25 Years After the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Stories of Rescue Will Still Bring You to Tears
It has been 25 years since a truck bomb ripped through a federal office building in Oklahoma City. The tales of courage and survival amid the horror that day are as searing and inspiring as ever.
At around six on the morning of April 19, 1995, the area around the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the heart of Oklahoma City began to come alive as hundreds of people—workers, visitors, folks with government business—converged on the downtown area.
Among those heading toward the building that day was a man driving a large yellow truck, its sides emblazoned with the black-lettered logo Ryder.
Inside the 20-foot truck were 4,800 pounds of a ghoulish, volatile mixture of diesel fuel oil and gray ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which filled as many as two dozen 55-gallon blue plastic barrels. The entire truck was a lethal bomb.
Shortly before 9 a.m., the man pulled the yellow truck up to a parking spot on the street in front of the Murrah Building. The truck was just east of the center of the north-facing building. Thirty feet away, above the entrance, the children of the America’s Kids childcare center were playing. Some of them had parents who worked in the 18-year-old glass-and-granite-clad building, which housed 16 federal agencies.
Just a few minutes before 9 a.m., the man lit the fuse and walked away. In the day care center, the smallest children had been placed in their cribs to settle down for naps. The older children sang their favorite songs, then had free time to play.
The fireball that hit the Murrah Building seven thousandths of a second after detonation put 1,000 pounds of pressure on every square inch of the structure’s surface. It lifted all nine floors upward, shearing off the connecting steel reinforcing bars (called rebar) and demolishing three of the building’s major support columns.
Desks, file cabinets, and chairs became deadly shrapnel. Chunks of concrete—ranging from fist-sized to wall-sized—were tossed about. Millions of shards of glass, as well as plastic from the bomb, became sharpened daggers that sliced through the air at the speed of bullets.
In violent undulations, whole floors were ripped loose from their moorings. Then, yielding to gravity, the floors collapsed, sandwiching together and funneling thousands of tons of debris down toward a giant crater blasted out by the bomb.
A few minutes after the blast, a breeze lifted the smoke and dust, and sunlight flooded the groaning carcass that the Murrah Building had become. Its cheerful face was gone—completely ripped away. The cavity carved out by the bomb reached almost to the rear of the structure. Daylight shone clearly from the other side. Twisted cables spilled from the top. Grotesquely contorted rebar jutted wildly in all directions. Fire and burglar alarms shrieked from nearby buildings, which took some of the brunt of the explosion.
Within minutes, a rallying cry spread through the confusion: the childcare center. It was obvious that those children were the highest priority for rescue. With sirens drowning out the crescendo of screams, rescuers by the hundreds began to arrive. They struggled into the jagged heaps of rubble, seeking America’s Kids on the second floor.
But soon they realized there was no childcare center. There was no second floor.
What rescuers did find as they clawed through the wreckage was what had been left behind by the children: pieces of clothing, shredded books, a small crumpled shoe, a crushed toy, a stilled mobile. Most horrifying, however, was the almost unspeakable human evidence of the powerful evil that had descended upon this place: a baby’s arm, a battered torso, a chubby finger.
One of the first into the building was Det. Sgt. Don Hull of the Oklahoma City Police Department. He and fellow officers crawled through mazes of twisted rebar and shifting concrete slabs. The air was so thick with dust that rescuers—many of them, like Hull, dressed in business suits and with no special equipment—were forced to take breaths as shallow as possible.
Early on, Hull saw a baby in the rubble he thought to be dead. A massive gash marked the side of its face, but there was no blood, and no movement. The baby’s arm was twisted around so grotesquely—nearly wrung off—that bone protruded from the biceps.
For some reason, Hull stopped just a moment to pick up the dead baby and straighten out its arm. “I heard a huge gasp,” Hull says. “And blood burst from the wounds, as if jostling the body somehow started the heart going.”
Hull pressed the infant against his chest, holding the mangled arm in place, and began crawling upward through the heavy rubble. He and his fellow officers had been handing off living victims in a sort of bucket brigade to the outside. But Hull was afraid the baby’s arm would fall off if he did that. So he struggled on.
When the baby stopped gasping, Hull began to administer rudimentary CPR, breathing into the child’s mouth and nose. This happened twice on the way out. As Hull broke from the building and headed for the closest triage area, he found himself screaming over and over, “Breathe, baby, breathe!”
As he reached an ambulance, Hull saw a couple running toward him—the woman screaming that it was her baby in his arms. Hull swiveled away, not letting them see the child. “I couldn’t let them look,” he says. “It was too horrible. The baby probably wasn’t going to make it, and I didn’t want that to be the last sight they had.”
“Hold the arm tight!” he yelled to a paramedic, finally handing the baby off.
It was 9:30 a.m., and Hull, like so many others, would be there for hours—until he quit from exhaustion.
The initial response of local medical teams was as impressive as that of the police, fire, and rescue units. Melissa Webster, a manager at an ambulance service, was at the scene with an ambulance 90 seconds after the blast. Fearing that her own trembling building was about to collapse, she had fled from her desk to the street and had seen the black smoke rising six blocks to the south. She and a colleague leaped into an ambulance with six other paramedics.
Within an hour, her paramedics—only one team of dozens—had sent more than 200 of the wounded to hospitals and managed to treat hundreds of others. By then, all the company’s ambulances had arrived, and they were loading as many as five injured people into each vehicle.
Eventually, Webster came face-to-face with the worst dilemma to confront paramedics in triage. A young woman lay before her with terrible neck and head injuries. “She’s not breathing,” said one of Webster’s associates. “You’ll have to call her”—meaning that Webster needed to tag her as too far gone to help so they could move on to assisting people with better odds of survival.
Webster felt for the woman’s pulse. She wasn’t breathing at all, but her heartbeat was strong. Webster knew at that moment she could not “call” her. “Her pulse is as strong as mine,” she said. She would see that the woman was given a chance.
“Put her in the ambulance and get her on a ventilator,” Webster told a colleague. She turned to minister to others.
She remained at the scene for 12 hours. Later, at home, Webster fell into the arms of her husband and their son and daughter. Covered in soot, she retired to take a shower. She had managed not to break down, but when the hot water hit her body, for some reason all the experiences of the day cascaded upon her. There in the shower, she cried uncontrollably for the next hour—until her husband tapped on the door to see whether she was OK.
Quietly, a few days later, Webster checked on the young woman she had refused to declare dead. The woman had horrendous injuries that would take months to heal. But she was alive and would get well.
Scenes like this were commonplace as one of the best-organized rescue efforts in history went into action. Within hours, search-and-rescue teams were en route from California, New York, Washington State, Arizona, Maryland, Florida, and Virginia. In addition to support from K-9 search-dog teams, the most sophisticated technical equipment in the world was brought to the scene—tiny television cameras that could peer into remote crevices, infrared devices that could detect body heat.
Rescue from the rubble
Priscilla Salyers saw bright stars. An investigative assistant for the Customs Service, located on the fifth floor, she had been talking to her boss, Paul Ice, at 9:02 a.m. when a thunderous, gale-force roar of wind whooshed past her head. Then silence. And blackness. Salyers tried to move but could not. She sensed a tremendous pressure. Something seemed to be crushing her head.
I’m having a seizure, she thought. Is it a stroke? Am I paralyzed?
But her mind was too clear, she thought, for her to have had a stroke or heart attack. She told herself, If I can just get my head up off my desk …
Nothing. Salyers realized there was little she could move except for her left wrist and hand. Her mouth was filled with earthy-tasting powder. There was a powerful pressure on her head from something that seemed to be slowly crushing her skull.
She was facedown with her rump higher than her head, which was twisted toward her right. Her right arm was pinned under her, and her left arm splayed outward. With the fingers of her left hand, Salyers began trying to dig into the dirtlike substance of the powdered concrete. She also began to pray for God to give her the strength to survive.
Oddly, her most immediate annoyance was a piece of chewing gum in her mouth that had become an irritant. The gum was infused with a foul grit, and Salyers desperately wanted to get rid of it. But her mouth and jaw were so tightly constricted that it was impossible for her to spit it out. It was all she could do to breathe.
About 30 minutes into her entombment, Salyers heard the far-off voices of men. Then, suddenly, close by, she heard a man speak sharply: “OK, this is the day care center. We have a lot of children in here.”
Salyers tried to speak, to scream, to let the man know she was there. But she couldn’t make her mouth work. Salyers’s greatest terror was that the crushing pressure on her head was becoming greater and greater. She prayed for calm and wisdom, realizing that if the men began working on top of her, it could push the pressure on her head to a breaking point. She also wondered why the men thought they were at the day care center, three stories below her office.
But then the voices were gone. Eerie silence returned. Her breath was coming much faster now, and she began to feel sleepy. But I’ve got to pick up Josh at school, so I need to stay awake to do that, she thought. Salyers had continued to rotate her left arm and hand. She prayed that her hand was visible and that she would be able to wave it if she again heard voices.
Suddenly, she heard a shout off to her left: “Hey! Here’s a live one!”
Then Salyers felt someone take her left hand and hold it and rub it. Her muscles first went limp with joy and relief—then she squeezed the hand as hard as she could. When the man asked her name, she summoned all of her strength to say, “Priscilla!”
The man realized how hard it was for her to talk, so he did most of the talking—the sound of his voice flowing into her brain like a glorious symphony.
Salyers indicated to the man that she didn’t know what had happened. “The building blew up,” he said. “We don’t know why, but we’re checking it out.” By this time, others had crawled into the cramped, cavelike area to remove the rubble piece by piece. At every moment, someone held Salyers’s hand.
Then, as her hope rose, the man holding her hand spoke gently: “Priscilla, we’re going to have to leave now. We’ll be back, but we have to go get a tool.” What he did not say was that rescuers were being evacuated because of a bomb threat.
She gripped the man’s hand with all her might and found new breath as she begged him not to leave, wondering why they all had to go. She wouldn’t release the man’s hand. She felt him gently pry her fingers loose. “I’m so sorry,” he said, his voice cracking. “We don’t have any choice. We’ll be back. I promise.” Then they were gone, and Salyers was alone in the terrible silence.
Her first reaction was a mixture of terror and anger. Because of the rubble that had been removed, her body was not as tightly constricted, though her head was still in a viselike grip.
As she writhed, she realized there was something poking her in the stomach. She worked her hand around so that she could feel the protrusion. It was a hand—a man’s hand, judging by its size. Her heart leaped, thinking it was her colleague Paul Ice and that perhaps he was in the same situation. She squeezed the hand, but it was cold and unresponsive. For the first time, she began to weep.
Then, out of nowhere, a loud voice boomed, “Hey, over here!” The scene was just like the first time—though the voices were different. A man took her hand, and she squeezed back.
“Get me out of here,” she pleaded. Then she closed her eyes and waited and prayed. The men explained each step they took, the most dangerous one being to remove a massive metal-and-concrete column virtually resting on her head. It was a miracle that it had not slipped a single centimeter more. Above her were the awful sounds of circular saws and pneumatic tools. The rescuers worked fast, knowing that at any instant the groaning building might shift at this location.
Salyers’s legs and body were freed first, and then both arms. The rescuers told her the hardest part would be last—getting her tightly pinned head free by trying to lift the monstrous column crushing her and, at the same moment, whisking her out from under it. When she was dragged free, terrible pain exploded in her—she had broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and countless nasty puncture wounds all over her body.
Four hours and 15 minutes had passed since the bomb exploded. She was so shaken, she hardly heard the cheers from rescuers and bystanders as she was carried from the rubble.
Against all odds
On what had once been the sixth floor, Capt. Randy Norfleet, a Marine pilot, was hurled against a wall with the force of a hurricane at the instant of the explosion. With quickly fading eyesight, Norfleet saw that he had landed about five feet from where the front of the building was sheared off. Then everything started to go black.
When he put his hand to his head, Norfleet could feel what he knew was a severed artery pulsing from his mangled right eye. The blood pouring from his face distracted him from noticing that flying glass had also severed arteries in his arm and wrist. He was quickly weakening.
But as Norfleet’s strength ebbed, a powerful instinct came over him. He knew he could not wait for rescuers but needed to risk everything to get out of the building and get medical help. To wait, he sensed, would be fatal.
Someone clamped a T-shirt to his eye socket to stanch the flow. With others helping him, he dragged himself toward a rear stairwell, fighting through rubble clouded with thick dust, and staggered down six floors, where he collapsed into the hands of paramedics. When he reached the hospital, he learned he had lost 50 percent of his blood volume. After more than five hours of surgery and 280 stitches, Randy Norfleet survived—though he would never again be able to serve as a pilot.
Little Nekia McCloud, age four, who was probably putting her doll down for a nap when the bomb shattered America’s Kids, seems to have been blown out of the building. It is unclear exactly where she was found, but medic Jason Skaggs, whose unit reached the scene at 9:07, says someone thrust her into his arms minutes after he arrived.
“I couldn’t imagine that this child could live,” Skaggs says. “She was hardly breathing—just torn all to pieces.” There was every reason to “call” the child and move on to someone with better odds of surviving. But Skaggs refused to deny the little girl a chance for life and pumped her chest as he ran with her to an ambulance.
Nekia was in such horrible shape when she reached the hospital that her family was not allowed to see her at first. Doctors asked them to bring photographs so they could try to identify her in that fashion. According to Faye DeBose, Nekia’s grandmother, the little girl’s skull was crushed. Both legs were broken, and her lungs were filled with debris.
The doctors told the family that if she could survive for 72 hours, she would have a chance. And on the third day, as her grandmother sat holding the unconscious child’s hand and praying, she felt a squeeze. “Sooner or later,” says DeBose, “I knew Nekia would be OK.”
But it would be later rather than sooner. Nekia’s injuries were so grave that she had to virtually start her young life over—learning to talk, to
walk, to understand what was going on around her. She was in a coma for a month. That is why the family was so overwhelmed at what Nekia said when she was starting to speak again.
The family had sought out medic Jason Skaggs, now a police officer, to thank him for not giving up on their child. Upon meeting Skaggs, the little girl first looked at him shyly, then turned to her mother and grandmother and said quietly, “He’s my angel.”
Brave to the end
Hope of finding others lay in the ghastly ruins of the Murrah Building that first day when hundreds of people were listed simply as missing. In the absence of solid information, people grasped at whatever they could find for sustenance.
One of those missing was Michael Loudenslager, 48, who was in his office at the General Services Administration on the first floor when the bomb exploded. For two days, his wife, Bettie Loudenslager, and their two children heard nothing. But their hopes brightened when one of Michael’s friends, recuperating from terrible injuries, told a remarkable story.
Randy Ledger, 38, was also on the first floor at the time of the explosion. He was buried under the rubble, and blood poured from his slashed throat. As he lay there, bleeding to death, he heard the distinctively gruff, husky voice of his friend: “Don’t worry, guy,” Michael Loudenslager boomed. “I see you, and I’m going to get help.” When rescue workers found Ledger, they clawed the rubble from his body. Paramedics rushed to stop the gushing blood and carried him away.
Only minutes from death, Ledger reached the hospital and began a slow recovery from a severed artery and vein in his neck. Although he could not speak at first and communicated only by notes, he was able to let people know that it was Mike Loudenslager who had found him. Certainly, Mike was alive.
Days later, though, Mike’s body was recovered—crushed beneath a huge concrete block deep inside the building, far from the spot where he had last seen his friend. Apparently he had gone farther in to help get someone else. “That’s the kind of guy he was,” Ledger says.
Hugs and tears
Even those not physically touched by the disaster will feel its effects for the rest of their lives. When Don Hull went home to rest after spending seven hours at the Murrah Building, he felt he had to keep active. He dreaded what he would see if he let sleep take control of his brain. Images more awful than any nightmare kept coming to mind. Most of the people he had seen in the building had been dead or dying. “As long as I kept my eyes open, I could control what I was seeing,” he says.
With their own daughters, seven and three, in bed, Hull and his wife collapsed in front of the television set to catch up on the larger story of the bombing. One late-night news report said most of the children in the childcare center were presumed to be dead. Then it showed a very brief interview with one parent whose child had emerged alive from the blast.
Hull grabbed his wife’s hand. “I know that guy. I pulled his baby out!” Hull had been told the baby died, but the man on TV seemed to be hopeful about his child’s chances, and then the interview was over.
At once, Hull called the hospital, and an operator put him through to the waiting room where Dan and Dawn Webber were keeping vigil over their son, Joseph. Hull wanted to know how the child was.
Dan confirmed they were the parents he had shielded from seeing the badly injured baby. He explained that the boy was in grave condition but that doctors thought he had a chance. “There’s no way our son would be alive if you hadn’t gotten him out,” Dan told Hull.
Overwhelmed to know that the child had survived this long, Hull and his wife went out the next morning, got a gift, and went to the hospital. There in the corridor, Hull looked at the Webbers. They all hugged, long and with warmth. The Webbers then invited Hull to Joseph’s bedside.
Says Dan: “It is nothing less than a series of miracles that Don Hull saw Joseph, that he picked him up, that he felt hope, that he breathed life into him and carried him out. It is truly miraculous, the work of God.”