“You have until midnight to do your interviews and take your photos,” The Star County Newspaper editor said.
Three of us junior reporters sat squished in the backseat of our editor’s mile-long 1970s-era Chevy. Two weeks before my career-defining internship with the major metropolitan newspaper, I had the assignment of a lifetime—and from a small county weekly paper.
With my Army green camera bag slung over a shoulder and a writing pad and pen in hand, I walked into a hospital emergency room. The ER was less than two miles from the bombed building, and victims were being taken to this hospital for treatment. What I saw next stopped me in my tracks: the faces of people waiting for news of their loved ones. They were ghostly pale.
“Go on, talk to them,” my editor said in his booming voice.
My legs froze. My hands began to shake. A gagging reflex caught in my throat.
My answer was just above a whisper. “I can’t.”
Booming Voice Editor patted my back. “Sure you can. Just go up to someone and ask them how they are feeling.”
My lead legs still wouldn’t move. I imagined one of these ghostly white faces belonging to my mom and dad as they waited for news of their child’s untimely demise.
Without missing a beat, Booming Voice walked from behind me and headed toward the ghost faces. Editor flipped open his notepad and began asking people questions. I backed up in slow motion.
Slowly but steadily, I slid out of the ER.
An hour later, our news crew relocated to the media hub located a couple of blocks from the blasted building. This was where the real action was. Aspiring county news reporters mingled with cameramen based out of NYC. Within seven hours of the bombing, every major news outlet had converged in a parking lot roped off for only those wearing press passes. That had long been my coveted item—an official press pass—and my editor snagged one for me. Dressed in a plain sweatshirt, faded jeans, and worn sneakers, I felt as close to Diane Sawyer as I’d ever been because of the press pass.
“Can you tell us the status of the search and rescue?” asked a female reporter in high heels.
The news people cornered a man in work overalls caked with concrete dust and wearing a hard hat.
“At this time, we’re calling it a recovery,” Hard Hat answered.
More microphones rushed in as reporters flung their questions at him. “So you’re saying there are no more survivors? What is the status of the last survivor found? Can you confirm that rescuers had to amputate her leg to get her out of the building?”
I scribbled notes as fast as my pen allowed.
It was nighttime. In the background, floodlights illuminated the desecrated half of the federal building. From a distance, the rescue workers appeared as ants against an enormous manmade volcano that had erupted.
After jotting more notes, I scanned the media crowd for any familiar faces. Some guy named Wolf from CNN sat at a makeshift news desk covered by a tarp. The reporter next to me said he’d just arrived from Canada.
Within an hour, I’d written seven pages of notes. I even managed to snap some photos.
Twenty-four hours later, I sat in my dark apartment alone. Any sound—the phone ringing, a train horn in the distance, or police siren—sent shivers down my spine. I hadn’t slept in a day and a half, perked up on reporter’s adrenaline and cups of coffee. Flashbacks of the illuminated gutted building came to mind when I tried closing my eyes. Reporter notes ticked in my brain: No more survivors. Amputated leg. Ghost faces in the hospital ER.
Well-meaning friends and family had already phoned in. Those who lived out of state were frantic until they heard my voice. “No, I wasn’t in the building that got bombed,” I said. “No, I didn’t know anyone who was in the building that got bombed.”
The reality of lost lives and a frightened city soaked in at hour 25 of my being awake. Oh my God, I whispered in the dark. Oh my God.
The Star County News would make history that next day at being the only time its front page didn’t include a farm report. Grossly enlarged black and white photos of mass destruction covered the edition’s first three pages. One of my stories appeared on Page One under the newspaper fold. All the awestruck wonder of covering a major news event vanished when I couldn’t fall asleep the next night. Or the next.
My newfound media credentials had come at a price: I couldn’t get the horrific destruction out of my mind.
The next few nights, I kept from being alone. During the day, the Star County Newspaper office became a refuge. Behind a desk with a keyboard in front of me and phone in hand—that was safe. Followup reports on the building bombing still took up half the front page and most of my time. Reporting on the occasional county fair or school board story was a welcome respite from the headlines of destruction and death.
Any time the office police scanner went off, which was often, my pulse raced. Sudden noises reminded me of the ambulances that raced to the ER where pale-faced loved ones waited for news on whether their spouses, children, and colleagues had made it out alive. But I was surrounded by other writers—a camaraderie of people who had experienced the same nightmarish visuals: Floodlights spotlighting the ravaged building’s crater. Jaws of steel scurrying in wreckage until no one else was found alive. Staff members walked from desk to darkroom to the next assignment and back with heads down, eyes glazed.
I tossed and turned those nights spent alone in my apartment, worries of sudden freak things happening if I closed my eyes. If a building with a daycare center inside of it could be bombed, so could my one-bedroom apartment. Imaginary terrorists lurked under my bed, outside the window, in my closet, in the pitch dark bathroom. If my eyes remained open, I could better sense these dangers and plot my escape. Out my dead-bolted back door I’d go into a common grassy space that was illuminated by porch lights. Worry held me in a tight grip, easing up only at sunrise when I could get dressed and be out the door for another day at The Star County Newspaper.
-Shanna, from April 19, 1995, 21 years of age
This was awesome. I can’t imagine witnessing the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing and being unscathed. I wasn’t there yet it affected me deeply because I worked in the federal building in Albany, NY. at the time. Thank you for sharing. Pat
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Pat, I appreciate you reading my story. It was a tragic day.
For all of us original Okies, this was such a tragic day. Your post was poignant and authentic. You were indeed on the frontlines that day. Prayers for all those who lost loved ones – can’t believe it’s been 25 years.
Thank you for reading, Rebecca.
This is a beautiful story of a young reporter facing a horrific event. Did you write this post at the time? I wasn’t sure if you were looking back or writing contemporaneously. In either case, it’s very moving.
Hi Katherine – I wrote this reflection about five years ago, prior to the 20th anniversary of the OKC bombing. This is the first time I have publicly shared. Thank you for reading.