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Ghosts of April 19 Keep Oklahomans From Healing : Bombing: Memorials and mementos keep fresh the pain. Some survivors seek a break from memories.

December 17, 1995|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — There are ghosts in the heart of this town.

On the fourth floor of Southwestern Bell's bomb-shattered plant, 1 1/2 blocks from where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood, Judith Huntington has heard them. They speak in a low, rumbling murmur, their voices floating in the white noise of the telephone company's machinery. Sometimes they call her name.

Alone, late at night, when the desolation of the boarded-up facility is most pronounced, she has seen them. They move like human-sized shadows, dancing in the blurry waves of steam that pour from the cooling vents. Once, she glimpsed a woman's face--so stunningly vivid that it knocked her to the ground.

"Our management, they seem to think like: 'Hey, we're way past the bomb,' " said Huntington, a computer operator now out on stress-related disability after two decades of nearly perfect attendance. "But they're not in that building with us. It's still very real. Way too real."

As 1995 comes to a close, eight months after the deadliest act of terror on American soil, Oklahoma remains haunted by April 19. The fiery explosion that day did more than decimate a fortress-like government building, killing 169 people and injuring 600 others. With one thunderous blast, it altered the identity of an entire state, redefining Oklahoma's myths as surely as its realities.

Although the nation's attention may have wandered, rarely transported back here except by news of the suspected culprits, Oklahoma seems almost frozen in time. There is talk of healing, yet seemingly innocuous images--a fire drill, a broken dish, a glance at the skyline--trigger torturous flashbacks. There is talk of recovery, yet millions of dollars in aid remains mired in a bureaucracy that will take years to distribute it all. There is talk of closure, yet the staggering number of monuments and memorials and souvenir mementos has kept the emotions fresher than many survivors can stomach.

Oklahoma, in short, has vowed never to forget, even when a little forgetfulness might bring a healthy respite.

"It's hard to get better when you're continually being reminded of what happened," said Gary Flynn, a counselor at Project Heartland, which provides free psychological services. "For some people, it's not December, it's still April."

For many victims, there is no choice, so gaping are the holes left behind. Much attention has been paid to the 19 children who perished in the bombing; less well known is that 30 others were instantly orphaned, each losing both parents at precisely 9:02 a.m.

For the injured, there are plastic surgery and physical therapy to endure, ears that continue to ring, sight that will never be restored. Many are still plagued by tiny shards of embedded glass, which inexorably work their way up to the skin, poking through without warning.

Painful Visions

For the government employees displaced by the bombing, there is yet another unpleasant ritual: Donning rubber gloves to sift through boxes of salvaged documents, some still speckled with human blood.

"We would all like to get on with our lives and put it behind us if we could," said Amy Petty, 28, one of the last survivors pulled from the rubble. She had plunged four floors, down to the basement, where she lay for nearly six hours buried up to her neck.

"I have horrible scars on my body," she said. "How can you expect to be over it if you can still see the reminders every day in the mirror?"

But there is another side to Oklahoma's recurring nightmare, a more consciously orchestrated remembrance of its day on the national stage. For all the horror, no event has ever showered so much attention upon the state or cast it in such a sympathetic light. On April 19, Oklahoma became America's heartland, even though it had hardly imagined itself that way.

A ruggedly Western place still dogged by its Dust Bowl legacy, Oklahoma embraced this new identity, egged on by the media's appetite for catchy logos ("Terror in the Heartland" quickly topped the list). It conveyed a more innocent, vulnerable quality--children as angels, rescuers as saints--that continues to inspire a parade of tributes, anniversary homages and commemorative knickknacks.

"Oklahoma has long had an identity crisis," said William J. Savage Jr., a University of Oklahoma history professor, noting the state's continued sensitivity about its portrayal in "The Grapes of Wrath."

"We internalized that and become very defensive about it," Savage said. "Now Oklahomans are handed something wholesome like this heartland imagery, and they're wearing it on their sleeve."

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