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FIRST PERSON

'Good Emerges All Around'

June 19, 1995|JEANNE BOYLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Jeanne, pack. Be on the next flight."

With those words from the FBI special agent in charge of the task force, I was en route to Oklahoma City, straining to see the remnants of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building as the redeye flight made its approach.

It was 9:02 a.m., exactly one week after the blast. I paused in the doorway of the makeshift command post for the nationally observed moment of silence.

FBI agents escorted me past military checkpoints, into the highest areas of security. Two days earlier an abandoned warehouse, the cavernous building was now teeming with agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, ringing telephones and massive ranks of computers. Poster-sized, all-too-graphic photographs of the bomb site lined the walls next to schematics of suspects' whereabouts and routes of travel.

I was awed by the stunning organization of rescue workers arriving from every state to offer their expertise, each about to endure an experience that would never leave them. So was I.

Some faces I'd seen before: at the Susan Smith Carjack Case Command Center in Union, S.C.; at the Polly Klaas Kidnaping Command Center in Petaluma; at the Cora Jones Murder Command Center in Waupaca, Wis.

No hellos, no reunions . . . you just get to work.

*

Supposedly, no tragedy is greater than another, but the magnitude of the bombing in Oklahoma City was almost surreal, as the hourly murmur of the rising death toll made its way in whispers from worker to worker.

I waited to enter the "red carpet room," heart of the command center, nicknamed for its off-limits status. Here commanders conversed with FBI Director Louis Freeh and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on every decision around coffee-cup and paper-strewn tables--the only red being their eyes, after seven sleepless nights.

The highly organized chaos and phenomenal energy in command centers had become oddly normal in my work as a forensic artist often called in on tough cases, but this went beyond.

I began to realize why.

A room divider set up to dampen the noise of radio communications had been turned into a bulletin board. On it were the funeral notices for Drug Enforcement Agency agents, ATF agents, Secret Service agents, U.S. Customs agents . . . and as I watched the faces of the workers, I understood that these were their friends killed in this atrocity. Their co-workers. Their softball teammates.

Yellow Pages were photocopied with "counseling services" and "dial-a-prayer" highlighted. Boxes of tissues were strewn alongside the computers. There was no line between "personal" and "professional"--this bomb had hit all of us.

Workers asked to give 10 hours a day gave 15, and even then had to be coerced to go rest. I watched as every person present wrote out a personal check for $100 to add to a coffee can passed for the families of the victims.

Later, as I deplaned from a DEA jet in a remote town where I was to interview a witness, the two volunteer pilots removed their in-flight headphones and turned to thank me for my effort in depicting John Doe II. With a quiver in his voice, one pilot said softly, "We lost five of ours."

*

Back in Oklahoma City, I was offered a rare inside tour of the bomb site, every floor held stable by cables and new wood beams.

I was stunned into silence by the YMCA day-care center, with its overturned cribs filled with wicked glass shards and mangled metal window frames. Children's names in crayoned letters remained taped where the cribs had once stood. Justin. Madeline. Kimberly. . . .

In the flashlight beams on the debris-covered floor along the wall, I noticed tiny, bloody handprints of the toddlers strong enough to try to find their way out. I tried to imagine their terror. Those facing the windows at the time of the blast will be sightless and scarred for life, and those were the lucky ones, the "survivors" barely acknowledged with the abstract phrase "over 400 injured."

Oklahoma City's gestures of support were in amazing abundance at every turn. One night in a hotel bar where food for the crews was on the house, one fatigued rescue worker described how his bravado melted when he discovered, among the rubble, a fragment of a baby's scalp with its fine hair intact. As he lost his composure, so did the 25 rugged men around him--"like dominoes," he put it. The on-site clergy climbed up to lead them in prayer as they held each other and cried.

The victims in this scenario by far exceed the official casualty count. No one at that scene will be without these memories for life. No one in this country will. The story will fade from the top of the daily news, but we can't ever allow ourselves to forget. We've got to learn from this.

*

Each time I return home from yet another tragedy, I'm always asked how I avoid letting such experiences color my outlook on humankind. But what I see, in each case, is the humane response, the outpouring of support and care by the search-and-rescue workers, the tireless heart and soul put into the investigation.

Good emerges all around the scenes of every tragedy. We respond to these events with the best human beings have to offer. Being witness to that is how I survive these times.

We have that capacity in us every day. But sadly, it seems to take a tragedy to unearth it. It's then that we realize what is truly important. So, maybe I'm the lucky one to be reminded of that so often.

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