COMMENTARY: After the bomb, actions were louder than words

OKLAHOMA CITY — It was 9:01 a.m. Late for the daily editorial meeting with E.L. Gaylord, publisher of The Oklahoman, I was rushed.

The elevator I entered on Ninth did not stop until reaching the ground. About fourth or fifth floor, there was a slight sway in the vessel. A random thought went through my mind: after four years, the device was showing signs of age.

When the elevator doors opened at 9:03 a.m., I heard voices down the hall exclaiming over  something. Walking into the break room, I saw cartoonist Jim Lange, seated at our customary table.

He asked, “Did you hear that?”

“What?” I responded “Like a sonic boom, but a hell of a lot louder.” He pointed south, toward downtown. 

To the east, helicopters lifted off first one, then another, then a third. Jim and I walked to the windows and concluded it was the SkyCam units for TV stations along Britton Road and points north. 

Looking south, we saw a dark plume rising.

Ed Kelley, executive editor, walked in, found the clicker and put the television on the CBS affiliate. One helicopter camera was already focused on the gaping and jagged scar that now marked the face of the A.P. Murrah Federal Building.

I talked to Mr. Gaylord and we began to absorb what had transpired just two blocks from the building where we worked until 1991.

In a few minutes, it hit me: my wife had planned to go to the Federal Employees Credit Union, in the Murrah Building, to make a deposit. I called; all lines were busy for hours. We finally talked in early afternoon; she told me the bomb sounded like our neighbor’s home had collapsed.

It was days before I told her I had feared she was at the credit union. Dead were 168 people, including 21 at the credit union. 

I read stories by friends in our newsroom. I worked late that night, seeing bright lights at the Murrah site reflect off the skyscrapers.

After seeing me on the “NewsHour,” National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” had asked for an interview. It was dark and I was tired. I described what I had seen, heard and read that first day.

Bikers in leather, chains dangling, standing next to lawyers in impeccably-tailored men’s suits, as hundreds waited in long lines to donate blood. 

A nurse who ran into (not away from) the building to rescue someone she did not know. When she raced in a second time, falling debris struck her. Moments later, she collapsed and died. 

A firefighter holding a baby — an image that became a Pieta-like icon.

A group of Boy Scouts marched from MidTown to the edge of the carnage, wanting to help recover bodies. Officials had them work traffic flow, instead. The boys walked home that night, knowing they had done something practical.

Everyone wanted to help, and found a way to do so.

I’ve never listened to the Fresh Air archives from that day. I remember expressing admiration for people acting with kindness and compassion. 

A stranger called to say it was the first time they had heard a Christian witness on NPR. I do not deserve credit, save as a willing vessel. 

Later, our state’s First Lady (Cathy Keating) and a corps of volunteers placed roses placed on the pillows and cots of rescuers, including those from towns “Back East” (as we still deem it) — places like New York and Boston. 

For those who did not lose a loved one, the hardest time after the bombing was the sequence of funerals. Every one distilled broken hearts and continued anguish.

Weeks after, a local woman called me to describe the Jewish’s community’s plans to honor righteous Gentiles in conjunction with the Holocaust Remembrance. She expressed awe over seeing an entire city live in love. Our neighbors are living their faith, and it is inspiring.

Reading my columns and editorials, she knew I was worn with grief. We spoke words we could never have imagined saying to one another. We talked like old friends, crying and comforting each other. 

I have trouble when I go the Oklahoma City Memorial, where portals mark minutes before and after the bombing. On my most recent visit, I met an Israeli couple to discuss the city’s recovery. A few minutes into our discussion, I had to stop for a bit to gather myself.

There are a million variations on this story. I am only one, but I am one. 

Emerging from the malevolent bombing of a city and its people is a  process. I once was a long distance runner, so there is appeal in the Marathon itself as a metaphor for Boston’s time ahead. 

Simplistic overgeneralizations are not in order, so what is? It is hard to do better than patience, kindness, eloquent silence, presence, fortitude, and a thirst for justice.

For a time, let actions speak louder than words.