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An Oklahoma City Survivor Reflects

Ruth Schwab was working at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, when a bomb detonated by Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people. American Experience spoke to her about the bombing and her life after it. Here are excerpts from that interview.

We were the government, and we weren’t bad guys. We were mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and grandparents who loved our families, but had a job to do. I was blessed to have a job that I loved. I worked with the housing authorities to provide housing for underprivileged Native Americans.

Ruth Schwab in 2016.

I usually got to work between 9:20 and 9:30 a.m. I actually got there at two minutes to nine on April 19. In fact, when I walked in, people were going, “Did my watch stop? It’s not nine o’clock yet. What are you doing here?”

I flipped on my computer to warm it up, and that’s when I heard this horrific noise.

Your brain works in funny ways, and I thought my computer blew up. Then I started to feel like I was falling. It reminded me of a sci-fi movie where they have the black hole and the people are falling down and down and down, and you wonder if you’re ever going to hit the ground. I guess when I hit the bottom of the black hole was when I actually passed out.

I came to rather quickly. But I couldn’t see anything when I opened my eyes. I could smell smoke and I could hear terrible sounds —  sounds of a building collapsing, like you hear on TV or in the movies. It’s real: you hear popping and everything. And I was hearing groaning and soft cries, which haunted me. I couldn’t even admit I heard them for quite a while because I felt like I should have done something and I couldn’t.

I called out, “Is anyone there?” And the sweetest voice I ever heard answered back, “I’m here, Ruthie. Don’t move.” It was my friend V.Z. — I recognized his voice right away. He didn’t want me to move because he was afraid I would fall into the sinkhole. So he said, “I’ll get over to you.”

He worked his way over, and handed me his handkerchief. It’d be sort of like putting a Band-Aid on a big gash, but it was just his way of trying to calm me and comfort me. Then he said, “We’ve got to get out of here.”

My children did not come to the hospital. My fiancé and my sisters did not think it would be good for them to see me because my face was so swollen, my hair was matted with glass and blood and things, and they were young. They were 9, 11, 13, 15, and 21.

My eyes were in pretty bad shape. I could not see for the first three days, which in itself was a blessing. Apparently, whatever hit them tore the retinas, and my right eye had to be removed.

I went home from the hospital on my birthday. When I got there, my house was full of people. It smelled like a funeral home when I walked in. They said it was because there were so many flowers everywhere.

I was sitting on the couch when I started seeing with my left eye. Of course, my children were the first thing I wanted to see. They had gone to their bedrooms, and they all came running down because I could see. And I tell you, you’re thrilled. I didn’t know if I’d get to see them again.

People kept calling me, saying, “You’re going to have to go to Dallas because they have this new way of doing artificial eyes so they look more real.” So when I went back to the doctor and we were scheduling the eye removal, I said, “I don’t mean any offense to you, but I’ve heard that there’s a method that they do in Dallas,” and he started laughing. He said, “We started doing that in Oklahoma City in January.” It had been just four months since they started doing this procedure here.

What they do is take a piece of coral, a tiny piece of live coral, and implant it in the eye tissue, so instead of it just being a big sinkhole you have something there. As the eye heals the tissues, everything grows in and out of the coral, and that causes the eye to move instead of staying stationary. I can look this way and my eye looks normal, or I can turn my eye that way and the artificial one will follow the real one. It was such a blessing to know I wasn’t going to look like Gene Wilder did in some of those movies he was in.

Our department lost about 47 people. And I had been in the building for many, many years. So I had friends in other agencies, too. At the time, I could not physically go to all the funerals. So I had to grieve for each one separately, on my own. That was a very hard thing. It took me many years. I would pass where they used to park, or see someone that looked like them. I used to always see people in malls, and think, ‘Oh, there’s so-and-so.’ Then I’d think, ‘No that can’t be.’ Sometimes, I’d have to pull my car over on the side of the road and have a little tissue moment. I don’t think you ever do get over a loss like that.

Ruth Schwab (far left) and her family on Christmas in 2015. Courtesy of Ruth Schwab.

I have changed, drastically. Before the bombing, my whole life goal was my career. My children were very important to me, but I wanted to succeed. Afterwards, I realized that that’s not what’s important. What’s important was my kids and my family. It absolutely changed my focus.

I grew up in a little suburb of Oklahoma City. If you go look at Leave it to Beaver, that’s kind of what it was like to grow up here. There was no fear. We often left our doors and windows unlocked, and kids played outside in the front yard.

Oklahoma City lost a lot of our naivety on April 19. I think that is probably one of the saddest things — that we can’t be naive anymore. We were probably too naive before, but it was such a wonderful place to grow up, in this protected heartland in the middle of the country. And then it changed; we had our eyes opened.

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