Tales from my shelves: The marble
Two pieces of stone anchor one of my bookshelves. Both provide links to favorite offices of my past. One's a chunk of terra cotta from Tulsa's Midcontinent Tower. The other, a triangle of polished marble, came from a shattered wall inside Oklahoma City’s Journal Record Building.
I’ll tell you about that terra cotta some other time. Today, let’s talk about that marble.
As a reporter and editor for The Journal Record, OKC’s daily business newspaper, I probably walked past this stone daily for more than a decade. I suspect its age went back much further, perhaps to when that neoclassical structure opened in 1923. But that solid durability little mattered when an earth-shaking pressure wave engulfed that building the morning of April 19, 1995. How I escaped that blow, you will read below.
As you may know, The Journal Record printed nothing that day. The blast wave collapsed our press shop, shattered nearly every window in that six-story building, and wrecked much of its interior. Our editorial staff gathered early April 20 at the Remington Park racetrack to figure out how to get back on our feet. Using borrowed offices at the University of Central Oklahoma, our reporters typed up their bombing experiences. At the same time, Managing Editor David Page and I re-entered our damaged headquarters to retrieve essential files, computer disks, and other needs. David then edited the staff articles while I was to get ready to lay out our editorial section – digitally, for the first time – at the Edmond (OK) Sun offices. But I had something else to do first.
While I was not expected to write my experiences, I felt I had a rather unique perspective to share. So, while David edited, I kicked out a long piece in less than an hour – which I then had to cut. But I still had more to say, so I added to the text that night and gave it to The Associated Press.
You’re the first to see this entire piece outside of my family, a few friends, and some members of the Mustang (OK) First United Methodist Church. The Journal Record ran what you’ll read below through the sentence, “Fortunately, I was wrong.” The AP carried the article worldwide through the sentence, “Why had I been spared.”
As you dive in, remember I wrote this in the heat of the moment for an Oklahoma City audience familiar with the details (our local television news coverage ran 24 hours a day for almost a week). I made no effort to describe the horrors I witnessed, focusing instead on the human element. I’ve edited my article here to smooth out some rushed sentence construction, skim over copyright concerns, and satisfy this blog’s broader geographic audience.
Revisiting this now, my novelist aspirations shine through from the first verbose paragraph. Let me point out a few notes:
● As you read down, you might guess why this article received such a sizeable edit, for many papers did not want opinion – or religion – mixed in news content. But events soon made me feel somewhat vindicated. On the Sunday after the bombing, Billy Graham led a public memorial service in Oklahoma City, presenting a message of faith and evil that mirrored what I had written.
● You may ask how I recognized the signs of a bomb blast so quickly. The answer is simple: during the first Gulf War, federal security officials had warned me that the Murrah building was a potential terrorist target. So was The Journal Record Building, due to one tenant, U.S. Sen. David Boren.
● A conspiracy theorist once cited my article because I mentioned a second bomb. That's how it was announced at the time, forcing most everyone to flee. Investigators soon discovered that second bomb was a dummy that had been on display in the Murrah building's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives office. The warning was a false alarm, as most of our Oklahoma City readers already knew from the constant media coverage. Still, I should have made that clearer.
● My reference to bursting balloons was accurate, for the owners of Leadership Square had some on display while prepping their atrium for a party. A few of these balloons popped as the bomb’s pressure wave passed overhead.
● The Channel 6 crew was most likely from Tulsa’s CBS affiliate. I was told that several TV crews were covering early morning events at the state capitol when the bomb exploded. They naturally headed towards that column of dust and smoke.
● That breakfast bagel leads to an interesting tale. I started that week with $5 in discretionary spending money. That may not seem like much, but in 1995, Big Al's downtown offered a luncheon special that fit: a slice of pizza and a drink for 99 cents. The New York Bagel Shop at Leadership Square had similar deals. On Tuesday I considered going down for a breakfast bagel, but decided against it. Something told me not to. The next day that voice returned, urging me to go. While I read my book, that calm, gentle voice told me to relax, to take my time. The Holy Spirit works like that, speaking to us in soft, soothing whispers. We must always be ready to listen, no matter how strange that advice may seem. Curiously, that's not the only time God reached out to me through food... "through my stomach," as I like to think of it... but that's a tale for another day.
And now, my first article on the bombing...
Dread crept through me. As beige dust clouds billowed up from what I could only guess was my office, I strode into a street carpeted with more than a ton with shattered glass. And I knew my world had changed.
"Though I walk through the shadow of death," I whispered. To my horror, I realized it was more than a shadow – it was death itself.
My Lord had indeed been with me. Only 20 minutes before, from my southern office in The Journal Record Building, I had walked repeatedly past a first-floor window overlooking the Alfred P. Hurrah Federal Building. After finishing a page layout, as was my job as assistant managing editor, I took a breakfast break to walk down Robinson Avenue, past the Murrah building, to Leadership Square, there to partake a bagel and warm cocoa.
As usual, I walked with my head buried in a book – in this case, Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. I love to read and hate wasting time, even when walking. Thus I saw nothing suspicious, nothing out of the ordinary. I heard children playing at the YMCA daycare center, glanced up at stop signs to not hit passing cars, dodged two bystanders. The cinnamon raisin bagel heated my tongue, so I ate slowly. Finishing, I paused to read another chapter.
In mid-sentence, I stumbled as a crushing wind pounded the building. Sounds of crashing glass and bursting balloons enflamed my nerves. I glanced up to see the atrium swaying. I wondered if we had been struck by a tornado. But I knew that was impossible; the sky had been clear.
In nervous fascination I made my way through Leadership Square’s northern revolving doors to enter a war zone. A soaring dust column dwarfed the Bank of Oklahoma Tower. As black smoke crept through the wind, I saw most of the glass plates had shattered on every building within sight. Emergency sirens pierced the roar of fires.
I glanced around, seeing I wasn’t alone, and slowly made my way north, staying in the center of the street to avoid still-falling glass. Traffic moved haphazardly. A passerby stopped at a corner, turned to me, and smiled.
“It sure blew it up,” she said with a chuckle.
Angry, I headed north, certain I was in a scene from a Clancy novel. Passing the federal courthouse, I knew I was entering the biggest story this journalist would ever see. Stepping aside to make way for an ambulance, I also realized that this might be the first real test of my brief emergency medical training. That seminar had been less than a year ago, but now it seemed a century past. I feared what I might have forgotten… and what fate awaited my comrades. What fate awaited my brother-in-law, Raymond Stroud, who worked at the Murrah building’s Federal Employees Credit Union office.
Somewhere in that walk, I decided to ignore my newspaper instincts and concentrate on finding those I cared about. I circled through the crowds of stunned people, seeing no sign of Raymond. I strode through the damage unsurprised by the carnage, for I recognized the traits of a bomb. Walking wounded were everywhere, but to my joy – the only one of the day – police, fire, and ambulance crews were already hard at work.
It still amazes me that, in the time it took me to walk two blocks:
● The police had already begun crowd control.
● Firemen were working on the Murrah building and a parking lot of flaming cars.
● At least four ambulances attended to the seriously wounded.
I saw no one not being treated by volunteers or emergency medical personnel, so I moved on to find my loved ones.
Bitter anger gnawed at me, anger that someone could do such a thing. I circled east around the bomb-blasted buildings at Sixth and Robinson, hoping for some indication of Raymond, and came instead upon the shell that had been The Journal Record Building. My office.
Reassuring fellow workers I was alright, I took a quick inventory of who in the company was hurt or missing. To my relief, everyone had been accounted for. Four were seriously wounded; three were already on their way to the hospital. Seeing nothing for me to do there, I explained to our personnel officer how I had to find my brother-in-law. In the chaos, no one complained.
I circled the bomb site, threading between police blockades, searching crowds, checking ambulance crews. Volunteers and EMS personnel always seemed on top of each situation, allowing me to concentrate on my search. As the extent of the damage weighed still further on me, I remembered that I needed to call my wife and family, to assure her that I was safe. But in that chaotic circle of anguish, I couldn’t find a phone.
I strode past the empty hulls of restaurants I had frequented, the stone skeleton that had been the First United Methodist Church, the shredded wood fence that once protected the YMCA’s playground. My friends had kept their children there!
These sights spurred me to pray for Raymond, and all those involved in the tragedy. My heart felt at peace for my brother-in-law. He was a Christian, and thus, alive or dead, he would be saved. But that comfort was not enough to stop my search.
Returning to The Journal Record Building, I moved from the sidewalk and potential falling glass to find myself staring at someone I suspected I knew. I stopped, focused, and realized it was my boss. Managing Editor David Page – less his glasses – had blood dried across his face, his hand holding a bandage on a slash under his left arm. I wanted to apologize for not being there when the bomb went off, and I managed a half-humorous quip. David brushed it off, saying he was glad I was unhurt. A cameraman from Channel 6, wherever that is, listened as we spoke. I asked him to not tape us, but David allowed a brief interview. The reporter then moved on.
I stayed with David until an ambulance crew took him into its care. I watched his clothes get cut away and felt tremendous grief. That soon gave way to guilt and rage, which clouded my thoughts until David was gone, as were most of my fellow workers.
Guided to our Seventh Street parking lot, I once more took inventory of who was there. Someone asked what we could do, which I took as a question of our day's newspaper. With David gone, as were most of our other executives, I was the head of our department. I knew full well the importance of this story and the ethical guidelines on which newspapermen, like mailmen, kept their commitments to the public. But I had friends and family still missing, and I knew our building was shot. Therefore I suggested people get to safety, and I left.
Once more I circled the disaster area, looking for friends, for Raymond, for a phone. Twice I was shooed away by a policeman, only to find another way to what remained of the Murrah building. Once I made it to its south steps, the structure’s entrance open to me. I considered going in, thinking I could climb the stairs to Raymond’s office, but recognizing the danger I might cause myself and others, I moved on.
On my third loop around the site, I found myself once more at The Journal Record parking lot. A co-worker offered me a ride home. Another told me of an available phone at St. Anthony Hospital (located about eight blocks northwest of The Journal Record Building). I took that long walk, amazed at the damage visible all along the way, and finally got a message through to my parents. They also revealed great news – that Raymond had been away from the office.
That lifted my heart, to be sure, yet it also left me far more troubled than I had ever felt before. Why had I not known my brother-in-law was in no danger? Why had I allowed myself to be so caught up in daily timetables and deadlines that I had not kept better track of my own family?
I looked back upon perhaps the most traumatic hour I had ever endured and recognized one horrible truth: I had wasted my time. I had accomplished nothing.
In an unnatural cloud of relief and disbelief, I found people fleeing north. Another bomb had been reportedly found. I wondered then what I would do, stranded in what I considered a dangerous part of town, but even then, the Lord was watching over me. At that moment a co-worker stopped his car before me on Walker Avenue, ready once more to give me a ride home. This time I took it, thinking, regretfully, that there was little else I could do. The Journal Record, for all I knew, was no more.
Fortunately, I was wrong. Like a phoenix, The Journal Record gathered its resources the next day to slowly, cautiously, rise again. Yet on this difficult afternoon, I was too anguished to foresee it. Reunited at home with my wife, I watched television crews unravel the disaster (from The Journal Record parking lot where I had stood), and bitterly contemplated my fate.
What if I had delayed leaving my office? I probably would have died. A change of only a few minutes on either side of my bagel journey would have put me in the heart of the blast.
What if I had not left The Journal Record? Entering our building Thursday, I found my office roof had caved in, my computer had been thrown through where I normally sat, and the two employees from my work area had been hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.
What if I had known my brother-in-law was safe? I might have found time to help someone in some small way. I might have accomplished some restructuring of our editorial department and salvaged that day's newspaper.
What if.. what if… what if…
Above all, I wondered why it had happened. Why I had been spared.
Thus, for me, what may have been a politically motivated attack revealed itself as a religious dilemma.
That afternoon I took so many calls from friends and family, all thankful I was alive and blessing the Lord for looking out for me. With each comment, I wondered why. Why had the Lord protected me and not those in the building? Why?
And through it all, why had I accomplished nothing? What was my purpose for being there?
In truth, there are no answers to such questions. I knew even in my bitterness that we cannot question God. Nor may we ascribe our actions or inactions to God.
The most fundamental issue of faith is free choice. Democracy.
Just as some of us choose to follow God, others do not. God’s love willingly allows us to make such choices – and they impact us just as forcefully as God's saving grace.
Like a parent with a child, God’s freedoms allow us to experience events, both natural and manmade, that may be beyond our comprehension. And since we are not God, we may never be wise enough to understand them. Nor should we blame ourselves or others in that effort, for some things we must simply trust God to solve. That is the essence of faith.
Although some people do not wish to accept this, there are indeed evil forces at work in this world, forces our Lord must give free rein to allow us free choice. History teaches us time and time again that following God is no protection from evil. Throughout time, believers have been slain doing His will.
I firmly believe this. It is the bulwark of my faith. But it gave me little consolation that day for my own actions, or lack of them. Throughout the afternoon of this disaster, my bitterness built into a wall of self-condemnation that nothing could overcome.
In the midst of it all, my doorbell rang. There stood Pat Stone, a dear friend and former neighbor. Hearing news of the explosion, she drove over to see for herself that I was OK. Hearing my story, and my anguish, she reminded me of one command Christ gave all of His followers – to go into the world and witness of Him. My calling, she stressed, was to tell others of my tale.
I struggled with that, but in my despair, it was the one thing that made sense. I had survived. In seeing the damage inflicted and those many acts of self-sacrifice, I was reminded that life is a priceless gift of love – and we must share that love with others.
For myself, I know that in the heat of the bombing, I made the best decisions I could in the brief, frantic time allowed me. I acted not for my own gain, but for others. God expects no more from us than that.
I hope what I have shared helps you with the choices before you. My witness can do no more.