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1995 bombing made them grapple with forgiveness

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP) — Although Oklahoma City police chaplains Jack and Phyllis Poe weren’t inside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when a truck bomb exploded at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the aftereffects of the tragedy pushed them to grapple with forgiveness.

“One of the things we really didn’t understand is, as caregivers, we want to make a difference, but we didn’t realize that you can give yourselves away. And, Phyllis and I gave ourselves away,” Poe said, reminiscing about the tragedy as its 20th anniversary approached.

“The two weeks before it happened, we had [attended] seven funerals,” Phyllis recalled. “We were in the office and I started crying. I said, ‘God, please, no more funerals, we can’t do this, we’re too tired.’ So, we were spent before we ever got to the bombing.”

On April 19, they were getting dressed to go to yet another funeral when the bomb went off. “Our house was 8.5 miles away,” Jack said. “I thought something in our house had exploded. Then I thought an airplane crash had caused that massive boom.

“So, I went to the car and checked our [police] radio and finally someone said they thought it was the federal building downtown.

“I left, and Phyllis said she would follow me later. I pulled in behind one of our [police] units and followed him downtown.”

The Poes would spend the next 21 days at the bomb site.

The first damage Jack saw was a Lincoln dealership about four blocks from the Murrah Building, “and the cars looked like they had been beaten with sledge hammers,” he said. “There was glass all over the place from the big plate glass showroom windows that had been blown out.

“When I got to the Regency Towers Apartments, I parked my car and ran up the street. … [W]hen our police officers who had been in Vietnam smelled the ammonia, they knew exactly what happened and that it was a bomb. The sight of the building was devastating.”

The police chief sent Poe to the initial command post, then to First United Methodist Church.

“They said, ‘We have some bodies there and you are needed,'” Poe said. “… [One] of our veteran homicide detectives had gone in there and he had left, saying, ‘I can’t take this.'”

At the church, the “lasting image in my mind is walking in there and seeing three adults and five children laid out in vestibule,” Poe said. “The bodies eventually got moved to the back of the church, where they set up the temporary morgue before they sent them to the medical examiner’s office.”

People also were crying about children. “Finally, an officer told me there was a day care in the federal building,” Poe said, “and that was what the people were crying about.”

Poe next started searching for police officers who walked a beat in the area.

“I was afraid we had lost some of them, especially one named Bob,” Poe said. “He was a big man, kind of a private, shy guy. I finally found him about 10:30 a.m. and he grabbed me and gave me a big bear hug. He said, ‘Chaplain, I have coffee in that building at 9 a.m. every morning, and I got up to go to work this morning, and the kids had the car last night and, like most kids do, they brought it home empty. I was filling the car up with gas this morning when the bomb went off.’

“I told him how happy I was that he wasn’t in the building at the time, and I turned to leave, but he grabbed me again and said, ‘That’s not all of the story.’

“He said, ‘I have two grandkids who stay in that nursery.’ My knees almost buckled at that point after having seen those children at the church. But, he said, ‘They weren’t here this morning. They woke up sick, and their momma kept them at home.'”

Poe then worked in the damaged federal building and checked on other people until concern broke out over the structure collapsing. “… [T]hey started having people run out,” he recounted. “I joined with our officers helping people get out, and I thought this might be it, and I prayed, ‘Lord, if this is it, please take care of Phyllis and the kids.’ … If the building had come down, there was no way I was going to make it out.”

Phyllis, meanwhile, had been assigned to help coordinate the chaplain response to the tragedy. Setting up a “Chaplain’s Corner” in the parking garage of One Bell Central, she eventually compiled a list of 255 chaplains — including 27 military chaplains since Jack also was the National Guard’s state chaplain — who showed up to minister to the victims, survivors and first responders.

“Working for the state fair all those years really prepared me,” said Phyllis, who had managed the fair’s Chaplain’s Corner since 1990.

The Poes worked tirelessly in the weeks, months and years after the bombing, pouring their hearts and souls into the lives of others. The smiles on their faces and the ubiquitous hugging, however, masked the struggle to forgive the perpetrators of the bombing, eventually leading to an unstable marriage.

“I didn’t know where to put my anger,” Phyllis said. “I had a lot of anger. Anger that people were hurt; that people died. Anger that our lives were changed within seconds, because you’ll never be the same. No matter where we go, what we do, we talk about the bombing. It comes up somehow. Before the bombing, after the bombing. It’s one of those markers in your life.”

Phyllis’ parents had tended to be passive and hadn’t allowed anger to be showed at home, so Jack received the brunt of the anger. “I couldn’t take it out on anybody else. … It got to the point that we were fighting a lot.

“Finally, we were going to a survivors’ meeting at the state capitol one night, and I didn’t want to go and said, ‘I just feel like the first person who asks me for another hug, I’d just as soon slap them.’ I knew then I was in trouble, because I love people and I’m a hugger.

Jack also struggled with forgiveness “because I didn’t like [convicted bomber Timothy] McVeigh and I didn’t like [co-conspirator Terry] Nichols.” At a church service in Texas during a break in Nichols’ trial in 1999, the preacher was speaking on forgiveness. He mentioned the bombing and McVeigh and Nichols, “and he said if they had repented, God would forgive them. I got up and walked out,” Jack said.

“I sat outside and my 15-year-old grandson came out and knew something was going on. He came out and just let me cry on his shoulder.

“I finally had to come to the realization that forgiveness is not for McVeigh or Nichols, it’s for us. Booker T. Washington, I think it was, once said, ‘I’ll never permit a man to reduce me to hate, for the moment I hate him, I become his slave.’

Forgiveness “would allow me to minister to those who haven’t forgiven,” Jack said. “And I knew that if I didn’t let it go, it would continue to eat at me.”

Things came to a head in 1999, and the Poes’ marriage was “saved” by Joe Williams, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s chaplaincy and community services specialist and a chaplain with the FBI, who arranged for the couple to attend a seminar in Florida.

“Joe came to the house and had airplane tickets to Florida for us to go see Charles Figley,” Phyllis said of a leading specialist for emotionally traumatized people.

“We thought we were going to a big conference on something called Compassion Fatigue. But, when we got there, the conference was just the two of us.

“Joe, along with the Lord, saved our marriage by coming over and loving us.”