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No closure for victims, families, rescue workers

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Will dedication of the long-awaited Oklahoma City National Memorial bring somewhat of a closure to a painful period in the lives of victims, families and rescue workers involved in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, or will it open old wounds?

“I think how people react will depend on what the memorial means to each person involved,” said Paul Heath, president of the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Survivors Association.

The association, a nonprofit organization Heath started after the April 19, 1995, bombing, is dedicated to helping people get over the effects of the tragedy. He is aware, however, that most will carry scars the rest of their lives.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Terry Morris, who carried bloodied babies out of the building, said he hadn’t thought about attending the memorial dedication.

“I took my minister by there one time while the memorial was still under construction, and it bothered me then, so I never went back,” Morris admitted.

“I’m sure it will bring closure to a bunch of folks, but for me it will bring up things I’m trying to forget,” Morris said. “I don’t know if there is ever going to be an end to it.”

Morris said every time he sees the picture of the fireman with the baby [firefighter Chris Fields with 1-year-old Bailey Almon], it reminds him of the babies he carried out of the bombed building.

“I can still feel them in my arms and against my chest,” he said. “I was covered with blood and didn’t even know it.”

Priscilla Salyer, who worked in the U.S. Customs office, and was injured in the blast, said she doesn’t use the word “closure.”

“I think of each step as a hurdle,” she said. “Each thing we go through is a step in the right direction, a moving forward.”

She said each anniversary of the bombing gets easier, but as the anniversaries approach, she starts getting feelings of anxiety.

“I’ve recently gone through some anger stages,” she said. “One night I was so angry, I wanted to go down to the site, and cry. It was an urge.”

Salyer has attended Critical Incident Workshops started by retired Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma chaplaincy specialist Joe Williams, which, she said, have been a great help to her.

“I’ve also stayed in touch with other survivors and family members, and just talking about things helps,” she said.

Salyer, who was on the committee which wrote the mission statement for the memorial, said she keeps looking for the positive and trying to move forward.

“I feel by grabbing on to my life, McVeigh and Nichols didn’t win,” Salyer said. “If I had not pulled myself back up, they would have been able to claim another victim, and that has been my fighting force.”

Agreeing with Salyer, Diane Leonard, whose husband, a secret service agent, died in the explosion, said the word “closure” is offensive to those involved personally in the bombing.

“There is no such thing as closure,” she said. “It just doesn’t happen. I’m finding the more people expect us to have it, and the more we expect ourselves to have it, the more frustrating it is that we can’t reach it. It creates additional issues for us.”

Leonard said the dedication of the memorial brings back memories and “puts us back.”

She said families were requested to do so many things leading up to the memorial, such as turning in stories about their loved ones, displaying objects that represented their loved ones in a 3 x 3 x 6-inch area, and giving interviews to the design team from Washington, D.C.

“And in December we had the internment of the unidentifiable remains from the bombing, so we just recently were able to finalize the burial of our people,” Leonard said.

She said the first quarter of 2000 has been tremendously difficult for her, and she is struggling emotionally more than she has in quite some time.

“The bombing will always be a part of us,” she emphasized. “It’s not just that April 19 has come again, but it’s an ongoing process of trying to get on top of your emotions.”

Leonard said there will always be triggers that “put us back mentally and emotionally.”

“Sometimes these come from way out in left field,” she said. “That’s something we are going to have to learn to live with for years to come. Hopefully we’ll get better at managing it.”

A.C. Cooper, who was the husband of Dana Cooper, director of the Murrah Building Day Care, lost both his wife and 2-year-old son, Christopher, in the bombing.

Cooper said he believes the memorial will help some people move on, but for him it is not necessary because, “for me, Dana and Christopher are memorialized in my heart.”

Dana Cooper’s sister, Carrie Brown, said while she doesn’t necessarily think the memorial dedication will open old wounds, “if anyone is expecting closure, they are going to be very disappointed.”

Brown said there is no way bronze, glass and stone will take the place of families.

“The memorial is going to be more solid, more permanent than the items placed on the fence, which became weathered,” Brown said, “but the real memorial is going to have to be in our hearts and the way we live our lives.”

Brown added that she believes the memorial gives the community a focal point and a way to concentrate on what happened, but the victims and families have their own personal ways of remembering, and those memories are “always going to be more precious than a construction of any type.”

Cooper’s parents, Carl and Linda Brown, members at First Baptist Church, Nicoma Park, lost a son in 1981, and said, while they didn’t realize at the time, that helped prepare them for the loss of their daughter and grandson.

“It taught us God won’t lead us through something we can’t handle; he leads us to the place where we lean upon him,” said Linda Brown.

Although they have not been directly involved in the memorial, they said their prayer is that it will be one more step to help people get over the bombing.

“The bombing is like everything else,” Linda said. “You have to put it in perspective. It’s not that we’re ever going to forget Dana and Christopher, but we have to find a way to deal with their deaths so it doesn’t consume our lives.”

Linda said a Head Start center in Midwest City has been named after their daughter, and “to us that’s a living memorial.”

“That’s where we see good, joy, kids who are growing, learning and being encouraged,” Linda said. “It’s important for us to see good come out of the bombing, and see people being helped and uplifted.”

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  • Dana Williamson