Revisiting The Oklahoma City Bombing

Some remember a deafening roar. Others recall hearing nothing at all. Years later, little Brandon Denny, who barely survived after the bomb blew a large hole in his skull, suddenly turned to his father and asked: "Dad? Do you know what that bomb sounded like?" After being told no, Brandon, now 9, supplied his recollection. "Boom! Shhhhhhhhh," he yelled, precisely imitating the blast and the powerful rush of air that followed it.

Six years later, echoes of the Oklahoma City blast still reverberate for survivors, rescuers, investigators and family members of the 168 people killed in and around the Murrah Building on April 19, 1995. This past spring, NEWSWEEK decided to collect the oral histories from several of the people who witnessed the tragedy first hand. We wanted to find out how thoroughly people had healed and what sense the victims made of the effects of Timothy McVeigh's act of terrorism.

We approached the task a little nervously. We'd both covered the bombing in 1995 and remembered the oppressive cloud of shock and sorrow that hung over the city. It was a lot easier emotionally to report on the manhunt in Michigan, Kansas or Arizona than face up to the struggles of the survivors and rescuers. We had other worries, too. Perhaps survivors had no desire to relive the past. Maybe they were talked out and didn't want to tell their stories to yet another reporter. But when we finally sat down with them, we had fresh proof that letting people tell a story in their own words brings its own revelations.

If we had thought the passage of six years would dull memories or emotions, we were wrong. Images still had the fresh power to horrify. Police Det. Don Hull was inside the building in the first hours, pulling survivors and victims out of the rubble. "You'd feel this dripping, like water was dripping on you, but it wasn't water," Hull told us. "You got blood coming from above you, and it's dripping down all over everywhere." John Avera, a former cop, revealed that he spent five years worrying that he may have killed 1-year-old Baylee Almon by carrying the child out of the building. Finally last year he was able to see the autopsy that showed the baby was beyond saving. Many participants choked up or cried while recounting their stories.

Survivors and their families were remarkably generous with their time. People who hadn't spoken to reporters in years graciously agreed to open up to us. Most had the conviction that it was necessary to speak and to bear witness. Some coped by remaining very private. Michael Reyes lost his father, Tony, in the blast and could easily have lost his own life as he plunged four floors from his HUD office. A few months ago, he was with a group of new friends when someone brought up McVeigh's impending execution. "I didn't say a word," he told us. "I don't know if the other ... people knew my connection or not, but it's not something that I was going to point out." Others are compelled to speak out. John Clark was then a police lieutenant but now runs the city's emergency-management unit. He recalls getting angry at an anti-terrorism speaker who avoided mentioning Oklahoma City to spare the feelings of the local listeners. Clark sought him out after the talk. "Buddy, we live with it every day," Clark told the man. "We know what happened. It did happen here."

Both of us were struck by the trauma's lingering effects and the survivors' ability to go on with their lives anyway. Michael Reyes continues to see explosive flashbacks. But he's mastered them. "You just deal with it and go on," he says. Trauma doctor Carl Spengler performed triage on bombing victims in the shadow of the smoking building. Since that day, he's never slept more than four hours a night. But he continues to heal patients. Brandon Denny suffered brain injuries that give him only partial use of his right arm and leg and require speech and occupational therapy to this day. Still, he gamely troops off to school with his sister and fellow survivor Rebecca, happy and content. In their own way, each is making sure that Tim McVeigh's act of terror doesn't dictate their future.