Silent Scars, Haunting Memories : Tragedy: Six survivors tell how the Oklahoma blast has altered their lives.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The bomb that ripped apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building cut this city like a knife.

Hundreds of its people carry wounds you can see. Many others have been hurt in ways even they understand only dimly.

These are some of the things a few of them saw and did when the bomb went off, and some of the feelings for which they are still trying to find a name.

*

Four days have passed, but the explosion still holds Don Hull's memory in its terrible and unyielding grip.

He is a 33-year-old detective sergeant in the Oklahoma City Police Department, a man whose youthfulness has been tempered by frequent brushes with life's rougher edges. But nothing prepared him for that morning.

He hasn't really slept since. He nods off, then wakes with a start. His heart races as he fights to erase the bloody images that pock his mind like scars--children buried under four feet of rubble, tiny bodies with missing limbs, tiny heads with missing bodies.

Sometimes, Hull passes his nights silently contemplating the whir of the ceiling fan in the living room. Sometimes, he just stands in a bedroom doorway, listening to the even, reassuring breathing of his sleeping daughters.

When the bomb went off Wednesday morning, Hull was five blocks away, attending a training seminar at a downtown police station. He and the other detectives there raced to the scene, determined to do what they could.

Dressed in a suit and tie, Hull ran inside the still-crumbling building and directly into a wall of smoke and dust. He fought for breath and, suddenly, above the noise of his own choking cough, heard the unforgettable sound of babies crying in terror and pain. Hull realized with a jolt that where once there had been a second-floor nursery filled with children, there was now an enormous pile of rubble--and it was all at ground level.

He veered left toward those awful cries, fell to his knees and frantically began digging with his bare hands.

He took no heed of the water, chunks of broken concrete, glass and other debris that continued to fall across his back. But every few minutes, he had to stop digging and claw the dirt from his own mouth and nostrils.

Every once in a while, one of the other rescuers would put a hand in the air--a signal for everyone to stop digging, and quietly listen for sounds of life.

"You'd listen for moans, taps, cries," Hull explains. "After a while, you didn't hear anything. It was eerie. You could just hear the wind coming through where walls used to be.

"Then, somebody would yell 'dig!' and we'd start digging again."

Time passed in a blur of dust, sweat and anxiety. Then--four feet into that awful rubble--he saw an infant's leg and his heart lurched. Clawing--still barehanded--at the tangle of wires and concrete, he unearthed a baby boy and immediately saw a deep gash running across his left cheek. But there was no blood coming from the gaping wound.

"I thought he was dead," Hull says. "If there's no heartbeat, the blood doesn't circulate and you don't bleed."

The baby's left arm was nearly severed and grotesquely twisted behind his back. Hull scooped him up, gingerly moving the arm forward, so that it was tucked between the baby's chest and his own.

"When I did that, he gasped and started to cry," says Hull. "I just stumbled and crawled out of there as fast as I could with the baby cradled against me."

Twice the broken little body went limp against his chest, and twice Hull administered CPR without stopping his scramble toward the street, where the ambulances waited.

Outside, a frantic young mother rushed to him. "That's my baby, that's my baby," she screamed, reaching out to take her child.

Hull turned away, hoping to shield her from the bloody sight of what he believed was an infant too maimed to survive.

A paramedic also reached out to take the baby. "I can't let go. I can't let go," Hull repeated, still trying to spare the mother the sight of her boy's injuries. He was afraid the mangled arm might fall off right there in front of her.

The baby stopped breathing again. Hull resumed CPR, tapping the little chest with his fingertips. "Breathe, baby, breathe," he begged over and over.

Miraculously, the baby drew a breath, and the paramedic whisked him away.

His name is Jonathan Webber, and although he still is in the intensive care unit at Oklahoma City's Children's Hospital, he is expected to survive.

In all, Hull helped pull 10 babies from the rubble that day. Jonathan was the last of the five he found alive.

About 2 o'clock in the afternoon Hull--too exhausted, bloodied and dazed to continue--returned to the police station and collapsed. His wife drove over to take him home. And there he's stayed ever since.

"We've all taken in more than normal emotions would allow us to," he says. "It'll take a long time to heal."

By day, he sits and watches television coverage of the continuing rescue efforts. His lungs still are inflamed by the soot and dust he inhaled, and he is hoarse from coughing up black gunk.

By night, the anguish eats away at him. He says he feels as if he has a gaping wound inside. "You'd see a little arm in one place, a tiny leg in another, a hand someplace else. No words can describe it, those innocent babies."

His eyes fill with tears, and he looks away to compose himself. Tall, lanky cops are not supposed to cry in public.

"I'm trying to be the professional able to handle anything," he says. "But I'm having a hard time dealing with those scenes, scenes so horrible they cannot be humanly described. I can't talk about everything I saw. I can't burden other people with those memories."

He looks away again, then says quietly: "We've been to hell and back."

*

Through all the days and nights since Wednesday, Richard Nichols has reflected almost constantly on the two minutes that probably saved his life.

He recalls with gratitude those annoying delays that kept him off the corner of Robinson and 5th streets--right next to the Murrah building--where he should have met his wife a few minutes after 9 a.m.

Nichols, 38, is a maintenance man at the Regency Tower apartments, a high-rise downtown complex one block from the federal building here. His wife, Bertha, 30, and their 12-year-old nephew, Chad, had planned to drive by the federal building just after 9 to pick up Richard for a doctor's appointment.

Nichols was supposed to install a new kitchen counter that morning. But when he jockeyed it into place, he discovered that the manufacturer had cut it one-quarter of an inch short. Exasperated, he realized he would have to take it back to the warehouse and exchange it for one that was the correct size.

There was no immediate need to inform his supervisor of the error, but Nichols decided he'd better do it--just in case the day got busy. The unplanned trip up to the supervisor's office wouldn't take long, about two minutes on the elevator.

But during those 120 seconds, Bertha drove past the federal building and--a bit surprised that her usually punctual husband wasn't there--circled the block. When she still didn't spot him, she decided to drive to the cul-de-sac in front of the apartment building and ask the guard to locate Richard.

And so it happened that the Nichols family was a lifesaving block from the federal office building when the bomb went off at 9:04 a.m.

One of the last things Bertha heard before the blast was the jangle of the 30 keys that dangle from a clip on Richard's belt. She heard that familiar clank as he rounded the corner of the apartment building, grinned and strode toward her parking spot.

As Richard reached for the car door, there was a terrific blast, and shards of plate glass windows filled the air, borne along by a frenzied wind.

The sound was so loud, Richard recalls, that it physically hurt; it was like a punch in the stomach.

All around, they could hear the sound of falling debris, like hail, raining off every surface in sight. Richard thought the boilers of his building had blown. Bertha and Chad didn't know what was going on, but they knew they had to get out of there.

But before a terrified Chad could unlatch his back-seat safety belt, Richard caught a glimpse of a large flying object hurling toward them.

"Get down!" he shouted to his wife as he pushed her, hard, back into the car.

"I could see and hear an object coming, making that whizzing sound like a boomerang," Richard says.

The "boomerang" turned out to be a three-foot section from the axle of another automobile that landed where the windshield met the hood of the Nichols' red Ford Festiva. The force of the impact levered the rear of their car up off the pavement.

All three Nichols scrambled out and ran for safety under the overhang of a gas station across the street.

Richard turned around as he ran: The windows were blown out of his apartment tower and black smoke was billowing from the direction of the federal building.

Certain his family was all right, Richard returned to the apartment building and began a floor-by-floor search for injured residents. Later that afternoon, the police evacuated the area and Richard headed for the hospital to see about Chad, who had a knot on his head where it had struck the roof of the Festiva when the axle slammed into it.

Richard's own black Ford pickup truck was parked in the apartment garage, which still was cordoned off by police worried about structural damage to the building. The Festiva, also cordoned off by investigators looking for evidence, was a total loss. It was impossible to find a taxi. So, Richard walked the nine miles to Hillcrest Hospital, giving himself time to think about the morning.

"I looked around at the folks and thought, 'Those people won't be able to enjoy this day,' " he says, a catch in his voice. "If it rains, they won't be able to enjoy the rain. I wondered: Why was I spared?"

Now, he can hardly bear to watch coverage of the rescue efforts on television, but can't stay away from it, either. The television in the living room of his modest brick home is constantly on, the volume turned down low.

He didn't sleep much Wednesday night, and Thursday night was worse.

"It's like it takes a while for it to sink in and--when it does--it makes you sort of numb," he says.

Friday brought snappishness and anger, which he admits he took out on his family.

"I was a grouch all day," he says. "I just think about that building, those innocent people and babies and think whoever did it, you sons of bitches.

"Sometimes, I get so upset that it feels like an elevator of anger is going up my body and into my head. And my head gets so big and filled with anger that I have to take a deep breath."

Richard doesn't think he'll really begin to heal until he can get himself out into the wooded country he calls "my church." There, he can be alone and let off steam, cry, rant and rave.

"The world as we knew it will never be the same again," he says. "We know firsthand how heartless humans can be. It changes you, somehow--changes you for the worse."

*

Chance Rowlett, 2, kept running away from his mother as she tried to dress him.

It made him late, and it saved their lives.

For weeks, his mother, Tonya Rowlett, 28, had been dropping him off shortly after 9 a.m. at a day-care center on the second floor of the Murrah building before going to work at the Nails & Faces salon nearby.

"We were running late because I was just tired," she recalls. "It was one of those playful mornings. Chance was running away from me as I was getting him dressed. Finally I got him. We were sitting on the edge of the bed. . . . I had Chance in my arms, putting his socks on, when I heard a noise.

"I thought our ceiling fan had fallen. . . . "

Rowlett could not find anything wrong in the house. She called her stepfather, a judge in the county courthouse, near the federal building.

"(It) just blew up," he told her.

He had grabbed the phone on his way out the door to look for her and Chance, because he knew it was time for them to be there.

"I just lost it," Rowlett says. "I just started crying.

"Usually we're the last ones downtown. I would run in, give him a hug (and leave). His friends would say, 'Hey, Chance man!'

"That's what they called him. I can just see their faces right now. . . .

"When he was born, my mom suggested his name. She said, 'He deserves a chance in life.' And my stepfather said, 'The name fits him. God's got a plan for him.'

"Now he has a great opportunity; he has a chance. He's had a chance. (Now) he'll have a lot more."

*

For 15 years, Joe Chickoraske had an office at the federal building. He is employed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and works on the services it provides to Native Americans. His office was on the eighth floor.

He had dropped his 8-year-old daughter, Joy, off at her school, driven to the Murrah building and parked his car in the basement. He took an elevator up eight stories and went to his desk. He put his briefcase down and fetched himself a cup of coffee.

One of his supervisors wanted a particular file, so he left his desk and stepped over to a cabinet about 10 feet away. He pulled up a chair so he could sit as he searched.

Suddenly, he says, "everything exploded. It was a tremendous explosion; everything vibrated and shook the floor, and then this debris started flying in. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I couldn't recognize the place. The walls were gone, fiberglass had blown down from the ceiling, and then a lot of real dark black smoke poured in."

Chickoraske was surprised to find that he was still sitting in his chair. The blast had shoved the filing cabinet toward him. He worried that whatever had happened was not over.

"I didn't know if I was going to live through this, whatever was coming," he recalls. "I thought about my little girl. I thought about my relatives. It was only seconds, but it seemed like a long time."

He had to close his eyes again because of the smoke. Then he felt a wind. He opened his eyes. The wind was cool, and it was blowing away the dust that had settled around him. He was terribly confused. Was it a gas explosion? It could not have been a tornado, because the weather that morning had seemed OK.

There was silence. It was awesome.

He saw a co-worker at her desk. Her neck was bleeding. He called for his boss, then spotted him. His forehead was bloody.

Then Chickoraske heard what he thought was gunfire, the sound of tires exploding on burning cars down below. He ducked toward the floor, but then he wondered: Could bullets reach as far up as the eighth floor.

Who could be shooting?

"I have a fear of heights, and looking west I could see that there wasn't a whole lot of floor there," Chickoraske says. "That was real eerie. It was quiet."

He could not feel any pain, but he knew the back of his head was bleeding--profusely--because the back of his shirt was getting soaked, fast.

Chickoraske thought again about his daughter. What would happen to her if he died?

His boss shouted: "Let's get out!"

It sounded like a good idea. He turned to find a way around a three-foot-tall pile of debris. Beyond it was where his desk had been.

It was gone. Simply gone.

The thought will haunt Chickoraske forever.

If he had not been asked to search for a file, if he had not gone right away to the file cabinet, if he had not been sitting in front of the filing cabinet instead of at his desk at 9:04 a.m., when the Murrah building bomb went off. . . .

*

Roy Andrews, 38, has been an Oklahoma City firefighter for 10 years.

He is tall, muscled--a bodybuilder--and has a shaved head and an easy smile. He is married and has five children.

It was his day off.

He cooked breakfast for the family, took the kids to school and headed for his credit union to transfer some funds so he could pay his bills.

"On the way in the car, after the kids got out, I said my prayers, like I do every morning," he remembers. "I ask God to take care of my family, I name everybody, the guys on the job, hope they will be received in Heaven, forgiven for their sins, pray that my kids grow up to be good citizens. That took a few minutes, about four miles. Then I turned on the radio: Power Jammin' 1140."

As he passed his gym, he decided to work out and go to the credit union later. People were standing in the parking lot, looking around.

A woman who works at the gym spotted him. "Roy," she asked, "what's going on. Did you feel the explosion?"

He had not felt a thing.

There was smoke over downtown Oklahoma City. Andrews found a phone.

A building had blown up.

"Oh, man," he says. "They're going to need some help down there."

He drove toward the smoke. It looked like the federal building, which he knew contained the Social Security office. It was always full of people. He knew that what he was about to see would be awful. He got scared.

When he spotted the front of the Murrah building, he could not believe it.

It is like Beirut, he thought to himself. His heart dropped. He started to cry--and stopped himself. He had trouble breathing.

He headed to his fire station and picked up his gear. By 11 p.m., he was on a crane at about the third floor of the building.

"It was a pile of debris with concrete slabs hanging down," he recalls. "A piece of roof, about 20 by 30 feet, was hanging by the rebar (steel reinforcement). The wind was kind of blowing, and I was kind of nervous. If it started falling, I thought, I would have about a 20% chance of getting out.

"I am always looking for a way out, and I saw a couple of cavities, where I could dive into if I had to.

"I'm thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here?'

"But I know what I'm doing there. I have to draw on my training and knowledge.

"You don't want to find a body. The initial shock is the worst part. There's a good chance they are going to be mangled, an arm or leg. . . .

"We had been in there a while when this guy on our team, a rookie, says, 'I got one!'

"In a way, I didn't want to look. There's an arm sticking up, straight up. We dug him out using shovels. We pulled file cabinets off him. There was no blood. He was wearing a blue shirt, a tie and gray slacks. He was about 38, the same as me.

"His ankles were fractured, with his bones sticking out, and in his hand was some ceiling tile. He was still gripping it. We had to force it out of his hand.

"Five of us put him in a body bag. I'm thinking, 'This guy is not going home.'

For a long, terrible moment, Andrews wondered: What did this man, whom he did not know and never would, think about in the moments before he died?

*

Andy Sullivan, 51, is a doctor.

He is chairman of orthopedics at Children's Hospital, which is part of Oklahoma University Hospital. Sullivan, however, is hardly self-important. He has a ponytail; he and his young son are locked in a contest to see who can grow longer hair.

At 9:04 a.m. on Wednesday, he heard an explosion. He walked out of the hospital and saw a cloud of dust and black smoke. He went back inside, took an elevator to the top floor and looked out a window. The cloud was downtown.

The hospital went to Condition Black--for an emergency--and by 9:30 the injured children began to come. "They were burned," he says. "Their skin was raw and red and covered with dust, and they had gaping holes.

"It was like a war zone. It was terrible."

At 11 a.m., the parade of children, some injured, others dead, stopped.

Word came that rescuers needed doctors at the Murrah building. Sullivan got into a police car and was driven to the scene.

"The real psychological barrier was going across the yellow police line. I thought, 'What the hell am I doing? Am I crazy?' The only doctors who got killed in Vietnam were those who were sent into the wrong places at the wrong time.

"I had seen this building go up in smoke. If it happens again now, I'm dead."

But rescuers were bringing out more of the injured. Sullivan went to work. At noon, when the rescue crews said they had reached everyone they could, he returned to the hospital. But an hour later, a colleague telephoned to say that rescuers had found a woman who was trapped and could be saved only if her leg were amputated.

Sullivan gathered supplies, emptied his pockets, taking only his driver's license for identification. He took off his watch and his wedding ring. He thought about calling his wife, but then decided against it.

"I did not want my wife to know where I was. I thought: 'Is my insurance paid up?' "

The police brought him back to the building.

"Are we really going to do this?" he asked. He and other rescuers crawled down a 35-foot ladder to where Dana Bradley, 20, was stuck in a crevice.

Sullivan took off his hard hat so he could get his head inside the crevice.

"She was hesitant at first," he remembers. "I said that we ourselves were in danger, and if she would not let us amputate, we would have to get out and leave her there."

Bradley finally assented.

"The only way I could get to her was to lie on top of her," Sullivan says. He could see that a concrete beam had crushed the bottom part of her leg, and a steel reinforcement bar covered her knee. If he amputated that high, the woman might bleed uncontrollably.

"I was not sure we could do this and not kill the lady," Sullivan says.

He backed out of the crevice and asked a firefighter to cut off a piece of the bar. Now he could reach her knee if he used his left arm.

Sullivan cut off the woman's pants leg with scissors. He tied a rope around her leg and tightened it with metal. It worked as a makeshift tourniquet.

Suddenly came a warning: There might be another bomb--evacuate!

"She pleaded with us not to leave her. We had no other choice. We were told to get out." Reluctantly, Sullivan left.

At the all clear, he returned.

"If we didn't do it soon, we did not think she would survive." He crawled back into the crevice and repositioned himself on top of Dana Bradley and administered an anesthetic.

"I reached my left hand down to her knee. That's the only way I could reach her." He cut ligaments and amputated the leg.

Firefighters, using a harness around her shoulders, pulled her out, placed her upon a board designed for victims with back injuries and passed her up the ladder, man to man.

Sullivan went with her in an ambulance back to the hospital. That night when he went home, his wife had seen Dana Bradley on television and knew where he had been.

She cried.

Then she cried again.

*

Dana Bradley lived. So did her sister, Felicia, 22, who also was injured.

The two young women, their mother, Cheryl, 44, and Dana's two children--daughter Peachlynn, 3, and son Gabriel, 4 months--were at the federal building to get a Social Security number for the baby when the building blew up.

As of Saturday night, Cheryl Bradley and the two infants were still among the missing.

Gabriel, the baby, was the apple of his mother's eye.

Peachlynn was a lovely, active little girl, smart, a little naughty sometimes, and very talkative.

She had a stuffed purple dinosaur.

And she loved it.

Times staff writers Tim Rutten and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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