The Resilience of Oklahoma City Bomb Survivors - Richard Williams' story

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - November 2000

No one who survives a disaster will ever be the same again. They will remain a bitter, emotionally wounded victim, or heal and be transformed into a stronger, better person.

Richard Williams is a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing. When I met him in August, 2000, on the Debra Duncan television show, I was impressed with his humor and happy spirit. His story shows how people can respond with strength after a horrendous tragedy.

The real test of survivor resiliency often comes after surviving "the toss of the cosmic coin." Survivors must deal with their grief, their pain and injuries, PTSD, survivor guilt, and constant questions from others. In Oklahoma City the remnants of the Murrah building are a constant reminder to the survivors, the families of people who were killed, and everyone involved in the bombing tragedy.

Richard Williams was at work in his office on the first floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19th, 1995 when the truck bomb exploded. Shards of glass and sharp chunks of concrete from the explosion tore into his face, fractured his skull, ripped off his left ear, crushed his right hand, and slashed open his leg. Tons of rubble crashed down on him. He lay buried under the rubble, bleeding and unable to move. He was found by a heroic rescue worker, rushed to a hospital, and kept alive by extensive, emergency surgery.

Richard spent many months in rehabilitation. After returning to work, he became very involved in the Memorial process. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation, Co-chair of the Survivors Definition Committee, Co-chair of the Memorial Center Committee, member of the Design Solicitation Committee, Archives Committee, Government Liaison Committee assisting in drafting and getting signed the Intergovernmental Letter of Understanding between Federal, State, and Local Governments and one of the panelists who selected the finalists for the memorial design. Nearest his heart is his work on the committee which drafted the Mission Statement from which all aspects of the Memorial are being patterned.

Richard is highly resilient. Like many survivors of near death experiences, he is a warm, friendly man with a vibrant spirit. He likes to joke that he is pleased that the surgeons sewed his left ear back on level with the other one. Here is how he describes his experience and what has followed since then:

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19th, 1995, the people who in the Murrah Building were just like you-employees or visitors there to do business with various agencies. There were children entrusted to the daycare where they could be near their parents, delivery people, and people parking in the lot across the street. It was like any other day.

No distinction was made by the bomb or its makers. The only thing we had in common was our innocence. There were 168 deaths. 118 were federal workers, 19 children, 1 rescue worker, 26 visitors, 3 in buildings across the street to the north, and 1 outside near the blast. In my GSA office, we lost two friends and employees, Mike Loudenslager and Steve Curry. In all, 426 persons were treated in area hospitals. Over 300 surrounding buildings still bear scars from that day. Many remain uninhabited. Boarded up windows are a common sight in the area and a constant reminder.

My office was on the first floor in the west end of the building. The sidewalk and 5th street were only a few feet from my office window on the north. I had started my day as I usually did about 6:30 a.m. coming in early to beat the traffic and get caught up on memos and other administrative things required of me as Principal Assistant Manager. Around 9:00 o'clock I had just left a meeting with some of my staff in the office behind me and was standing talking in my office with my planner estimator. Little did we know that at the same time, less than 100 feet to the east of me was a Ryder truck parking in front of the building. That truck and its contents changed us for the rest of our lives.

Much of what happened is still a puzzle for me. Even today some of the pieces haven't been put back together. I stirred to consciousness lying on my side and noticed my arm with a pink shirt sleeve covered with blood. I was dazed, in shock and confused. I thought I must be in a dream. I felt, heard, and saw nothing until I began to come to. Then I heard someone screaming nearby and a voice I thought was directed at me saying, "hold on, I'll be right back."

I began to ask for help, and though several of my co-workers heard me, they couldn't get to me. One of my co-workers, Dot Hill, says she was even walking on the debris which was on top of me and didn't know it. Shortly after the voice told me to hang on, I felt someone pulling the pieces of the building off of me. All I could see was this massive torso of a man and could feel him lifting me up like a baby to carry me out to a waiting ambulance. I tried to walk, but couldn't and didn't understand why. My coworker and friend Tom Hall and I were put in the same ambulance and taken to the hospital. The man who got us out was OKC police officer Terry Yeakey, a gentle giant who had a hard time with the "hero" label he was given after the bombing. In fact, he took his own life the following year. The answers to many of my questions died with him because only he knew the exact details of my rescue. Many rescuers and survivors are tormented by the events of that day and the days and weeks that followed.

I was given emergency treatment (triage) in the Labor and Delivery section of the hospital. Thank goodness no babies were being born at that time! I had the full attention of the staff there along with the eye and ear specialists, the orthopedic surgeon, and the general surgeon who'd been called to care for me. A few weeks later I got a great card from the Labor and Delivery staff who hailed me as their first male patient! They also told me I needed to learn how to push better.

I continually asked questions throughout the night as the doctors worked on my severed ear, crushed right hand, gaping leg wound, facial fracture, and hundreds of wounds from "shrapnel" of flying glass, concrete, and metal. In all, I required over 150 stitches.

My family kept the full impact of what had happened from me until the next morning when the medication had worn off and I was more coherent. I really didn't understand the extent of the damage to the Murrah Building until Friday. When I saw the first pictures of the building on television, I immediately asked about the children, my co-workers, and the friends who'd been a part of my life for the past 20 years. I still didn't totally comprehend the impact this event would have on the world.

The days that followed are pretty much a blur. My wife Lynne talks about the nurse trying to comb the glass out of my hair missing the 20 staples which held my scalp together. According to her, it looked like I had glitter in my hair from the thousands of tiny fragments of glass. Over the ensuing weeks, I had 2-3 doctor appointments each week. My crushed right hand required two surgeries, the ear specialist had to remove glass from my ear canal on more than one occasion - including a large piece which had lodged in the eardrum itself. Regular visits to physical therapy lasted 18 months. The plastic surgeon removed a large piece of glass from my cheek in July of '95. Pieces of glass still work their way to the surface and have to be removed. They are a constant reminders of how fortunate I have been to have survived. With my wife Lynne as my chauffeur, I returned to work for a few hours a day only 43 days after the bombing.

STORY OF RESPONSE:

Immediately after the bombing people from all walks of life became rescuers, and heroes. What has now become known as the Oklahoma standard began as a response by OKC and then the sate and the nation to the worst act of terrorism on American soil. One story came from a rescue worker from New York who also worked the World Trade Center bombing. He says he came to Oklahoma with a dollar in his pocket and left with the same dollar. The rescue workers wanted for nothing. In fact they had to be careful what they asked for, or they got truck loads.

As all of this was going on, work was already underway to relocate the agencies displaced by the bombing. Within 48 hours all displaced agencies were set up in temporary space with desks, with supply kits, telephones and computers. All telephone numbers were re-routed so customers could reach appropriate agencies using their old numbers. The people of my agency, along with over 200 contract workers, worked literally around the clock in the rain, wind, and lightning to clean and repair the United States Post office courthouse 2 blocks to the south, and the Federal Building Courthouse 1 block south. $1.2 million dollars worth of work was accomplished in the first 2 days after the blast. Over 500 windows had been blown out in these two buildings. Skylights and entrances were damaged, ceiling tiles and light fixtures were damaged with glass, mortar, dust and debris everywhere. The two buildings were operational by Monday, April 24th.

THE MURRAH BUILDING:

I'd like to tell you something about the building before the bombing. There were 17 federal agencies located in the building. I knew the majority of their employees as friends, co-workers or familiar faces that passed by my window every morning coming to work. There were also 3 non-federal agencies in the building including the Federal Employees Credit Union, snack bar, and the day care facility where some of the children died.

The building was opened in April 1977, being named in honor of Federal Judge Alfred P. Murrah who died in 1975. The adjacent parking facility sustained some damage, but minimal enough that it could be repaired and we have been parking the federal family back in it since January of 1996. It has approximately 600 spaces and is located below the plaza, a place adjacent to the building which was used extensively by the tenants and visitors to the building and also included the child care playground. It provides the best vantage point to view the outdoor memorial that has been built.

Knowing the building as I did as a maintenance, mechanic, mechanic foreman, and buildings manager, I don't think any other building could have withstood such a blast without greater loss of life. It was built of reinforced concrete and treated with fire resistant materials. It was certainly difficult to see it imploded on May 23, 1995.

The TRIAL:

I was called to testify at both the McVeigh and Nichols trials to tell the jury my story about how as a survivor I was affected and about the building, city, and people who worked in the building. I also had to identify Mike and Steve who worked for me and were killed and those in my office who were injured and where they were that day. During the trial I was cross-examined by the defense regarding the building. I felt a strong responsibility to represent not only my friends and co-workers, but the community and nation in bringing these terrorists to justice.

If their intent was to defeat us, they failed. Even though there is still a great deal of heartache and pain because of the bombing, it has brought out a new sense of determination in many of us. We have found strength to move forward. The thing that has helped carry me through has been the support of family, faith, and friends.

THE MEMORIAL:

In the months following the bombing, a challenge arose. Many individuals immediately recognized a need to preserve the memory of this tragedy, its victims and its consequences. The bombing, which targeted the "HEARTLAND" of the United States, helped to emphasize the fact that this type of attack could occur anywhere. The tremendous state, national and international impact of the bombing and an outcry for a permanent memorial caused Mayor Norick to appoint a 350 member Task Force . Their mission was to develop an appropriate and enduring memorial. Comprised of families, survivors, rescue workers and volunteers , the Task Force was charged with developing a public consensus and gaining wide community based support.

I was fortunate enough to help draft and get approved a Mission Statement which was to become the cornerstone in shaping and guiding the design and development of the memorial. It represents a remarkable community consensus document which evolved under the most difficult of circumstances. The process of developing this Memorial so soon after a tragedy of this magnitude is unprecedented. After an eight month massive input campaign from families, survivors, community members, and more that 10,000 people across the world in March of 1996, the Memorial Task Force unanimously approved the Memorial Mission Statement. The document called for 3 components to be established.

  1. A symbolic memorial to be located on the footprint of the Murrah Building
  2. A Memorial Center, an interactive Learning Center / Museum containing the history of the bombing and biographies of those who died and the stories of those who survived.
  3. A Memorial Institute, an educational component aimed at teaching the senselessness of violence and promoting programs for the prevention of terrorism.

A competition advisory began the process of leading a truly international design competition. The 2-stage competition process garnered more than 1400 registrations from architects to housewives to school children. Over 624 designs were submitted from all 50 states and 23 foreign countries. I was fortunate enough to be selected to the evaluation panel which selected the 5 finalists from the 624 and then another selection committee selected the final design from that group of 5. In July, 1997, the selection of the Butzer Design Partnership was announced.

"It only took a minute." This is the realization that occurred to Torrey Butzer, an Oklahoma born architect, who had moved to Germany with her husband and design partner Hans. They were living in Berlin Germany at the time of the bombing, when The Voice of America delivered the horrifying news from half a world away.

The Butzer's described their design to the Families and Survivors: The entrance to the Memorial represent the gates of time. The gates are marked with 9:01 and 9:03 to enclose the events of 9:02 . To the south is the Murrah Building Footprint. To the north the Survivor tree and the path to the Memorial Center. Remembrance of those who were killed will be represented on the footprint of the Murrah building itself with a series of 168 empty chairs to provide a simple yet powerful portrayal of someone not being there. The image of the 168 empty chairs clustered on the grassy slope of the building footprint is overwhelming. The arrangement of the chairs is an abstraction of the image many have of the Murrah Building after the blast. The 168 chairs are placed in nine rows representing the nine floors of the building. The number of chairs in each row represents the number of victims who were killed on each floor when the explosion occurred. The five chairs on the west end of the grassy slope acknowledge the five victims who died on the north side of 5th street.

The only remaining wall of the building itself is the one on the east end and it will remind us of those who survived. The names of the survivors will be listed on granite panels from the building and on this side chapel wall. The mission statement states that the survivors will be remembered in a place on the site where building stood in a manner separate distinct and apart from those who were killed.

The Old Survivor Tree, is an American elm that survived the blast. It will be surrounded by a promontory wall with an inscription remembering the responders from near and far.

Recognition of "Those Who Helped" will be represented in an orchard of trees. This is symbolic of the army of helpers who came from all over the country and the fruits of their labors.

A Special Place for Children is located in the northwest corner of the orchard across from the Memorial Center entrance. Here, children can continue to express their feelings and emotions.

A Reflecting Pool will span what was once 5th street which ran in front of the building.

The fence which surrounded the bombing site became in itself a temporary Memorial. Thousands of visitors to OKC have visited the site and left something at the fence. It will be represented in the outdoor symbolic memorial area and in the Memorial Center.

The Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism is the 3rd component of the Memorial which is dedicated to the Research, Analysis and Public Education about Counter Terrorism. It is founded on the belief that it is possible to mitigate and deter acts of terrorism by improving our understanding of and approach to this threat. The intent is to create the country's, if not the world's, most extensive clearing house for counter terrorism information. It will be a truly fitting tribute to those impacted by the bombing and its dedication to understanding deterring and mitigating terrorism worldwide.

In October of 1997, President Clinton signed Public Law 105-58 establishing the OKC National Memorial as a unit of the National Parks Service and designating the OKC National Memorial Trust.

I was honored when President Clinton named me as one of the nine members of the trust and recall with gratitude his endorsement of the Oklahoma City National Memorial at a ceremony at the White House in August, 1998. To say that this was an experience of a lifetime is an incredible understatement.

Tragedies like this just doesn't happen in the United States, especially in a place like Oklahoma. The horror of what occurred will stay with us always, but also will the courage and determination and love displayed by people from everywhere and all walks of life. It's our hope that the memorial will speak to the pain and the healing as the Mission Statement so simply suggests:

We Come Here to Remember Those Who Were Killed Those Who Survived and Those Changed Forever. May All Who Leave Here Know the Impact of Violence . May This Memorial Offer Comfort, Strength, Peace, Hope and Serenity.

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