On April 19, 1995, I piled into the back of an old Chevy along with four other small-town newspaper reporters and made the 45-minute drive into Oklahoma City. It was dark when we arrived at the city’s downtown. The first thing I noticed was the enormous gaping hole of a federal building illuminated by floodlights. When we arrived in the ‘media pit,’ rescue workers told all of us reporters that the last survivor had her leg amputated in order to be pulled from the rubble.
I was 21 years old and, up to that moment, naive.
When the downtown Oklahoma City building was bombed by domestic terrorists, I had never written a news story about late-night building rescues or amputations. I had never visited a hospital’s emergency room filled with family members waiting for news of their loved one’s survival or recovery from the rubble, until that night. I had never attended a funeral in my life until I forced myself to sit through a service for a 60-year-old man I did not know who had lost his life that day in a federal building office.
In thinking about the rescue workers, the hospital medical staff, and the family members hovered in an emergency waiting room, I realized that an explosion lasting only seconds would change the rest of their lives. Some would not sleep for days because of adrenaline and stark memories. Others would reel from horrifying grief. Some would attend their first funeral.
Maybe some of them tucked the details of that day 20 years ago into a box. Pushed it aside. Tried to forget. And years later, when they finally unlocked the box and retrieved what was inside, they realized all the details were still there. Every single memory, emotion, and reality from that day. All of it wedged in there. The only thing lost was their perception of innocence.
When I reflect on April 19 of that year, I think of once being so naive. Then an explosion took away lives, a young woman’s leg, and that sense of safety many of us felt in the American Heartland.
I don’t remember too many details from my 21st year except for that day.