A Stunned, Immense Silence
The most indelible memory I have of Oklahoma City is the sky; blue-grey with huge, billowing, ominous clouds rolling in. Smack in the middle of this horizon is an American flag, flapping, drenched in the rain, flying at half-mast.
I was sent by the New Yorker Magazine from Saturday April 22 to Tuesday April 25, 1995 to work as a ‘man in the street reporter’; interviewing average citizens, recording thoughts, and making paintings and drawings from who I met and what I saw in and around the bombed out blast site.
What I saw you could not see from watching the nightly news reports or CNN. For an eight to ten block radius buildings were damaged or destroyed, many with every single window blown out. I saw ribbons, some ornate, some simple, mostly purple in color, all in remembrance of people who died. I saw scores of people driving down the highway in broad daylight with their headlights on. I met firemen who had driven all night from places like Elmo, Texas to spell other shifts of tired volunteers. And scores of others who were drawn into the vortex, feeling helpless, wanting to do something, anything just to help. I saw kids instinctively reaching to comfort their parents at the Memorial Service on Sunday. I experienced the sway of nine thousand people singing Amazing Grace.
What I heard was a stunned, deafening silence as people stood for hours just looking, just looking at the scene. And when there was talk it came with a furious need to be heard, to testify about their loss, their grief, their pain.
What I felt personally was as intense as any feelings I have ever had being on site. It jumbled together my undying pride at being an American and renewed my own unabashed faith in God and humanity. I felt respect and awe for these people, these Oklahomans; slapped brutally in the face, angry, oh so angry, who still retained the ability to turn the other cheek. Willing to band together to forgive, and vowing never to forget.
This experience will never leave me. It will remain with me visually forever, as big and grey and violent as the Oklahoma sky.
Saturday April 22nd
Sandi Sheppard Dailey and her daughter Kelly “We had to come see it. When you see it on TV, you think it could have happened anywhere.”
“My bad habit paid off, my Pepsi habit paid off today. I’ve cleaned out 60, 2 litre bottles and put in good ole well water for the guys.”
“We listened to the list on the radio, washrags, gum, kitchen towels. We decided to bring things.”
“We felt helpless watching all week. Unless you’re a doctor, a nurse, or a fireman you’re not involved.”
Saturday April 22nd, 5:30 p.m. My voice on hand held tape recorder
This entire section is cordoned off, all of the windows are blown out. It kind of looks like Beirut or a war zone.
There is nobody here; it’s desolated, there’s still that small town feel. You feel like you could still find parking anywhere.
Saturday April 22nd at the site
Firemen coming off their shifts
Jeff Herod from Elmo, Texas, Django Belote and Paul Duval from Alburquerque, New Mexico
Q: How do you guys feel about all of this?
Paul: It’s just incredible. The TV doesn’t do it justice You can’t believe a bomb in a car could do something like that.
Django: It’s kinda sad, especially when you have kids at home. It hits you… I mean it hurts. When you do this for a living it’s really hard. It’s something you never forget.
Q: Did it change things for you now that you know it’s American terrorists as opposed to a Middle Eastern Attack?
Jeff: Oh, yeah, definitely. It makes you angry. It’s hard to believe that someone in the U.S. would do this to their own people. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You know you can get pumped up and on the negative side thinking maybe someone from a foreign country did this…but when you find out from what I understand people from our own armed services were involved, you think how could they stoop so low?
Q: Today you were supposed to get to the Day Care part of the Federal Building. Did that happen?
Paul: No it did not. They did remove some kids toys and tricycles and playthings. Basically we go in and out taking supplies to Fema.
Q: When did you get here?
Django: Last night around midnight. We drove all night.
Paul: Yeah, 7 1/2 hours doing 105mph. We don’t know where we’re staying yet.
Sunday April 23rd
National Day of Mourning Oklahoma State Fairgrounds Memorial Service
We spend two hours waiting in line only to be moved to an alternate site. No one complains, everyone moves silently and politely to their seats. Full families in their Sunday best, frilly little girl dresses, black patent leather shoes. Retired volunteers, The Sundowners Club stand at the door with huge brown cardboard boxes of purple ribbons for the children, for remembrance of those who died.
Brady Wright, 16, sits next to me as I draw. “What are they going to do ban fertilizer here in Oklahoma?”
“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound…” Nine thousand people stand and sing. Children instinctively put their arms around their parents. “I am the voice of the children simple honest and clear.” “Whenever you see a fireman, a policeman, a nurse, make sure you thank them.” “We have to hold onto our children through the nightmares to come.” They are all here 3 million Oklahomans come together collectively to share their grief. To heal. To be together.
Death toll 71 Injured 400 Missing 150
Monday April 24th Murrah Federal Building
“We will forgive, we will never forget.”
Neatly written in white shoe polish on the windshield of an Oklahoma State Police car at the scene. You feel like you are on the end of the earth. Grey worn road, roadblocks everywhere. The phone rings and rings in the boarded up Hanson Sofa Covering store but no one answers. People come from all over with their kids, their cameras, their camcorders, their prayers, their flowers, but no one says a word. They just stand their for hours looking. Looking straight into the eye of the tornado, ground zero.
One by one trucks bring out, from behind police lines, crushed and mangled cars spray painted with neon numbers for identification 50, 28. One man kneels and prays on the corner by a makeshift memorial of yellow flowers at the side of the road.
For some reason on the night of April 19th I wake up unable to sleep. On the TV in strong winds is a man reporting on the horrible bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building. Behind him sways the green and white Hanson Seat covering sign.
Little do I realize at 3 a.m. that the New Yorker Magazine will call and ask me to go on site to draw paint and record the events and people involved with this tragedy.
Every bone in my body begs me to turn this assignment down. How, I wondered would I ever stay detached to truthfully record what I would witness and faithfully create from the middle of such an emotional firestorm? By 6 a.m. Satuday I am in line to board a United Flight at Kennedy. The ticket agent sensing my dilemna apologizes saying,’have a nice flight sorry it couldn’t be under better circumstances.”
Strangely, even though I was petrified to go and had no idea what I would face when I arrived I somehow knew that if they had to send anyone to this, that it was my destiny to go.
The passengers faces on the flight were hardened and defeated as if they already sensed the death, the enormity of what had happened and they prepared themselves quietly for the loss, sadness and storm we were entering into. No one spoke to me. I prepared emotionally as well. I prayed, please just let me get visually close enough to record what I need to in three days, help me to stay centered myself so I can complete the work.
Saturday 9 a.m. Will Rogers Airport Marianne at Avis Rent A Car
“It’s a big mess. We tend to be hickish and red neck, but we’ll never change; we will always be angry.” Marianne at the rent a car ticket counter hands me my keys and a bright yellow Avis map of Oklahoma City. “I found out it was done by someone domestic. I could understand if somebody from overseas was doing this to retaliate, but one of our own?” She shakes her head in disbelief and with a black pen marks where we are, where my Holiday Inn is located and a line straight to the bomb site. “You’re going to the Memorial Service on Sunday aren’t you?” She marks the map black again to indicate the location of the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.
It’s pouring rain. The thunder and low clouds pull in deep black and lightening cracks close to the ground. God is grieving his loss with rain, His torrential tears. ‘Bomb Suspect Charged’ in huge block letters appears as the headline of the Oklahoma Times.
Saturday 2 p.m. WalMart MacArthur Blvd. Pastor Micki Graham and his wife Rachel
Pastor Micki Graham and his wife Rachel were part of the relief efforts starting Wednesday at 9:20 a.m. They are here at Walmart to pick up their photos from ground zero. They are the first people I meet and talk to in Oklahoma City.
I meet the Pastor and his wife at the one hour developing counter at Walmart on MacArthur Boulevard. They were part of the first relief efforts to arrive on Wednesday at 9:20 a.m.
“I thought it was a sonic boom. Rachel and I live 3 miles from the site. We went right down there and for some reason we got right in there without Press passes or anything. We spent three days giving the fireman pop, sunglasses, food, whatever they needed as they searched through the rubble. “Rachel interrupts him and finishes his sentences as he talks. “There were dogs. After they sniffed out an area they’d stick a camera down the hole; a sensor I could actually see in the pockets of air.
“The cement blocks became complete dust as it catapulted down 9 floors. The 9th floor roof collapsed into the parking lot.”
He vividly described how people were walking with shards of glass coming out of their faces, bleeding into the street. And how he saw one policeman holding two tow headed boys, bleeding profusely, not crying just stunned. During the three days they were at the site there were two other bomb scares. “We had to vacate and literally run across the street.”
‘The worst was when they brought out the dead ATF guys and FBI guys. When those bodies were pulled out of the wreckage they didn’t use body bags, they actually put them on gurneys and brought them out on stretchers. The volunteers would stop, stand and salute as the gurneys went by.
“Did you cry?” I asked “Yes.” he responds without hesitating. “you’ll never, you could never put words into how you are feeling.”
Mother and son Tina Goforth and Derrik Sponemore age 6
“We wanted him to come see that everything is okay that he wasn’t gonna get hurt.” Derrik clings tightly to his teddy bear. “Derrik, why did you want to see it today?’ “I didn’t”.
“Does it bother you that Americans are suspected of doing it?” I ask Tina. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”
Saturday night Room 113 Holiday Inn, Route 66
My voice is shot from interviewing people in the pouring rain. I’m back from picking up photos from Walmart and working on six paintings at a time. Don’t ask me how I’m doing them I’m just doing them. I don’t have time to think, I don’t have time to cry. I can cry when I get home.
I order tea from room service. ”I’m sorry, we can only deliver items that total over 5 dollars.”
“What do you have on the dessert menu?” “Sherbet, ice cream, apple pie.” “Okay, sherbet and tea.” “I’m sorry that still only comes to $3.50.” I forget I’m not in New York City anymore. Here in America’s heartland things are cheaper. I order apple pie, lime sherbet ice cream and tea. The lime sherbet goes untouched and melts in its dish next to the apple pie on the tray.
Forrest Gump plays over and over on pay per view.
Sunday 3 p.m. Memorial Service Cathy Keating 1st Lady State of Oklahoma
“Whenever you see a firefighter, a policeman, a volunteer, a nurse, remember to say thank you.’
Sunday Memorial Service Waiting in line
There are so many people waiting we are moved to an alternate site. What impresses me the most are the proud silences, personal bibles kids dressed in their Sunday best. They are all here, present for the service. More concerned with how you are doing, their guest, a stranger, than with how they are feeling themselves. They wait for hours in line. They are willing to sit in a poorly lit, overheated hall because they want to be together. To sit together, sing together, share their overwhelming grief. For most it is the only thing they can do.
I leave early. The sway of 9000 people singing, ’Amazing Grace’ is too much to bear.
Monday 8:15 a.m. National Guard Kiffa Shirley
“We were brought here to protect the perimeter.” Kiffa tells me then asks to see my press credentials. “The PRESS,” he sneers. “What’s with you media people anyway? Already we‘ve had Hard Copy reporters sneaking into the site in fake fireman equipment.”
They are so desperate to fill pages and air -time with anything and anyone’s fair game. Carmen my waitress confides in me when I come back to the Holiday Inn later for breakfast. “They’re loud aren’t they?” she motions with her head to the reporters at the next table. They seem sure of themselves talking about the blast site, the 68th victim. “Yeah, I heard McVeigh bought the Mercury so many days before. “ one of them speculates.
She confesses she overheard a group of reporters joking about how ‘mushy’ and “soft’ the local media has been. “It’s hard not to say anything.” She leans over me with a big white and purple handmade ribbon attached to her uniform with an angel pin. It is so big it almost completely covers her nametag. “We’re not going to change. We were all friends before,” she says refilling my cup with coffee.” This won’t defeat us,” nods again at the next table,” this will only make us stronger.”
Monday 2 p.m. at the site
Two young guys from Kansas come up to me drawing on a knoll several blocks away from the site. Gabe Garcia and Jeremy DuBois. Gabe says to me,”Geez, we know a better place, closer that you can draw. Follow us.” They lead me to a clearing and to my amazement it’s the exact site I first witnessed on television at 3 a.m. Right by the Hanson Seat cover sign.
N.W. 6th and Broadway
Gabe and Jeremy stand with me for almost two hours, guarding me in a way as I draw. Black teenagers and a heavy set white guy in a t-shirt that reads, ’I’m that Christian the devil told you about stand in back of me. The t-shirt guy starts testifying. ”Before this I drank, beat my wife. Do you want to pray with me do you believe in God?” he rants on to the teenagers.
I get the drawing. I can’t believe I do. One freckled faced kid stops to talk to me as they are driving the crushed cars out one by one. “Thunderbirds are my favorite.”
Tuesday April 25th Will Rogers Airport Gate C9 United
Now I understand post stress trauma, and I was only here for three days. Finally leaving the death toll reads 71, 400 injured, 150 missing. I pick up Newsweek and look at the photos and go to read it but there is no way I can. I’m too emotionally spent and physically exhausted.
Maybe this is the wake up call America needed. Maybe in an awful way this tragedy reminds us that yes there is evil but goodness, good hearted people can overcome anything by banding together. These Oklahomans proved that to me. That being open, enthusiastic and kind is still the way to go. I feel like I was led here.
I will still have to deal with the enormity of my feelings when I return. This is worse than any site I have ever been on. Maybe now I can cry.