Remembering the OKC bombing, and the baby with yellow socks

Memories are tricky things. Most married folks don’t remember the details of their wedding, but they celebrate their anniversary, a happy day.

Historical events or world tragedies, everyone old enough to remember knows where they were when their heard the news of Kennedy being shot in Dallas, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploding, when John Lennon was killed.

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Oklahoma City Fire Captain Chris Fields carries Baylee Almon following the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building

I add to that the events that started April 19, 1995 and for months afterward. I still remember…

I was driving to work that Wednesday morning, coming in early for a phone interview with Oklahoma born Chuck Norris. He had a movie opening Friday and I was going to write a story about that for our weekend entertainment section.

I was on the third level of our parking lot when I saw a huge tower of smoke bubble up in downtown. I parked my car. Reporters were running out to their cars heading downtown as I went in. I learned a building had blown up downtown.

By the time I got to my desk, we knew it was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and there were mass casualties.

At 9:30 a.m. Norris’ publicist called to say he was ready to talk to me. Our conversation went something like this:

“Good Morning, Chuck”

“Good Morning, Sandi.”

“Chuck, do you have a television on?”

“No. What channel do I need to see?”

“Any channel. It won’t matter.”

“Oh no. What has happened?”

“That’s the federal building downtown. That’s Oklahoma City Chuck, and I have to go.”

I hung up the phone. I have never spoken to him again, but I hope he knows I didn’t mean to be rude.

It was a matter of minutes before we learned the horrific fact that the day care center had been hit.

It wasn’t a gas main explosion. It wasn’t an accident.

Someone had deliberately parked a yellow rental truck in front of the building, full of home-made explosives. He walked away from the truck and hundreds of innocent men, women and children were killed or injured. He changed the face of Oklahoma City forever.

My brothers and I had called our mother within five minutes of each other. My older brothers were sent home, one from a state building, the other from a plant that made specific tiny computer chips.

My younger brother’s toddler son had scratched his dad’s cornea the night before so he stayed home. He worked for the natural gas company and he and his team had been working in a hole a few blocks from the federal building. Part of the rental truck’s axle had landed in their hole.

I was the only one who had to work and this was all new territory for our paper. No matter how specialized your job was before 9:02 a.m., after you were a working news reporter and we were being sent out the door as fast as they could come up with assignments.

I went to a local satellite of our regional blood bank. The lines of people who wanted to donate blood were too long at every donation site. They started only seeing people with O Negative blood type. That’s my type and I am a three gallon donor. They let me come in and I could do a story if I could give blood.

Even with all the drugs in my system, I have a fairly rare status that means my blood is taken differently and give to babies in neonatal ICU or to people whose immune systems are at risk. It’s called CMV Negative. Cyctomegalovirus (CMV) is a flu like virus most people get. I didn’t. During processing my blood they able to “wash” the medicines I was taking out and wind up with blood good for use.

I sat waiting my turn and I saw the genesis of what would be called “The Oklahoma Standard.” Nurses were heading into the city to help. A nurse from Enid was in a store room, a local off-duty nurse was using a corner to check out donors and get them ready to go.

The Red Cross had already sent over a few girls from a state department to go through stacks of blood donor applications, sort them out by blood type and get them in the computerized system. Their blood would be needed in the weeks to come, just not today.

My turn to donate was at 7 p.m. Restaurants had come in with food and drinks for everyone and a message we could go over there to use their restrooms, get water or to take a break.

I knew this night my blood was going to go to one of the children who were so badly injured that day, and among all the blackness hanging around, I was happy about that.

I got back to the newspaper offices to find there was food there as well. The ban or eating or drinking at our desks was rescinded so we could eat as we worked. Management provided food for several weeks.

No one really wanted to go home. There were stories to be written, interviews to do, tears to be cried. Our paper’s phones never stopped ringing and finally the operators were sending media requests to any number in the newsroom. We talked to people from all over the world, repeating what we knew to radio stations worldwide. Our voices might crack a bit, but we didn’t break down. We wanted to share our story.

When the first lists of treated-and-released got to the paper, a name stuck out. A business writer who was a good friend of mine had been downtown when the bomb blew, but suffered only cuts and bruises. Originally from Trinidad, she was a naturalized citizen and was alone at a post office to get passport forms so she could go home to show off her baby, born the month before.

She remembers the windows breaking and the roof coming down and praying she would live long enough to see her son grow up. She has a blank after that and remembers walking down the street and wondering why her feet were wet inside her shoes. It was blood. A gentleman asked her if she was all right and got her triaged and settled to wait for an ambulance.

As the night wore on, reporters were told to go home and get some rest and be back early tomorrow.

As I was walking out, a photographer asked me if I wanted to see the picture that would win the Pulitzer Prize. I said yes and he showed me a photo of a fireman carrying the lifeless body of a child out of the rubble of the former office building.

I know the name of the fireman and the child, but the mother of the child didn’t want her child’s name or her little body used as the symbol of this bombing and the fireman felt the same way. I looked at the photograph and my world changed forever.

This wasn’t in New York, or Dallas or London or any of the other cities. It happened in our town and we could let this horror break us, or we could let it make us strong.

I was strong until I got home and someone asked me how my day went.

All I got out before collapsing into tears and moans was “She had on yellow socks.”



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