Survivor: 'All I Saw Were Bright Lights'

Daina Bradley was trying to beat the crowds when she headed to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19. Bradley, 20, needed anew Social Security card for her 4-month-old son, Gabreon. So she started early and brought along a lot of help. Her mother, Cheryl, saved a place in line and sister Felysha minded Gabreon and his 3-year-old sister, Peachlyn, while Daina filled out the paperwork. That's how the family happened to be together at 9 a.m. in the glass-walled Social Security office on the first floor, along with dozens of others going about their daily business. Then the bomb went off.

Bradley is perhaps the best-known survivor of Oklahoma City; rescuers had to amputate her leg to save her from the rubble. Though she was in the middle of the explosion that rocked the country, she heard nothing. "It happened so quickly. All I saw were bright lights," Bradley told NEWSWEEK. "Then I felt my body lifting. I was screaming for help: 'Mom, help me! More, it hurts!'" The floor collapsed, and Bradley slid to the basement. She could hear her children scream. Then she heard a series of loud, echoing crashes as the nine stories of the Murrah building pancaked on top of each other--and on top of her.

She doesn't know how long she lay there. Though she felt no pain, she could hear the agonizing sounds of her sister moaning, "Help me . . . Help." Lying in a pool of frigid water with her left arm pinned behind her head and her right leg trapped under a slab of concrete, Bradley, too, cried out in the pitch-black basement. "I was conscious the whole time," she says, "but I couldn't feel anything." A few hours after the explosion, she realized rescue workers were near when she heard Felysha wailing as they moved her broken body out of the rubble.

When the rescuers finally reached Bradley, she saw that falling debris had boxed her into a coffin-size cave. A concrete chunk had stopped tumbling just 18 inches above her face. The rescue team freed her arm, but they could not remove the massive slab that had crushed her leg. When the emergency team's doctors first said they would have to cut off her leg above the knee to save her life, she resisted. But when the doctors left her for 45 minutes during a second bomb scare that interrupted the rescue, she realized she might not escape at all. That made up her mind: "I was like, 'I wanna get outta here. Do whatever you have to do to get me out'." It wasn't easy. Dr. Andy Sullivan, the smallest doctor on the scene, had to climb head-first into the hole where Bradley was wedged. With no room for a saw, Sullivan used several scalpels for the amputation. It took 10 minutes.

It was only after the traumatic rescue that Bradley learned she had also lost her family. Both her children and her mother were dead. Her sister is in a rehabilitation hospital. Although nothing, of course, can approach the horror of April 19, she understands something about adversity and how to fight it--she spent time in a homeless shelter when she was pregnant with Gabreon and went through drug rehab before that. Since being released from the hospital three weeks ago, she has made a remarkable recovery. Last week doctors fit her new artificial leg with a device that allows her to "feel" her foot as she walks. A Mickey Mouse emblem emblazoned on the side of the prosthesis provides extra inspiration. On her first day with the souped-up leg, she was walking on her own.

Despite everything she's lost, Bradley has managed, somehow, to put the bombing in a kind of perspective: "Never take your parents--or anything--for granted," Bradley says. "Treat everything you have like precious china, because someday it will be gone." Sometimes, in a flash.