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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

April 19, 1995: My Story

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

By Terry M Pace (April 19, 2020)

On Wednesday morning of April 19, 1995 I had a morning of private psychotherapy patients scheduled at my downtown office on the third floor of the Republic Bank Building in Norman, Oklahoma. Our children were ages 2 and 4 and I believe my wife was staying home with them then and caring for other kids in our home at the time. I left for the office and my first appointment was at 9:00 a.m. with a long-term patient I knew well. We had just begun our session and were beginning to talk when all of a sudden the building shook and we heard the most ungodly explosion I have ever heard. It was 1995 and we did not yet have smart phones for instant news, so I stepped out to ask my office colleague if she knew what happened. She had turned on her portable radio and told me that the local news had reported an explosion in downtown Oklahoma City about 20 miles to the north, thought then to likely be a natural gas explosion and no other details were known. I went back and updated my patient and we continued with our session while hearing a number of sirens sounding around town. After the session, the news report suggested a possible bomb and that there were many casualties. I stood in our empty waiting room talking with my colleague and patient about the news and what we had felt, feeling unsure of what to do next. I had an open hour and a moment to think. I called my wife to confirm the news and just to hear her voice and be reassured that my family was fine. After consulting with my colleague about the situation, we both decided to call all our patients for the day and reschedule them. I then proceeded to call all of my active patients (about 20 at the time) checking on them to be sure they were alright, then with agreement, cancelling all sessions for the week.

I recall feeling numb, like I was in a nightmare and unable to wake up. But I felt I had duties to carry out and people perhaps depending on me for direction at the university where my full-time job was; so I immediately headed the couple of miles down to my university office. At that time I was the Director of the University of Oklahoma Counseling Psychology Clinic, located on the south campus of OU in an old former Naval training barracks. I may have had email then, I was always about the last faculty member to relent to any new technology or communication, but I don’t recall communicating by email. I do remember that I got on the phone to various colleagues and people I knew working close to downtown OKC. The phone lines were jammed and a lot of calls did not go through and I cannot recall for sure who all I reached. To the best of my memory I spoke to my wife and went home for lunch as we lived about a mile away from my campus office. By then I recall reports that there had been a childcare center in the Federal Building and that many children were missing, possibly dead and injured, and that it was believed to have been a bomb. I hugged my own family, my wife and daughters ever closer that day.

After lunch at home and seeing the devastating TV images for the first time, I went back to my university office and continued to reach out to other psychology colleagues about what we all might need to do to help in the response. I also began to see our graduate students and staff as our clinic opened for service at noon most days. I mainly recall students walking in with blank looks on their faces, unbelieving and fearful. It seems there were a lot of hugs and comforting each other as we began accounting for all our students and trying to verify that everyone was safe. Our office manager spent the afternoon calling all our students and then our patients to find out how they were and if they needed anything we could help with. I do not remember all the many stories from this, but I know people were overwhelmed and worried about other friends and family who worked in downtown OKC. After further discussion, we proceeded to cancel the clinic schedule for the rest of the day and evening, except for a few patients who felt they needed to be seen. Thus, I spent some time meeting with our student counselors to review plans for assisting the patients who were coming in. Most of our scheduled patients had already called us to cancel as they just wanted to be home and safe with family and tuned to the news to try and understand what was happening. So, after closing up the clinic in late afternoon (we were usually open until 8:00 p.m.), I went home to just be with my own family for the evening and try to reassure and comfort our own children.

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building or OKC Bombing was 25 years ago today. The facts are that 168 people died and around 700 were injured, many very severely. Numerous children died as there was a day care center on the first floor of the building. Damage estimates ranged upward to $500,000,000. Around 300 buildings in a several mile radius were damaged. The crime was and is still the most deadly and destructive domestic terrorism event in the history of the United States. The perpetrators were former military men who had developed anti-government and white supremacist ideologies over the years; they were filled with hatred, alienation and extremist beliefs. Thankfully, there was amazing law enforcement collaboration across federal, state and local entities and these men were shortly captured in heroic fashion and were fully prosecuted and punished for their horrific crimes. The Federal building was 10 stories tall and held numerous federal agencies with over 500 employees working on a daily basis plus hundreds of visitors and the daycare that served dozens of children. The entire north side of the Federal Building was blown off with debris crumbling into the hole where the front half of the building once stood. The debris covered up the innocent and unsuspecting people who were trapped and burned beneath. I can never forget this scene, these numbers, this time, these people.

I have talked very little about this time. The OKC Bombing was terribly traumatic for anyone simply watching or imagining it. Probably over 100,000 people developed some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder from their exposure to this barbaric act. My role was small in helping provide psychological care during the OKC bombing response, but it was the most difficult experience I had in almost 40 years as a psychologist or mental health worker. So I have spoken sparsely as it remains too painful for me to speak of, even now. Also, my role really was tiny, compared to so many of my own colleagues, the fire departments and special search and rescue units from all over the state and country, police of all varieties, and national guard; as well as legal investigators, medical examiners, news media, Red Cross volunteers and others. I assume a lot of folks feel similar to me; what we individually experienced was small amidst the horror of the event and the massive community and national response, but the traumatic impact upon us was large and lasting. I am sure there are many to this day, who also like me, have found it very hard to speak of or even find words for their experiences.

Some of my psychology and mental health colleagues took over leadership roles across various locations of care around the community. Some served as the liaisons with the Red Cross, local police and others. Some became prominent spokespersons for the mental health community. Some suffered profoundly from this service and the prolonged exposure to such suffering and fear. They served the community selflessly and I became even more appreciative of the profession I was a part of. Given the relative novelty and scope of this event, there was not really a protocol for how to organize such a wide scale community mental health response, so the plans my colleagues developed then became foundational for the many widespread disasters we have experienced since then in our country, from 9/11 to tornadoes, hurricanes , wildfires and mass shootings.

But here I am, 25 years later and writing a blog, so somehow today became the day for me to finally say a little about my own story from this time and I am doing so to honor my many colleagues who served us all through those dark days. And also to honor all other first responders and especially to remember those who died or were injured and the countless people who were forever changed that day. The morning after the bombing I was informed by colleagues to attend a Red Cross disaster response training for mental health professionals and so I attended this training that morning somewhere in OKC (I do not recall where this was) and I saw many colleagues and friends there. From there we were told of several options for service and once trained and our credentials verified we could sign up for times that we could work in order to provide mental health care for people affected by the trauma. I signed up for everything I could and then headed back to the university, where I knew I had a leadership role to play and I began consulting with other professors as well as university officials about the response plans for the university. There are too many names of people who I remember being active and helpful for me to mention names; I would leave out too many. But the one exception, is my university colleague and friend, Dr. Cal Stoltenberg. We worked together on the universities and our own program and clinic response and he also volunteered in various other places in a similar manner as I did. He was a great support to me then and throughout my career.

At the university we tried to approach the mental health side of needs in several ways. We coordinated with the campus counseling center and office of student affairs in order to share about mental health effects from trauma and grief and to provide information on where anyone could reach out for emotional support. We provided this information in a variety of ways across campus and with the media. A team of us mental health folks met with various classes, dorms, department faculties and other groups around campus as they felt like inviting us, so this lasted for the next six months or so. These were more psycho-educational discussions, allowing folks to talk about some of their feelings and concerns and hear support from their peers as well as from us group leaders. The campus counseling center also offered free walk in crisis counseling during this time.

At the clinic I directed, we served people from all around the area for a 50- mile radius as we provided almost no financial impediment to their services and had evening and Saturday hours. So, almost anyone who could get to our doors could be seen by one of our student counselors. However, about a third of the people we served were students or staff from the university who came to us for the same reasons as well as our location just off the main campus. So, we expected that folks from both the general as well as the university community might seek extra counseling services during this time of community wide stress. Thus, we also offered free walk in mental health counseling services to anyone during any of our open hours and I believe we also extended some of our hours. We provided a free walk in support group for several months and usually had 6-8 folks who came to this, including some who dropped in at a time of suicidal crisis. To prepare for all of this we had provided extra training and debriefing for our own student counselors and had tightened our chain of consultation and decision making regarding any emergent concerns. Many of our graduate student counselors were already working as masters level mental health professionals, so these folks also attended the Red Cross training sessions and did other volunteer work.

We soon realized how important it was to debrief the de-briefers. All of us really, and many of our own students were traumatized by this experience and some were directly connected to those who became casualties. Thus, helping the helpers was an ongoing process of close supervision, careful case management, and sensitive, open-doors or available phone calls for support at any time. I recall many conversations of support and guidance with students. On the patient side, I recall we had a steady stream of walk in or call in patients, as well as a lot of former and current patients who experienced an expected reactivation of anxiety, trauma or grief. I do not recall numbers, nor does it matter, but we were very busy. I think people clearly needed crisis support and that making our services widely known, not charging or limiting services and having evening and Saturday hours allowed us to meet the needs of many folks in this way.

Simply out of being the OU faculty member who was a licensed psychologist over the clinic for the only doctoral psychology program of the flagship university of the state is how I ended up doing dozens of media interviews around the bombing. I did not do TV that I recall, but I did many print media interviews and seems perhaps a few radio spots. I spoke to newspapers all over the central United States and contributed to many local news stories. I did not enjoy this activity but I felt it was a community and professional service and I was in a good place to provide it in an accurate and respectful manner.

I served several shifts over the following month, as part of the mental health team that was on call within the Red Cross Volunteer Center where general volunteer services were coordinated. This is also where many of the out of state volunteer fire and rescue units were staying in a large facility west of the federal building. I remember we simply made our presence visible for any one looking for someone to talk with, then one of us circled the facility and observed and when we encountered someone with outward distress we offered support and the option to talk in private if they wished (we had clear credentials which could be verified by any Red Cross supervisor). We had many folks who were just appreciative we were there, but we also had many who wanted a chance to express their feelings, who needed a safe place to cry, catch their breath and reorient themselves to their jobs, which we provided.

I also worked several shifts in the downtown Oklahoma City police command center, next to the federal building. Our job there was debriefing the law enforcement professionals coming off their recovery shifts. As their shifts ended, they were compelled to stop by our little private area, but were not compelled to talk or to stay. We simply listened, provided support, education or brief intervention when invited. Very few of these people talked in depth and when they did most spoke of their own families and how they had trouble not imagining them in the rubble too. These people had the abominable tasks of searching the very dangerous rubble for survivors or bodies. So we sought to encourage them mainly to keep going, do the job, know their feelings were normal, know they were appreciated, but know the future would have a place and time waiting when they would need to face all this and we reminded them of the support available now and gave our contacts for help in the future.

The most impactful issue on me to this point, was simply going into downtown OKC. On my first shift downtown, just a couple days after the bombing while many bodies were not yet recovered. The police officer met me at the security gate as the perimeter around the building had been fenced and blocked off for several blocks in all directions. To go from the security gate to the police command center, we had to walk along the very edge of the federal buildings remains and past the rubble field. The officer stopped in front of the rubble field I think to be sure I was appreciating what he and his colleagues were going through. But he began to talk about his recovery shifts while I tried to take it all in. I listened, tried to be supportive, but I was overwhelmed, stunned, felt like I was beginning to disconnect and mentally drift away. He told me of finding a finger here and a part of a torso over there and of how he was holding up just by holding up for everyone else. He helped me (the helper) more than he will ever know. I only slightly recovered my professional capacity by the time my shift actually started and other law enforcement workers began coming through. I have never been able to really face that moment walking in. I avoid pictures of that famous rubble scene where the front of the building used to be. I still feel sick seeing the pictures.

But, the hardest service I helped provide was at the Family Center that was set up for all the family and close friends who were waiting to hear if their loved ones had been found amidst the rubble in that awful cold April rain. I still feel depressed on a cloudy drizzly cool April day. We provided several services with families. We were available if anyone wanted to talk and some did. We spent extra time with children, often just playing with them as a comfort for them and a distraction or break for their parents. I often would imagine seeing my own children's faces as I began to play with one of these kids. It was difficult to keep reality in perspective when so much of normal life had been violated. We also spent time just observing folks as they sat or lounged around in the church north of downtown where this was located, to be aware of and intervene early if folks were becoming overwhelmed, angry or some even having psychotic stress reactions. It seemed to me that our active support was well received. Of course in this we tried to make sure all family members had our contacts if we could help later on and that they knew of places they could reach out to in the future for mental health services (eventually a fund was established and a central contact point was developed to assist people with such services).

However, as psychologists we also were a part of the teams formed to provide death notices to waiting family members. These were teams made up of a medical examiner to provide the official notice of death and questions about the body or bodies as some families had multiple losses; a chaplain to offer spiritual care; and a psychologist to offer mental health support. I was a part of several death notifications, and these remain the most emotionally painful, traumatic experiences from my entire career. I cannot say a lot more without risk of disclosure of confidential information, so that is another reason for not talking about this time. But I want to say that I do remember these people, their faces, the love they had and the force of their losses, yet also their capacity to rise beyond their own pain to comfort others. I also remember the professional dedication of the Red Cross volunteers, medical examiners, clergy members and my psychology colleagues. I have found no words yet beyond these to tell about this part of my life. Such a small part of my life in terms of time, but so big in terms of meaning and impact; it changed me forever and I’m always aware of the lives lost, the gift of living, and the certainty of death.

Finally, over the past 25 years, I have served folks in counseling who were affected by the OKC bombing, with so many harmed and so many others traumatized throughout Oklahoma. So in whatever settings, outpatient clinics, the university, private practice, or at various hospitals, folks have come along for mental health services and the OKC bombing was at least one of the factors impacting their health. Shortly before I retired in the last few years a patient came to me with multiple traumas causing or contributing to countless health problems. This patient had been one of those who was trapped on an upper floor on the back or south side of the building that was not collapsed but was openly exposed to the rubble below and had received major explosive forces. They also had found themselves alone amidst blood, smoke, and the moans and cries for help from people who had been present only moments before. This patient shared that after realizing the situation and seeing dead bodies below, they were sure they would also die. Sadly, this trauma had been laid on top of adverse childhood events that had caused this person much developmental trauma. Then some years later, his person was in the middle of a violent Oklahoma tornado and thrown some distance into a muddy field of rubble, along with a deceased neighbor. Finally this person had severe heart problems and had required cardiac resuscitation which often causes its own form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, while the event may have been 25 years ago, such trauma lives on in our brains and bodies and can be reactivated with triggering events or other threats or distress. So, the past is always present in our lives and remains important for us to understand for improved coping and health. I share this to honor their excruciating suffering and their determined resilience over all these years. I have often had to face the results of the OKC bombing in the lives of my Oklahoma patients. I worked hard to be able to face the issues; traumatic memories, images, grief, insomnia, depression, social anxiety, and substance abuse with my patients. I hope I did okay. Seeing such patients over the last 25 years has often been hard, reactivating my own heartbreak and trauma that remains never fully healed, occasionally leaving me emotionally drained as my own fear and heartbreak were often remarkably present, just under the surface of my life.

After 25 years I have still been unable to visit the OKC bombing memorial. It looks to be an honoring, comforting memorial as well as offers a valuable educational and historical program with the goal to understand and prevent terrorism. I have longed to go, but I have been afraid. You may ask appropriately, afraid of what? I either cannot or am not ready to say. Maybe just that I feel unsure it's a wound too great and I feel once opened it cannot be closed again. I know that is not true, that going to the memorial under the right circumstances should be healing, but I am still afraid. I wanted to write this short story to honor that time and place, the people, all the people there, the rescuers and other helpers, my psychology colleagues and those people killed, hurt, or damaged emotionally. I raise my glass to all of you today. I will go to the memorial someday. I will try. It will be good for me, though it will be very hard. I had hoped to go this spring, but we all must keep social distance due to the Covid-19 virus pandemic, another unthinkable trauma in all our lives. Another time of great loss in our country and world. Another time we need support and help. Another time we need unity and community devotion to one another. Another time we need accurate and genuinely caring information. Another time our faith and our character will show through. I see hate and fear in our world today and I wonder if our country has become even more hateful and divided in these last 25 years? I wonder are we even capable of the same unity, empathy and wisdom we found in Oklahoma in 1995? I know that hate kills. Extremism, even if one believes it to be righteous, can lead easily to alienation, distrust and hate. Hate leads to violence, including terrorism. I worry and yet I hope for our better angels to be with us and better days to find us in this country. History is ours to learn from or to ignore at our great peril. I do remember. I cannot forget.

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