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OKLAHOMA CITY: AFTER THE BOMB : Church Is Haven for Families of the Missing : Victims: Relatives keep a grim vigil at First Christian, awaiting word on loved ones as search continues. 'Everyone is just hoping for one miracle.'

April 26, 1995|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — They arrive in early morning and keep a grim vigil well into the evening, reluctantly leaving the vast but crowded church dining room only at the insistence of counselors urging them to go home and get some rest.

The rare exceptions come when a family is gently told by a deferential counselor that it is "time to go upstairs."

Those gut-wrenching words mean only one thing: the wait is over. Their loved one has been found and identified in the wreckage of the bomb-blasted Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Everyone knows all too plainly about the room on the fourth floor of the First Christian Church. It is where families go to get the news. Some stay 15 minutes, others need two hours or more.

"They all know what it means when someone comes up to them to say: 'It's time to go upstairs,' " Eric Kramer, a University of Oklahoma communications professor acting as a news media liaison officer, said Tuesday.

A special telephone line has been set up, linking the church with the state Medical Examiner's office downtown. It serves as a direct and immediate pipeline whenever an identification has been made.

To while away the dreadful hours, families have been chatting in the well-provisioned hall, quickly embracing strangers as if they were lifelong friends, now bound together in their shattering sorrow.

Hoping against hope as rescuers press their desperate but methodical search through the ruins, nearly 200 people with loved ones still classified as missing continue gathering each day at the First Christian Church, several miles from the bombing site.

"They've formed a community," Kramer said. "They are sharing a lot with each other and most of them have bonded and made friends for life."

When Beth Newberry, a Batesville, Ark., woman whose daughter is believed to be in the rubble, began making decorative ribbons crowned with a gold-plated guardian angel, other women quickly gathered around and asked to help.

Before long, a production line formed and hundreds upon hundreds of such three-colored ribbons were being delivered downtown for rescue workers to wear.

To speed production, Newberry jury-rigged a contraption using two paper cups, two books, some rubber bands and a plastic spindle-like device.

When the women ran out of angel pins, a box containing 500 more quickly appeared, thanks to a fast-thinking Salvation Army official, one of thousands of rescue workers and volunteers who continue to stream into this heart-broken city of 450,000, most of whom are driving with their headlights on as a sign of their sorrow.

In another corner of the flower-bedecked, poster-festooned church dining room, dubbed "kids corner," there were countless books and toys--and even some dogs, rabbits and a playful spider monkey--to help divert young minds.

But the vast majority of those asking to play hide-and-seek with the diminutive "Charlie the Monkey" have been adults, said Sharlotte Campbell, executive director of Total Life Counseling, a local firm.

"It's a stress reliever," she said.

"This place is a haven. It's a place for them to wait for information," said the Rev. Don Alexander, pastor of the church.

Thanks to an outpouring of mental health counselors, each arriving family immediately is assigned its own counselor. "Most of it is listening, just listening," said Alexander. "People are speaking their hearts," he said, and then--as if apologizing to an inquiring reporter--he added:

"What's going on inside here is not secret. It's just very private."

Hours after the bombing, the American Red Cross accepted Alexander's offer to let the families use his church as a gathering spot, and a virtual city in miniature has sprouted there.

Outside, Oklahoma National Guardsmen and volunteers protect the arriving family members each morning, ushering them in and out of the church. Inside and out, the church is overflowing with food, drinks and other supplies.

"I don't know what we're going to do with all this when it's over," said Bee Barker, a church member and volunteer.

Volunteers at the church have come from near and far, said Alexander, whose father built the church 38 years ago.

"Some came literally from across the street. Others have come from Iowa and St. Louis. The response was emotionally overwhelming," he said.

In the initial aftermath of the bombing, the atmosphere in the hall was one of hope but, "as the days have gone by, the hopefulness is dwindling," said Kramer.

Increasingly, one refrain is being uttered over and over again by family members:

Let just one family member, please, come out alive.

"That's what they keep repeating," said Campbell. "Everyone is just hoping for one miracle."

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