Letter: Oklahoma City: It started with words

Just over 20 years ago, an explosion at 9 a.m. on a typical workday morning tore apart the center of Oklahoma City and changed our world forever. A group of homegrown malcontents mixed a lethal brew of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil and set it off in a Ryder truck parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Moments later, survivors began to stumble out of the severely damaged multi-story concrete building, many naked from the force of the blast. Dozens of other buildings in the surrounding blocks were also damaged, some destroyed. The Oklahoma City Fire Department soon was overwhelmed by the scope and complexity of a rescue operation that involved so much of the downtown.

Within hours the federal government responded to the governor’s request for help by deploying urban search and rescue task forces which had the heavy cutting tools and specialty training for locating and extracting victims in concrete structures. Virginia Task Force One, based in Fairfax County, was deployed the next day, and I was one of the 60-plus personnel who boarded the transport plane at Andrews AFB.

Upon arriving in the downtown, we found a shocking scene of destruction. The force of the blast, felt more than 50 miles in every direction, had created a pancake collapse that left most of the stories of the federal building dangling down like clapboards of a house. We immediately went to work in 12-hour shifts that involved both cutting of the reinforced concrete floors into moveable pieces and removal of debris by hand into drywall buckets.

Because this was a crime scene, FBI and ATF agents were stationed among us to examine the debris, looking for clues about the bomb and about those who had made it. I prayed I would make a contribution, that somehow mixed with the broken concrete and bits of typical desk contents would be something that would lead to some answers. Because answers were what we needed as we balanced on the jagged concrete of the rubble pile.

We were almost immediately moved to the night shift — long, cold, windy nights under giant spotlights that rendered the unthinkable into a scene of hell on earth shrouded in a fine white dust. We were already in the body-recovery phase, and the harsh light and long shadows made the victims we dug out seem like mannequins. We usually knew which federal agency had had an office in our work area each night, and when we found a victim, we stood back and saluted while his or her comrades carried out the body. I remember when the number of victims reached the triple digits.

Every one of the victims had a name, with a family and a life away from work. Of the 168 dead, more than a dozen pulled from the rubble were children. Even as we dug, we heard stories of the despair that descended on the loved ones of every person lost to the blast. For some, the pain was so great that they took their own lives. For others, it began a cycle of self-destruction through substance abuse that continues to this day. If one were to tally the human cost of the tragedy, the numbers quickly climb into the hundreds.

It’s another beautiful spring morning in Rappahannock County, with soft light, green grass and dogwood blooms just starting to open. Evil is someone else’s problem, confined to faraway places in distant time zones. Yet, I am troubled by harsh words that come into my life here nowadays by digital means.

Today, anyone can express just about anything, factual basis optional, and send it out to the world as truth. Some of these messages are harmless, some are even laughable. But some have a vicious edge that deftly manipulates fear into a call to violence.

Experts interviewed immediately after the blast pointed fingers at the Middle East. But we all know that the mastermind of the Oklahoma City bombing was a young man from upstate New York, whose anti-government rants somehow led to a yellow truck full of fertilizer that maimed the soul of the nation.

All I can say to my fellow countrymen is, be careful with words — they can lead to deeds that kill. And death, found in the night under giant spotlights, can be very ugly indeed.

Cathie Cody Shiff