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Healing Time: Second Anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing

April 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Betty Ann Bowser reports on how some of the survivors and family members are doing now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Richard Williams never loses a chance to walk along what people in Oklahoma City call the fence. It stands as a temporary makeshift memorial to the people who died and were injured here on April 19, 1995. To Williams this is hallowed ground. He was assistant manager of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when it was blown up, killing 168 people. And he was inside.

RICHARD WILLIAMS: I had a fractured right hand. I had about a year and a half of physical therapy. My ear was torn off , avulsed, and sewn back on. I had staples in my head from being cut open. I had the large, open wound in my right leg.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Two years later Williams’ injuries are, for the most part, healed, and in spite of all of the memories, he is getting on with his life.

RICHARD WILLIAMS: The child care extended the full second floor.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As part of his new job in charge of all federal buildings in Oklahoma Williams takes visitors to the top of what is left of the Murrah Building. And he takes them through an exhibit in the building’s underground garage that shows what happened just after 9 AM on April 19th. It begins with an audio tape of a meeting that was underway at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board across the street.

PERSON ON AUDIO TAPE: We see the information regarding–(sounds of blast and emergency response teams)–

PERSON ON AUDIO TAPE: The side of the federal building has been blown up.


RICHARD WILLIAMS: We talk about we’ll never forget, and I don’t think we ever can. I don’t know that we want to, and for me it will never stop, but I will go on, and I won’t let this beat me. And I think that’s where most of us are; is we don’t let this get to us. We remember it, but we just don’t let it ever get us down.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Other survivors are not as fortunate as Williams. Brandon Denny and his sister, Rebecca, were inside the day care center on the second floor of the Murrah Building when the bomb went off. Their father heard about it on television. Their mother was work nearby. And both parents came running.

JIM DENNY: I walked up and looked at the building and looked at the second floor, and it was gone. So what I did is I walked around the other side of the building and found Claudia, and she hadn’t seen the North side yet that was blown up. And I grabbed her by the shoulders and I told her, I said, “No matter what happens, we’re in this together.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rebecca suffered extensive injuries on one side of her body from flying glass and shrapnel. But, in time, she recovered. Brandon’s injuries were more serious. The blast blew a quarter sized hole in the left side of his head. For 45 days he lingered between life and death, unable to talk. The doctors gave the Dennys little cause for hope, then slowly Brandon began to stabilize and get better. Today, except for some paralysis on his right side, he is a normal five year old. He has received stuffed animals from people all over the world who’ve read about his story. He’s even been to the White House to meet the President but his father knows there is always the possibility of a setback.

JIM DENNY: Brandon still has some debris in his head. You just can’t go in and obviously clean the brain out and get it all out. So it’s a wait and see with Brandon. Brandon could go 50 years and be the healthiest guy in the world, yet, tomorrow Brandon could have another brain infection.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Susan Walton was in the same intensive care unit where Brandon Denny was being cared for. After 20 surgeries and intensive physical therapy, she is just now beginning to walk. She had gone to the credit union that day to cash a check. She has no memory of what happened, but she is keenly aware of the injuries she suffered.

SUSAN WALTON: I had a basal skull fracture. I had injury to the nerves in both eyes. I broke my noise, had six fractures in my face, lost six teeth, had a ruptured spleen, and badly crushed both legs from the knees down.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Walton was among the first victims rescuers pulled from the rubble. She was so near death her triage doctors thought she wouldn’t make it to the hospital. She had no insurance at the time of the bombing. Her medical bills topped $1 million, all paid for with donations that came to Oklahoma City from all over the world. She is grateful for the help but says the bombing will never go away.

SUSAN WALTON: Not completely, probably never. This will be something I’ll carry with me the rest of my life from my aches and pains and from future surgeries that I’ll have to have. This will be something that will always stay with me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In a sense the Thompsons are also survivors, even though none of them was in the federal building when the bomb went off. But Bill Thompson’s mother was. Virginia Thompson was the director of the federal credit union. And her son had to wait an agonizing month and a half before he could recover her body. It was only after the building was imploded that Thompson’s body was found. She was one of the last three victims recovered.

PHIL THOMPSON: The thing I think that surprises me more than anything is it’s every day. We live with it every day. There hasn’t been a day that hasn’t gone by that it hasn’t been brought to our attention in some point or fashion. I miss her a great deal, still do today.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Thompson found a way to move forward. He poured his grief into efforts to establish a memorial on the bombing site. He’s helping to select one of these six hundred and twenty-four designs which will be made into a permanent memorial. The entries have come from all over the world. They range from a fifth-grade class to ones with international reputations. Bob Johnson is co-chair of the Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation.

BOB JOHNSON, Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation: We want a memorial that will evoke hope, compassion. We want to elevate the memory of all who died–the survivors. Those who perpetrated this crime obviously intended to undermine and divide. But, rather, what happened was a very, very strong unity that you saw in the days following the bombing. And from that unity evolved a very strong resolve to reject the forces of terrorism. So this memorial must be a universal, worldwide symbol of that resolve.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It was that sense of unity and resolve that has helped parishioners of St. Paul’s Cathedral rebuild their church. Only two blocks away the bomb structurally devastated the historic landmark. But Dean George Back says it also brought out the best in his people.

DEAN GEORGE BACK, St. Paul’s Cathedral: People came from all over with all sorts of things. They came in with lanterns. People brought workers–people had work being done at their house, and they brought the whole crew with them–and we had people stop who had been just going by and offer to help.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After two years of rebuilding the choir is now warming up for a celebration. The sanctuary is being fully restored; stained glass windows are being replaced; a new Celtic cross sits proudly on top of the cathedral. Tomorrow, on the anniversary of the bombing, the doors of St. Paul will open once again.

DEAN GEORGE BACK: When those doors open, we’ll go into a building that has been renewed and restored and that will enable us to feel that renewal in our own bodies and hearts and souls and minds, all of who we are, and I think it’s part and not just for the Congress but also for the city that, you know, something else now is back in its place where it should be, doing what it’s supposed to do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The families of victims and survivors are feeling renewal too. Susan Walton goes to work part-time now to her new business that will donate clothes to welfare women seeking jobs.

SUSAN WALTON: I want to be able to give back to whomever I can that has gone through a tragedy or needs help in their life, to give back to them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Phil Thompson used money donated by his mother’s friends to establish an endowment and this monument at her Catholic Church.

PHIL THOMPSON: Each and every dollar they gave actually went to heal us. It really didn’t do anything for us financially, but it gave us an incredible opportunity to have a healing moment to give that money.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Brandon Denny hopes to go to school this fall for the first time. His father has become a motivational speaker.

JIM DENNY: I say things like we have met–personally met and conquered the worst terrorist attack on United States soil in the history of our country, and we’ve conquered it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the survivors have unsettling feelings about events unfolding in the federal courthouse in Denver, where the first of the Oklahoma City bombing trials is just beginning. Richard Williams.

RICHARD WILLIAMS: I don’t know how to explain it. I just know that it’s always in the back of your mind; that you’re hearing about it, and you’re seeing it. But you can’t let it bother you. You’ve got to go–you’ve got to go to the baseball games and go play softball, or do the things that you’ve always done.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tomorrow morning at 9:02 AM there will be a prayer vigil at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Nearby, families of the victims and survivors will gather on the site which one day will house a permanent reminder of what happened here, and how it changed lives forever.