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Okla. City bombing gave him ‘deeper gut feeling’ about life

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (BP)–When Dennis Purifoy came to, he called for help.

“I couldn’t figure out why no one was coming to help me,” he recalled.

Purifoy had been sitting at a computer screen moments earlier. The last thing he remembered was a flash across the screen. Now, he was sprawled on the floor with a 5-by-5-foot ceiling tile covering him.

“I thought my computer had blown up,” he said. “It was pitch dark, and for a minute, I thought I was blind.”

It was shortly after 9 a.m. on April 19, 1995, and what Purifoy didn’t realize is most of his co-workers were also covered in debris, injured or even dead.

When a co-worker finally helped free Purifoy from the ceiling tile, he realized that more than his computer had blown up.

“I knew it was some kind of explosion,” Purifoy said. “A few weeks before, we had evacuated the building because of a gas leak somewhere downtown. A lot of people thought there had been a gas explosion.”

Purifoy worked in the Social Security office of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where 16 employees and 24 customers in the office died on that cloudy spring day. He was among 2,000 people who attended the 2010 commemoration at the Oklahoma City National Memorial site where, 15 years earlier, 168 people were killed and more than 600 others injured.

With the Social Security office on the first floor of the building, Purifoy said the experience there was different from those working on the floors above after the bombing.

“A good part of the front of the building was blown away, and there was all this light coming into the building, but on the first floor, the rubble piles from the collapse of the building were so big, we were in total darkness.”

Purifoy said he suffered only minor injuries — bumps and bruises and had to have a couple of stitches on one ear. He was back at work even before the Social Security offices reopened at Shepherd Mall just a month later, even though he said he was not at full effectiveness.

Purifoy said his wife got aggravated with him when people asked how he was doing in the days after the bombing.

“I said I was doing OK, but she said I wasn’t,” said Purifoy, a member of Church of the Good Shepherd in Yukon, Okla., who grew up in First Baptist Church in Tulsa and Mayfair and Portland Avenue Baptist churches in Oklahoma City.

Immediately after the bombing, Purifoy was not concerned with who did it, because too many other problems were at the top of his list. But as things began to unfold, he kept up with the trials and even attended some of them.

“Since the bombing, I’ve had an ongoing interest in the far right wing militia groups that I don’t think most people have,” Purifoy said. “I’ve been more aware of these type of groups that Timothy McVeigh was associated with, and how they are still out there.”

He referred to a group recently arrested in Michigan — the Hutaree — who call themselves Christian militia and were planning to kill law enforcement officers.

“The book, ‘The Turner Diaries,’ was found in one of their homes,” Purifoy said. “That was one of McVeigh’s favorite books.

“Fortunately, after the bombing, most people stepped back and said, wait a minute, we may not agree with everything the government does or may think they haven’t been treated right, but [they realized that] people killed in the bombing, who were working for the federal government, were there doing their best job for the American people. I think that awareness has faded somewhat.”

Purifoy noted there have been numerous times in the past 15 years that these types of militia groups have been arrested.

“I’m not paranoid, but my antenna is out there, and I catch things like that which get lost in the haze of so much news we are bombarded with every day,” he said.

Most people think their days are going to be the same every day, Purifoy said, but “we aren’t guaranteed that. I realize, whether it be at the hands of a nut or a traffic accident, our lives could end at any time.”

Anytime anyone goes through a near-death experience, Purifoy said they try to value every moment of life thereafter.

“Most people have a theoretical idea that they could die anytime, but seeing it up close and personal like that gives you a deeper gut feeling,” he said.

Purifoy, who now works at the Social Security office in Moore, said he encourages those who haven’t been to the Oklahoma City National Memorial to go, especially if they want to get a better understanding of what happened.

“It is not a fun visit, but it is certainly educational and can be inspiring,” he said. “One thing the memorial tries to do is show the hope that can come out of a tragedy like this.”

Purifoy said he has spoken to school children over the years and tries to get them to see that, although what happened shouldn’t be minimized because of the horrors it inflicted so many families, good things also have come from it.

“The people who did it were arrested and tried in courts, so justice prevailed,” Purify noted. “A lot of people went in to help at the scene, so I talk about rescuers, fire and police, and give kids an idea they might think of that as a career. The people who worked in the building helped people out.

“Sometimes, we think our immediate reaction in a time like that would be a survival mode to try and survive ourselves. But what I saw and heard over and over again is that people didn’t just head for the nearest exit. They were helping each other out of the building.”

Still, Purifoy said. “It’s been a long healing process…. I’m enjoying the little things in life we take for granted.”
Dana Williamson is associate editor of the Baptist Messenger (www.baptistmessenger.com) of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

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  • Dana Williamson