Ghosts of April 19 Keep Oklahomans From Healing : Bombing: Memorials and mementos keep fresh the pain. Some survivors seek a break from memories.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are ghosts in the heart of this town.

On the fourth floor of Southwestern Bell's bomb-shattered plant, 1 1/2 blocks from where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood, Judith Huntington has heard them. They speak in a low, rumbling murmur, their voices floating in the white noise of the telephone company's machinery. Sometimes they call her name.

Alone, late at night, when the desolation of the boarded-up facility is most pronounced, she has seen them. They move like human-sized shadows, dancing in the blurry waves of steam that pour from the cooling vents. Once, she glimpsed a woman's face--so stunningly vivid that it knocked her to the ground.

"Our management, they seem to think like: 'Hey, we're way past the bomb,' " said Huntington, a computer operator now out on stress-related disability after two decades of nearly perfect attendance. "But they're not in that building with us. It's still very real. Way too real."

As 1995 comes to a close, eight months after the deadliest act of terror on American soil, Oklahoma remains haunted by April 19. The fiery explosion that day did more than decimate a fortress-like government building, killing 169 people and injuring 600 others. With one thunderous blast, it altered the identity of an entire state, redefining Oklahoma's myths as surely as its realities.

Although the nation's attention may have wandered, rarely transported back here except by news of the suspected culprits, Oklahoma seems almost frozen in time. There is talk of healing, yet seemingly innocuous images--a fire drill, a broken dish, a glance at the skyline--trigger torturous flashbacks. There is talk of recovery, yet millions of dollars in aid remains mired in a bureaucracy that will take years to distribute it all. There is talk of closure, yet the staggering number of monuments and memorials and souvenir mementos has kept the emotions fresher than many survivors can stomach.

Oklahoma, in short, has vowed never to forget, even when a little forgetfulness might bring a healthy respite.

"It's hard to get better when you're continually being reminded of what happened," said Gary Flynn, a counselor at Project Heartland, which provides free psychological services. "For some people, it's not December, it's still April."

For many victims, there is no choice, so gaping are the holes left behind. Much attention has been paid to the 19 children who perished in the bombing; less well known is that 30 others were instantly orphaned, each losing both parents at precisely 9:02 a.m.

For the injured, there are plastic surgery and physical therapy to endure, ears that continue to ring, sight that will never be restored. Many are still plagued by tiny shards of embedded glass, which inexorably work their way up to the skin, poking through without warning.

Painful Visions

For the government employees displaced by the bombing, there is yet another unpleasant ritual: Donning rubber gloves to sift through boxes of salvaged documents, some still speckled with human blood.

"We would all like to get on with our lives and put it behind us if we could," said Amy Petty, 28, one of the last survivors pulled from the rubble. She had plunged four floors, down to the basement, where she lay for nearly six hours buried up to her neck.

"I have horrible scars on my body," she said. "How can you expect to be over it if you can still see the reminders every day in the mirror?"

But there is another side to Oklahoma's recurring nightmare, a more consciously orchestrated remembrance of its day on the national stage. For all the horror, no event has ever showered so much attention upon the state or cast it in such a sympathetic light. On April 19, Oklahoma became America's heartland, even though it had hardly imagined itself that way.

A ruggedly Western place still dogged by its Dust Bowl legacy, Oklahoma embraced this new identity, egged on by the media's appetite for catchy logos ("Terror in the Heartland" quickly topped the list). It conveyed a more innocent, vulnerable quality--children as angels, rescuers as saints--that continues to inspire a parade of tributes, anniversary homages and commemorative knickknacks.

"Oklahoma has long had an identity crisis," said William J. Savage Jr., a University of Oklahoma history professor, noting the state's continued sensitivity about its portrayal in "The Grapes of Wrath."

"We internalized that and become very defensive about it," Savage said. "Now Oklahomans are handed something wholesome like this heartland imagery, and they're wearing it on their sleeve."

The mother of Baylee Almon, whose limp body became an emblem of Oklahoma's grief, has authorized a photo of her late daughter to appear on an $8.95 long-distance calling card. Edye Smith, who lost two sons in the blast, is marketing $50 pastel portraits of her toddlers, each depicted as a pink-cheeked cherub with feathered wings aimed heavenward. In the $15 "Oklahoma Heroes Bachelor Calendar," firefighters strip off their protective gear to pose as brawny, bare-chested hunks.

Charity gets a cut of all the ventures.

In September, Gov. Frank Keating launched a "Thank you, America" tour, crisscrossing the country in a decorated jet. At every stop, the state's first lady, Cathy, greeted officials with "a great big Oklahoma hug." In October, after being crowned Miss America, Shawntel Smith returned home to lay a wreath at the Heartland Chapel, an outdoor gazebo that hosts services every Sunday next to the bomb site. This month there were plans for a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony with President Clinton as guest of honor, until some of the surviving families finally said they needed a break.

"Some of this stuff is just kind of overkill," said Florence Rogers, president of the Federal Employees Credit Union, which lost 20 workers. "There's been so many memorials and dedications; it's not unappreciated, it's just so much. I can't say I really need that sort of thing right now."

Different people grieve differently, of course, seeking solace wherever they can find it. Experts often lay out tidy stages--shock, denial, anger, closure--but the healing process has no rules, no clock.

Desperate to find a redeeming message in their loss, many survivors have clung to the symbolism of the rescue--the heroism, the generosity, the spirit of cooperation that became known as "the Oklahoma standard." Rather than mourn quietly, they have celebrated their resilience as nothing less than the triumph of good over evil.

Oklahoma's elected officials have taken it a step further, using their newfound visibility to promote investment in the state, despite some grumblings about opportunism. Downtown is dotted with signs directing tourists to the Murrah Building site, which is at the center of an ambitious, multimillion-dollar revitalization project approved several years earlier.

"We have an obligation to make the best out of a terrible tragedy," City Councilman Mark Schwartz said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the October reopening of the Regency Tower, a downtown apartment complex that had stood starkly vacant after the blast. "If we didn't do anything to make this a better community, it wouldn't be fair to those who were lost."

Little Tributes

The struggle to properly honor those victims can be witnessed firsthand at the bomb site, where visitors still leave offerings in the chain-link fence that rings what is now a vacant, sod-covered lot.

Standing before this makeshift shrine, which has evolved month after month, it's hard not to be moved by some of the personal touches: A baby's bib. A toddler's shoes. A penny, held onto the fence by bobby pins.

But many of the other gestures can seem bizarre, even disrespectful. There are usually several diapers jammed in the fence, some soiled by weeks of rain and wind. There are socks, hankies, tissues and Band-Aids; a Royal Pine car freshener and a Blockbuster Video membership card; an "Ask Me About Mary Kay" name tag, a United Airlines ticket stub and a little scratch-off tool that Mobil provides for use on lottery tickets.

"I think people just left whatever was a piece of them," said Tracy Chance, 34, who had returned to her hometown on a Thanksgiving vacation from San Diego. Her son, Zack, who looked to be about 11 or 12, asked her for a business card. He wrote on the back: "Love, strength, compassion . . . . We will never forget."

While sticking it in the fence, he broke down in tears.

Ross Harris knows all about the need to make contact, to reconnect with the emotions of Oklahoma's defining moment. A comptroller for an oil-drilling firm, he spent five months trying to locate the anonymous physician with whom he teamed up in the chaotic minutes after the blast.

Among the first unofficial rescuers on the scene, they managed to improvise with a crowbar and borrowed bandages, digging out one man from a pile of debris and stanching the blood that gushed from the shredded face of another. But before Harris could learn the doctor's name, he was gone, off to extricate some of the tiniest bodies.

"I saw a man at probably one of the finest moments of his life," the 46-year-old executive recalled. "I wanted to be able to shake his hand and say: 'Thank you, sir . . . . I was there, I witnessed it, I know the difference that you made.' "

Week after week, Harris scanned the crowds at the prayer services and memorial ceremonies, sure that he would be able to spot his elusive partner. He roamed the corridors of a local hospital, asking nurses if they might recognize his description of the man. As time went on, he thought of placing a classified ad.

Finally, in September, Harris picked up the Daily Oklahoman and felt his spirits soar. "That's him, that's him!" he shouted, pointing to the small black-and-white photo of Dr. H. Don Chumley, owner of an osteopathic clinic a short walk from the federal building. Then he read the headline.

Chumley, a 47-year-old amateur pilot, died on Sept. 24 when his single-engine Cessna slammed into a Texas cornfield. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

"It put me in an emotional tailspin," Harris said. "The same sort of emotion I felt when we got down there that first day."

Emotional Dates

With the holidays at hand, soon to followed by the first anniversary of the bombing, counselors fear that the psychological wounds may be reopened many more times before they can heal. The legal wrangling in the criminal case, which has been delayed and may be moved out of Oklahoma, has provoked a surge of anger that many survivors can scarcely contain.

"When we're with the families, we don't use the word 'healing,' " said Lu Anne Smith, a counselor at Project Heartland, which has launched an outreach campaign to help victims get through these turbulent dates. "They want you to define it, to tell them what that's supposed to mean. They'll tell you that they're just surviving, not healing. They haven't even started yet."

The counseling project is just one prong of Oklahoma's continuing disaster response, now a hefty bureaucracy that is as much a part of the landscape here as the Murrah Building once was.

Every Friday, a committee of civic and charitable organizations weighs the latest requests for financial assistance. Of more than $25 million in donations, only about $7 million has been spent, although $10 million more has been committed. Some victims have complained of feeling like they've been made to beg for the money. But the stewards of that aid say they have an obligation to go slowly, putting a recipient's long-term recovery ahead of any sentimental quick fixes.

"You may perceive that as red tape, but my purpose is to help people restore their lives so they're not dependent on this money," said Nancy Anthony, who is administering the mayor's and governor's funds. "It's not a simple little recipe of 'You were injured, we helped you, now let's move on.' "

Another series of meetings, these to decide what sort of memorial should be built on the blast site, also may drag on for years. A 360-member task force, which is struggling to do justice to the essence of the tragedy, won't even begin soliciting designs until sometime next spring. The dream of one young victim's mother: A bell tower that tolls every morning at 9:02 a.m., and all day on each April 19.

Meanwhile, the pace of Oklahoma's recovery is being studied by a team of state and federal researchers, eager to learn how Americans cope with the strain of domestic terrorism. Bracing for the potential of widespread dysfunction, they have turned the community into something of a petri dish, conducting hundreds of confidential interviews with victims and thousands more with schoolchildren, along with a detailed Gallup Poll of the metropolitan area.

"Being trained in research, I understand the need for it," said Stewart Beasley, an Oklahoma City psychologist who until recently hosted a popular radio call-in show here. "But if you keep asking people if they're OK, they're not going to be OK. You can't heal under a microscope."

Even so, there are still some survivors who feel they haven't received enough attention, their plight falling just outside the focus.

That's the perspective, at least, from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, whose 70 employees were housed in a brick office just across from the Murrah Building. The blast sheared off most of the facade and shattered almost everything inside, killing two state workers and seriously injuring five others. But the cameras, as well as many of the subsequent tributes, rarely strayed from the target of the bomb.

"I think some of us felt a little left out," said Ed Eckenstein, a water board geologist. He helped petition the governor for a luncheon next month, exclusively for state employees, some of whom are pushing to make April 19 an Oklahoma holiday.

"I don't want to give the impression that we're feeling sorry for ourselves or that we're asking for anything special," Eckenstein said. "We acknowledge that the federal workers had it worse than us. It was just never really acknowledged that we were there too. We were victims too."

The water building, one of about 350 structures damaged or destroyed, remains a gnarled skeleton in a pocket of downtown that looks eerily as it did in April. At night the area is a graveyard of darkened edifices: the YMCA, the Center City Post Office, the Journal Record Building and the 10-story Southwestern Bell facility, which the company has abandoned, save for the computers inside.

Spectral Visions

That's how Judith Huntington found herself alone here, in a structure that is mostly uninhabitable, with a "For Sale" sign posted out front. She would have preferred not to do it, but the equipment, which requires constant supervision, never sleeps. "You can't imagine what it's like until you've been there for 8 1/2 hours straight, and it's the middle of the night, and you're the only one."

At first it was only whispers and flickers that made her jumpy, the kind of fleeting glimmers that she could blame on an active imagination. But they grew stronger over time, tweaking her nerves, until she looked up one night and found herself staring face-to-face with a woman who, by all rights, shouldn't have been there.

"She was so real, her hairstyle, her makeup, everything," said Huntington, who recoiled so abruptly that she tumbled from her chair. "I saw her so plain, I could recognize her on the street again."

For a while, Huntington toyed with the idea. If she could just see pictures of all the bombing victims, she thought, she might be able to identify the spectral face. But now that she is home, trying to clear her mind, Huntington has thought twice. It will not bring much comfort, she has decided, knowing whether the demons are in her head or whether they are real.

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