The 19th started out like any other April day in Oklahoma. Students and teachers alike anticipated the coming weekend and summer vacation, which was right around the corner.
The sun was very bright as I pulled into the Putnam City High School parking lot. Parents were dropping off their children. I noticed a red car that had stopped in front of me. One of my students, Jennifer, stepped out. It was obvious that Jennifer was not happy with her mother by the look she gave her--that familiar cold-stare-with-squinted-eyes that teenagers often direct at their parents, or even their teachers.
As Jennifer walked into the building and her mother drove off, I thought how sad it would be if that was the last time Jennifer would ever see her mother. What a burden it would be for a teenager to bear. For an instant I remembered the time my brother left for a hunting trip and his teenage son was angry with him. He told my brother, "I wish you would go away and never come back!" And he never did. He drowned several hours later. I thought to myself, I need to tell Jennifer this story when she comes to second hour today. I knew she wouldn't listen, but I'd tell her anyway.
Like any other school day, we settled into announcements and roll call. As the bell for second hour rang at 9 a.m., I prepared the next class of marketing education students for a test. At 9:02, a loud boom rattled the windows, shook the ground and set off everyone's car alarms.
Because it had been raining the previous day, we assumed that another Oklahoma spring storm was brewing. I started the test and began walking around the room to monitor the action. Just then Shelby, a student who had been recording a TV program for me in my office, came in and said, "Ms. Green, you need to come here." I begged off, pointing at my test takers, and he then whispered, "Ms. Green, they blew up the federal building downtown."
My first thought was that Shelby had exaggerated. After all, we live in Oklahoma, and we know things like that don't happen here. Shelby said, "No, Ms. Green, they blew up the whole building!" Still not believing, I turned on the TV in my room, and what I saw seemed like a dream. I could see straight through the Alfred P. Murrah building. I got that sinking feeling where your stomach begins fluttering and your head feels kind of strange. The only thing I can compare it to would be the numbness I felt as a child when John F. Kennedy was killed, or that sickening feeling I had when the Challenger blew up.
As I looked at the building and the damage, I wondered how anyone could have survived. Half of it was just gone. The tarp on the top of the building was flapping in the wind, like a flag that had lost its mast. People were seriously hurt, children were bleeding, cars were on fire, people were running and the look of terror and disbelief was gut wrenching.
My students then made the connection to the boom we had heard. We're only seven miles from downtown Oklahoma City. I regained my senses and began thinking of my students, as I knew some of them had to have family members in that building, which housed more than 500 employees.
One of my students jumped up and ran out of the room crying because she was uncertain of where her uncle, a police officer, was supposed to be that day. Another student, Sheila, put her hands to her face and said, "My dad might be there today. He's an attorney, and he might have to be in court." I told her to get on the phone and call. Luckily, he wasn't scheduled to appear.
I then noticed Jennifer, who had a funny look on her face. She said very softly and quietly, "I think my mother is in there." My heart stopped. What do I do? They didn't train us in college to deal with a disaster. I wasn't required to take Disaster 101. My motherly instinct took over, and I walked back to her seat to give Jennifer a big hug. It was so sad, because Jennifer and her mother are the only ones in their family. I knew her mother was all Jennifer had.
Jennifer couldn't remember her mother's pager number. I told her to begin calling anyone who might know where her mother was. As Jennifer called, I watched the injured being removed and I prayed that we would see Jennifer's mother or that she would call.
Bracing for the tragedy
As the announcement came over the intercom, a dull sense of emotion surrounded us all. It felt like a weight bearing down. The halls were quiet but stirring with an air of uncertainty. I watched as teachers and students wandered the halls in amazement. Was it real? What do we do now? I knew many of our 1,800 students had to be affected. I was afraid we would be hit hard.
I came back into the room and completely devoted my time and attention to Jennifer, still not sure of what I should do or say. Jeffrey, my six-foot senior who was the halfback on the football team, asked to use the phone to see about his aunt. As he ended the conversation with his mother, I noticed several big teardrops falling down his face. He said, "They can't find my aunt." My heart ached for him, and all I knew to do was give him a hug and show him that I cared. He went back to his desk and laid his head down, hoping to find some solace there alone.
Jennifer went through the morning but would come back to my room every few minutes to use the phone. She was with her friends now, and they were doing all they could to console her. Other parents who worked in the downtown area were calling in to the principal's office to let their kids know they were OK, but no word from Jennifer's mom.
At 11 a.m., students chose to stay in during their lunch time, glued to the TV. They wanted to know if there was any hope of survivors. "Who could have done this? Could it be connected to the Gulf War? Does it have anything to do with the Waco disaster? I don't understand. Are there any more survivors?"
There were no answers. Rumors of other bomb threats were spread through out the school, though I had heard nothing of this on the news. In the back of our minds, though, we couldn't keep from worrying, "Could this happen to us?"
By the time lunch was over, stories began pouring in. One student's mother had fallen from the fifth floor to the third but she now was in the hospital recovering. Another student's father had just opened the door to the building at 9:02. The force of the blast blew him away from the site, but he was going to make i
As happy stories unfolded, one of my sophomore students stopped by to tell me her aunt, who worked in the America's Kids Day Care on the second floor, had yet to be found. My heart again was broken. What do you say?
Just before school was out, Jennifer stopped by to tell me she had found her mother, who was uninjured. Although she had been on the second floor during the bombing, she had managed to make it out with just a few cuts and abrasions.
Jeffrey still had no word about his aunt, but the next day he reported that she was in the hospital with cuts and bruises. The student whose aunt was in the day care center had been buried beneath the rubble. When firefighters found her, she was alive and huddled over a little boy, protecting him from the explosion. She had two broken legs.
Joy and heartbreak
There were other close calls with happy endings, such as the early wrap-up of federal trials that spared the daughters of our vice principal and a teacher. Both had been serving jury duty.
But for each bit of good news, there was an equal portion of sadness.
One of our food distributors who we worked with on several projects had left his office at 8:30 a.m. on April 19 to make a deposit at the federal credit union. His body was found the next week.
My children's piano teacher lost her father. A student lost an uncle. An old friend lost her daughter in the explosion.
That day we all lost something. Before we were always safe here in Oklahoma. We continued to stay glued to the TV over the next days, hoping for miracles. We watched the faces of the rescue team as they entered the bombed-out building. They marched in with hope and strength only to come out 12 hours later with a faraway look in their eyes, like returning war veterans.
The teamwork and community involvement that occurred because of this tragedy has strengthened our city. We all pulled together, and we welcome all the help we received. The ribbons we wore expressed our support of The Cause, which was always hope. The blue ribbon stood proudly for our state, the white ribbon for those who had died, the yellow ribbon for the hope of survivors and the purple ribbon for those precious children.
Radio stations around the city asked motorists to turn on their headlights in support. What a touching moment that was as hundreds of cars lined the city streets and highways, lights beaming forth rays of hope.
The burden remains heavy on us all. I'll always remember the drives home from work on the days after the explosion. There were times I'd just start crying. It might be because I had glanced over my shoulder and saw the void in the skyline, or it could be a song on the radio. Then I'd look around me and see that the person in the next car was crying, too.
The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was demolished on Tuesday, May 22, at 7:02 a.m.
Karen Green, a marketing education teacher at Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City, says writing this article was part of her healing process.…