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Lives still disrupted 3 years after Oklahoma City bombing

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Three years ago, thousands of Oklahomans’ lives were forever changed — some subtly, some dramatically.
On April 19, 1995, the worst act of terrorism on American soil took the lives of 168 innocent victims when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed, and the spiral that spread from that devastation is still affecting lives today. The lives of survivors, families of victims and rescue workers will never return to normal.
“Even though I came out of that building alive, I’m not the same person,”said survivor Priscilla Salyers, who was employed with U.S. Customs.
“I didn’t know how to deal with that, and my family didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Because of mental, emotional and spiritual problems involved in dealing with a tragedy of that magnitude, counseling sessions throughout the state have been set up to help cope with problems, some of which are just now coming to the surface.
Joe Williams, chaplaincy specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, was at the building site the day of the bombing.
He had gone to check on his daughter-in-law’s father, Paul Ice, a U.S. Customs agent, who was killed in the blast. For the next several days, Williams worked in the “pit”area as FBI chaplain. Three weeks after the bombing, he was in Washington for debriefing.
“I met with FBI personnel and a police psychologist who led me in sharing everything I had seen in the pit as well as the experiences I had with victim families and rescue and recovery people,” Williams said.
“After that time, the images I had in my mind were no longer so intrusive,” Williams noted. “It was a complete mental refreshment.”
On his way back to Oklahoma City, Williams said he thought about what the rescue people had gone through. “If watching them place bodies and body parts in bags bothered me, it must have bothered them more,” he surmised.
Out of Williams’ concern, Critical Incident Workshops were designed to meet the needs of those who had experienced trauma in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City tragedy.
The workshops, conducted in a Stillwater hotel, average 12 to 17 participants during the Monday-through-Thursday sessions. The no-cost sessions include a facilitator, chaplain and mental health and peer support persons. To date, there have been 18 workshops with 273 participants, including many workers who came from out of state to help with rescue efforts.
Although he admits the workshop was good, Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Terry Morris said it took until Thursday before he would accept anything that was said.
“I looked the speaker right in the eyes and told him he didn’t have the foggiest idea what I’d been through,” Morris said. “I was bitter and I was rude to him, but he was so nice. By the time we got through talking and praying together that afternoon, he had done a lot for me. I didn’t feel the babies in my arms anymore.”
Morris was on Interstate 35 in north Oklahoma City on April 19 when he got the call for all available units to report downtown.
“I get lost in Oklahoma City,” Morris admitted, “but I drove straight to the site, not making any wrong turns or getting in any traffic jams.”
Morris said he was stunned by what he saw.
“I couldn’t believe the devastation,” he recalled. “I looked up on the third floor and there was a man sitting in the window with his legs blown off. He was dead.”
Morris was sent to the day-care area where he spent most of the day carrying out dead babies.
“I held them like they were my own babies,”said Morris, the father of two daughters. “I told every one of those babies how much I loved them.”
His voice cracking with emotion even after almost three years, Morris said, “I felt they needed to know somebody loved them. Their mamas and daddies weren’t there to tell them. I laid them down real easy. It was tough. I felt those babies in my arms for a long time.”
Morris added that he has always wanted to write a letter to the parents of those babies to let them know their children were treated with the utmost respect and love.
“I hugged them, held them to my chest, squeezed them like they were my own babies,” he said. “I would cry and then I would get so mad. Then I got to where I couldn’t cry anymore and that bothered me.”
Morris recalled that when he went home that night, the late-day rains that came had washed the blood off his uniform, but when he undressed, his underwear was covered with the blood of the babies.
Over the years, Morris said he has worked numerous accidents where children were killed, but the difference is that the bombing wasn’t an accident.
“Accidents are hard, but they are easier to deal with because they are accidents,” Morris said. “This was an intentional deal done by a coward.”
Morris said when he went to the Critical Incident Workshop, he was the only state trooper there.
“The workshop was the starting point for my healing,”said Morris, a member of Immanuel Baptist Church, Shawnee.
Morris added that his faith was strong to begin with, and that and his family, including wife Nancy, and daughters April, 23, and Brandi, 20, are what have helped him get his life back on track.
Salyers, now employed with the Secret Service, was talking with a co-worker on the fifth floor when the bomb exploded at 9:02 a.m.
She fell to the pit, with her desk landing on top of her, and was there more than four hours before being rescued. Her physical injuries, a punctured lung, broken ribs and lacerated ankle, kept her in the hospital five days, but her emotional injuries kept her in her own private prison much longer.
“I really thought I was doing OK when Joe Williams called me and told me there was a place for me in the workshop,” Salyers said.
At Williams’ insistence, Salyers attended the workshop, which she said “made all the difference.”
“It helped tremendously,” she continued. “My husband couldn’t believe the difference in me.”
She said there was still a lot of healing that needed to take place in her life, and the workshop got her turned in the right direction.
“For me, it really helped my terrible survivor’s guilt,” she said. “I felt guilty for living when others had died. I had no hope, no future. I was just existing.”
Salyers said the workshop facilitator made a statement that turned her around.
“He said we owe it to those who died to grab on to life and make the best we can of it because they can’t,” she recalled.
“That statement was like turning on a light for me because I realized that lying down, giving in to depression and not being able to go on was a disgrace to those who died.”
Salyers attended her second Critical Incident Workshop a year later when she was preparing to testify in the bombing trial in Denver.
“I was working on my anger at Timothy McVeigh, which had finally come to the surface,” Salyers said.
Salyers admitted she was feeling intense anger at her son that she had never felt before.
“When I went to the workshop, what came out was that I was really angry at McVeigh,” she said. “I would always refer to the bombers as ‘those who did this.’ I would never name them, but was finally able to during the workshop sessions.”
Diane Leonard, whose husband, Don, a Secret Service agent, was killed in the blast, said she received counseling on a weekly basis since the bombing and thought she was dealing with her immense pain.
“But at the first workshop, I discovered I had buried some of my issues so deeply that I was totally unaware they were issues,” she said.
Leonard said on the first day of the workshop she saw faces filled with tension, sadness and exhaustion, but by the end of the week “I saw some peace and smiles.”
She told of one rescue worker who had not been able to hug her children since the bombing.
“This was more than two years after the fact, but by the end of the week, she couldn’t wait to get home and hug those children,” Leonard said.
Leonard confessed she learned during the workshop that she felt responsible for the rescue workers.
“I felt there were going to be some suicides among the rescue workers,”she recounted. “I’m now attending workshops on Thursday afternoons and am given opportunity to meet the rescue workers one-on-one and tell them what a tremendous job they have done.”
Williams, who has served as director of the Critical Incident Workshops for two and one-half years, said marriages have been saved, suicides prevented, spiritual commitments made and purpose restored for moving on.
The workshops have been supported by the Resource Coordinating Committee established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the bombing.
Williams said funds for the workshops will be depleted as of May 1, but the U.S. Department of Justice will continue funding them through a grant. Jack Poe, Oklahoma City police chaplain, will be the new director.
Leonard said she believes that those who committed the crime won enough on April 19, 1995.
“There is much more work to be done, but I am so thankful for people who are willing to help victims in an effort to end evil’s victory from this crime,” she declared.
Morris said the aftermath of the bombing is something he is going to carry with him no matter how many workshops he attends, “but I can deal with it now.”
He said one thing that gave him encouragement is the number of religious artifacts found in the building’s remains.
“You would be surprised at how many Bibles, pictures of Jesus, crosses and religious artifacts we found going through the debris,” he said. “There were a lot of Christian people in that building.”

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  • Dana Williamson