are trying to move forward. They are going to work, marking birthdays, recreating daily routines in lives that go on, though they've been changed forever.

"I've cried more since April than I've ever cried in my life," says Dr. Heath, a counseling psychologist with the Veterans Administration who was on the fifth floor of the Murrah building when the terrorist bomb exploded April 19. "But it's not a bad cry. It's an acknowledgment that something horrible has happened to my city and my people."

Six months after a truck bomb blew apart a community, Oklahoma City is still defining itself by the disaster.

" 'Normal' will never be the same," says the Rev. Don H. Alexander, pastor of Oklahoma City's First Christian Church, where dazed families gathered day after day last April, waiting to hear from rescue teams digging for bodies.

The newspaper carries bomb-related news, stories about families and reports on legal maneuverings for the coming trial. Week after week, organizations hold benefits to raise funds for survivors and memorials.

Some people in Oklahoma City complain that they're tired of the constant talk of tragedy and the national attention it still draws. But others say the city cannot be hurried as it copes with its loss.

"It's only a few months," says Daniel Kurtenbach, who heads the Oklahoma City Goodwill Industries. "We're the MTV society that wants to think [that] if it happened yesterday it's done with. Well, it's not. You can't just go on."

As the bombing recedes, the survivors find themselves different in ways large and small.

Ms. Bode, who worked in the Social Security office on the first floor, used to consider herself a perfectionist. But "since the bombing, I haven't vacuumed my house once, and I don't care if I ever do. It's not important."

Dr. Heath says he's more understanding with veterans, especially with those who have post-traumatic stress disorder. He counts himself as a fellow victim.

Sergeant Jocsing, who always was inclined to hand change to a beggar on the street, now never passes a homeless person without giving $2 or $3. "I'm counting my blessings," he says.

'I saw the glass come at me'

A Marine recruiter, Sergeant Jocsing says he has always been "a pretty vain guy." Then he laughs.

A wiry man with glossy black hair, he's gotten used to a new look in the mirror. His forehead is speckled with scabs and scars. A crimson gash runs down from his eyebrow past the bridge of his nose and under his left eye -- an angry, swollen wound that looks as if it was made last week.

Cuts on his legs and arm, also glowing red, are healing. A CT scan weeks after the explosion found a piece of glass "the size of a carat diamond ring" that had gouged its way into the muscle under his crushed eye socket.

"They say I'll be pulling glass out of my face for five, six years."

A plastic surgeon smoothed out his right earlobe and sewed shut the V-shaped flap cut into his lower lip. Doctors have operated on his left hand and have rebuilt his left eye socket.

One eye muscle, cut by glass, is shortened and prevents his left eye from focusing properly. Sergeant Jocsing, 30, will have double vision the rest of his life.

He'd been in the federal building only a few minutes that morning when the bomb went off, at 9:02 a.m. "The building rolled," Sergeant Jocsing said. "Then it fell. I saw the glass come at me" from a shattered window.

In photos taken the next morning in the hospital, Sergeant Jocsing looks like a man who's been beaten by a mob. When he got home from the hospital, his toddler daughter, Victoria, didn't recognize him.

Painkillers left him uneasy, dark reveries plaguing his sleep.

He was obsessed with thoughts of death. But that passed. Now, he gets upset only when he thinks of one of his Marine colleagues falling to his death that day.

'Still happy-go-lucky'

On leave for months after the bombing, Sergeant Jocsing began jogging in late summer to rebuild his strength. Soon he will transfer to a new base in North Carolina.

He insists he is unchanged: "I'm still happy-go-lucky." But in a tone of amused exasperation he says that his wife and friends, concerned that he was carrying an emotional burden, convinced him to talk to a professional therapist.

"Everyone says, 'Go to counseling. Go to counseling. Go to counseling.' So I finally went." The session left him cold. He does not see the need to discuss it endlessly.

He said he never wonders why he was in the building. "I think it was neat I was there, because very few people can say they were. I'm not glad I was there. I would rather have my health and be the way I was. But I was part of history."

'There were a lot of tears'

After the bombing, Laura Bode attended 10 funerals and began "heavy-duty counseling." Sixteen of her 61 colleagues died in the Social Security office, where she is a claims representative.

Depression still plagues her. But now, "the down times don't last as long as they did."

She loved her job. Her dearest friends were there. Ten of them ate lunch together every day. Now there are six. They share lunch hours still, and they are in group counseling together once a week, sessions paid for by the government.

For months, Ms. Bode, tiny and porcelain-skinned, ached from the torn cartilage near her ribs. Her eyes, once filled with glass splinters, have healed. But her hearing is impaired, her legs still bruised.

The bomb robbed her of peaceful sleep. "I would dream I was down at the building helping to dig people out. I would wake up and my shoulders would be sore from my moving in the night."

Then she returned to work. "We were re-traumatized. There were a lot of tears. You never knew what would trigger you."

And soon there were new co-workers hired to replace her dead friends. "There was a lot of resentment," Ms. Bode says. "These people were replacing our friends. It made everything very final.

"There's many of us who have felt this. And we're not happy we feel this way."

After the bombing and the funerals, she joined a church class to meet people. Grieving for those she missed, she realized she was creating a hedge against future losses: The new friendships are still superficial, but that's fine.

"I wanted a little bit of distance. I was so fearful of being close," she said. "I don't want to lose any more close friends.

"I had to have an emotional outlet, people who didn't know me, didn't know what I'd been through and didn't want to talk about the bomb. Sometimes I just want to go out and laugh."

At the same time, she craved spending time with her office friends, who could share her grief.

"It's been hard," she says. "It's getting better. I try to remember the people we lost, and they would want me to enjoy life, to live life. I am thankful now for every day."

'Let me do it my way'

Dr. Heath says his wife worries that he's too focused on the bombing. He has founded a group for survivors, the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Survivors Association. And he spends time with colleagues who made it out of the building, calling some daily.

"My wife felt I was spending a little bit too much time on this process," Dr. Heath says. "But it's not obsessive at all. It's a flight into reality for me."

On the day of the blast, he was in the Murrah building's VA office. Standing against a wall that shielded him, Dr. Heath, 59, would hear the cries of friends who were buried under desks and collapsed office partitions.

He walked down the stairs to the chaos in the street, found a worker who seemed unhurt and steered him upstairs to help rescue colleagues.

For a moment, as he recalls the morning, pain crosses his face and he pauses, his skin flushed behind wire-frame glasses. "I'm sorry," he says. "The depression is harder to deal with when I'm tired."

In the days after the blast, he walked daily into the wreckage to carry out files on the hundreds of veterans his office deals with. Until the evening before the building was taken down, Dr. Heath was retrieving cabinets and computers.

While other survivors stayed home to heal, Dr. Heath took no time off. "My boss said, 'Why don't you take it?' I said, 'Why don't you let me do it my way?'

"There's such a range of dealing with a grief reaction. There is no right way or wrong way. There's your way."

Physically, he says, he suffered only some hearing loss. But he marvels at how the emotional damage manifested itself.

For three months, he says, he showed classic symptoms of anxiety: He was "hyper-alert," filled with boundless energy. But he was constantly distracted. He forgot appointments. In the space of a couple of weeks, he locked his keys in his car four times.

About two months after the bombing, Dr. Heath began to see a counselor. At the same time, he's counseling a man whose wife died in the building.

He founded the survivors association because so many of them wanted to find ways to thank the public. The organization, which already has more than 200 members, will encourage survivors and their families to become involved in community service.

Dr. Heath also has arranged small dinners for his VA colleagues. "There is a glue there that's real obvious," he says. "The hugging, the touchings, the concern we feel for each other. It's different than with other people."

'I will never forget April 19'

Not all the survivors want to talk. The ones who do make clear that they are looking ahead.

"I cannot dwell on this," Ms. Bode says. "I will never forget these people. I will never forget April 19. But I've got to get on with it."

Dr. Heath tells survivors to think of their emotional recovery as a ladder. They are climbing away from April 19.

Backsliding is normal, he tells them; recovery is not always a straight, simple walk.

But he says the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing will make it back to the top: "I survived it physically. I will survive it emotionally, totally. And I will be a better person."

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