Boston Retraces Oklahoma City’s Painful Path After BombsMichael C. Bender
Claudia Denny said she heard the screams and saw the horror of 18 years ago when she learned about the Boston Marathon bombings.
Denny, 55, lives in Oklahoma City. Her two children were among the survivors of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Of 168 killed in the blast, 19 were infants and toddlers under the age of 6. Most of the youngsters attended day care inside the building with Denny’s 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
“It took me back to the day,” Denny said yesterday, sitting in her gray-carpeted living room where dozens of VHS tapes of Disney and other kids’ movies -- watched repeatedly as her babies recovered -- still line bookcase shelves. “I was in that place where all of the sudden I felt it, I heard it and not knowing where the kids were, just the total chaos.”
The twin bomb blasts April 15 near the Boston Marathon finish line shook Oklahoma City residents, who gather tomorrow at the site of their attack to remember the 18th anniversary of the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in the U.S.
Since the Massachusetts explosions, residents of Oklahoma’s capital have cried, lowered flags and prayed that Bostonians find comfort, as they did, in the kindness of others.
“The lump in your throat never goes away and it will be the same for the wonderful people of Boston,” said Polly Nichols, 69, who was among more the 800 people injured in the 1995 Oklahoma City blast that killed her cousin, Adele Higgenbottom. Nichols spent a week in a hospital as doctors removed glass lodged in her neck.
The city started its own marathon 13 years ago as fund-raiser for the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, located at the site of the bombing. The marathon, expected to raise about $1 million, is to proceed as planned April 28 with additional security, said Kari Watkins, executive director of the institution.
Boston runners unable to finish their race are invited to run in Oklahoma City, Watkins said.
“We have spent 18 years trying to defy the act of terrorism against to make sure the terrorists didn’t win,” said Watkins, 47, leaning back in a chair near the window of her fifth-floor office inside the museum. “What you see here, compared to what you would have seen in 1995, is a completely different city -- a different mindset and a different can-do attitude that there isn’t anything that’s going to defeat us.”
If the Oklahoma City bombing has faded at all from the nation’s collective consciousness, it remains a focus of life in this metro area of 1.2 million people. For those who lived through it, reminders -- like pictures of the Denny family visiting then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton in the White House -- hang on the walls in their home.
For others, the central location of the museum and memorial, which includes two freestanding bronze block walls that represent life before and after the bombing, is part of the daily commute for workers in the downtown business district or for Oklahoma Thunder fans on their way to see a basketball game at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“Most people here knew someone who died or was seriously injured,” said attorney Barry Stafford, a 62-year-old Oklahoma City native, before a lunch of chopped brisket sandwich and french fries. “You realize, having gone through that, that you’re going to see a lot of good. The good in people is going to come through all that evil.”
A few miles southwest of the memorial, Paul Heath sits at his dining-room table, where four books about the Oklahoma bombing lie open, pointing to different passages and pictures. Heath, 77, worked in the federal building as head of the Veterans Affairs Department office. He was buried chest deep in debris after the explosion.
A psychologist, Heath’s response to the bombing is clinical. He talks about helping organize rescue events on the scene, starting nonprofits to help survivors and victims’ families deal with their grief and meeting Timothy McVeigh, executed in 2001 for the bombings, when he visited Heath’s office days before the bombing.
During a two-hour interview, the only time he became emotional is when he talked about the Boston bombings.
“I wished it didn’t happen, probably more they could know,” Heath said, the U.S. flag in his front yard rippling at half-mast outside the window behind him. “You know what you know and what they don’t know yet.”
Like Heath, the Denny family urged Bostonians to cope with tragedy by helping others.
Jim Denny, said he and his wife reminisce about the days when their two children ran through the house naked after a bath, in the days before Rebecca’s chubby legs and tummy were stripped red with cuts and Brandon’s head was wrapped in gauze, tubes extending in all directions.
Today, 21-year-old Brandon struggles to talk, walks with a limp and works two day a week at a thrift store. Rebecca, 20, is studying psychology as a sophomore at Oklahoma State University. Her high-school essay in which she forgave McVeigh hangs in her family’s home.
“The terror you could see in people running on TV reminded me of the terror we saw down at the Murrah building,” said Jim Denny, 68, who quit his job assembling oil-drilling tools to take care of his children while his wife worked as a tax advocate for the Internal Revenue Service.
Denny phoned his wife as soon as he learned about the Boston bombing. The couple made sure their kids heard the news.
“It’s hard to explain to the people of Boston how their whole life will revolve around this day,” Denny said, his blue eyes squinting. “You can get over some of the pain, but it’s like losing a piece of your heart. There’s an empty feeling that just doesn’t go away.