Twenty years ago this Sunday, April 19, 1995, was a day Oklahomans (over the age of 30 anyway) will never forget. For those who may not know, It was the deadliest terrorist attack, with the most property damage, on American soil before the September 11 attacks. It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history. As a result of the massive explosion, 168 people were killed, including 19 children, and over 800 others were injured.
Within an hour or two of the bombing, some friends and colleagues in ministry (Tom Elliff, Cloyd Sullins and other brothers) had invited me to come and serve as a chaplain at the bombing site. I’m not certain, but that may have been the first time I had officially met pastor and FBI Chaplain, Joe Williams. I wanted to help any way I could and our family was anxious to learn any news we could about Dena’s Aunt Coleen, who was also part of our Highland Baptist Church family. On April 19th at 9:02 am, she was working as she normally did in the Federal Credit Union, located on the 6th floor. The family would have a long wait as Coleen’s body was in the last group found. Two Credit Union employees and a customer were recovered at 11:50 pm on May 4th.
That first afternoon (or maybe early evening), I met some kind folks from the Salvation Army. They had a news camera crew with them and for some reason, wanted to interview me (“man on the street” type deal). “Who are you, what are you doing and how do you feel about it?” or something along those lines. I remember we were standing in front of the shell, pretty close to stacks of demolished vehicles and what would later be known as “the survivor tree.” I have no memory of anything I said during that interview, but later I got a call from my sister Reva Evans Aguilar saying she had seen me on the evening news in Dallas and that she and Charlie were praying for me and the other chaplains and workers.
The official report says that the blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a 16-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. It was a war zone like nothing I’d ever seen. (Little did I know that we would survive and help our community recover from three more “war zones” in our beloved city of Moore over the next 19 years). When I arrived on the morning of day two, I parked a few blocks away and walked past a nearby store front about 2 blocks from the shell of the Murrah building. The huge blast had obliterated the large display windows on either side of the front entrance. The store owner had replaced the glass with sheets of plywood and had spray painted Scripture on the plywood inserts. The most prominent verse was: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1 I took a picture that morning but have no idea where it is now (on an old floppy disk maybe?) It is, however, imprinted indelibly in my memory.
There were hundreds of generous volunteers and restaurant owners who provided thousands of meals for the first responders. I even remember frequently sharing a table with Governor Keating, Mayor Norick and many other well known leaders. The way I remember it, everybody was just doing their part and there was no expectation of titles or standing on formalities. There were so many people working together to provide help, encouragement, prayer support and resources. It was overwhelming to see so many who cared and gave so much (which I’ve seen over and over in Moore disaster relief ministries). At some point, I do remember meeting some folks from a Federal organization known as FEMA. But many of the people who brought food and donations, water, snacks, gloves, boots and on and on, were Christians and from various churches or ministry organizations. And my recollection is that before there was FEMA onsite, there was a massive gathering of Christian FEMA that just showed up and gave and loved people. This is what I’ve seen in every disaster here in our beloved state…God’s people living out Christ’s command in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Each day for about 3 weeks, I had the opportunity to visit and pray with first responders–including police officers, FBI agents, fire fighters, national guardsman, EMTs and many others who were carrying the tremendous weight of first, rescue, then recovery (as well as investigation). I had the privilege of meeting, praying with and sharing the gospel with so many dedicated men and women during those days and weeks. The chaplains often rode in golf carts around the perimeter of the blast site handing out cold water, snacks and looking for opportunities to share a prayer or a listening ear or a word of encouragement. There were countless conversations, prayers and tears during those days and weeks. But one of my most vivid memories was sitting on the ground on the east side of what was left of the building, praying and weeping with a male nurse named Bobby. He had just recovered and carried out the little body of one of the precious babies in the rubble of the Daycare Center. No. Words.
After a few weeks, FBI Chaplain, Brother Joe, OKC Police Chaplain, Jack Poe and others introduced the chaplains and others to the concept of PTSD. After the sights, sounds, smells and many stories of the trauma and heartbreak of those days, I do have some understanding and appreciation of what our service men and women deal with in the trauma and aftermath of war. Every year at this time I feel a certain grieving and sadness deep in my soul. I suppose it will always be that way on certain days of the year. (We’re coming up on an anniversary on May 20th and I know it will be that way) So much pain and grief because of sin and the fall. I’m thankful we have a Savior Who was wiling to experience the grief and stench of this fallen world and to help us in our weaknesses (See Hebrews 4:14-16). My mind often goes back to events I’ve witnessed and experienced over the past 20 years. It might happen when I drive up on a car wreck or hear a tornado siren or smell something that reminds me of the smell of death…Often I sense the Lord saying something like: “Do you smell that? That’s the smell of the fallen world I came to rescue!” And then I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving, He’s coming back and He will make all things new!
I’m very thankful for these verses of comfort and encouragement… “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” (2 Corinthians 1:2-4)