DURING A WEDNESDAY morning jog last April, Oklahoma City clinical psychologist Philip Hyde heard what he thought was a sonic boom. Later that morning, on his way to work, he noticed that every car had its headlights on and the late morning rush hour was reversed, with most traffic heading away from the city. Social worker Pat Murphy had just walked out his door when he heard the boom. His first thought was that there had been a gas explosion. He hurried back into his home, where his wife had already turned on the television, and saw the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building still smoking and crumbling.
Oklahoma City is used to sonic booms, gas explosions, fierce thunderstorms and tornadoes. In fact, city rescue crews had recently held a tornado drill, which probably helped them save many more lives in the hours after the explosion at the Murrah Building. But a terrorist bombing was completely alien to Oklahomans' experience, and in a city where people consider neighbors and community spirit a vital part of their daily lives, the sense of shock and betrayal had a profound effect. Two weeks after the bombing, people in Tulsa, a hundred miles away, were still driving with their headlights on in the daylight to show support.
So many therapists volunteered their services to deal with the psychological aftermath of the Murrah bombing that the problem became one of organizing the outpouring of help rather than recruiting it. The day after the bombing, a central headquarters that was called the "Compassion Center" was set up close to the bombing site, and most volunteer therapists were funneled through there and organized into teams. One team, comprised of therapists and clergymen who had experience with grief counseling, was in charge of notifying the relatives of victims. The work was so stressful that the team members were limited to one two-hour period each day. At the end of every shift, each member of the notification team was required to visit a debriefing team, who gave the therapists an opportunity to vent and, just as important, monitored them for signs of stress. Pat Murphy, working on the debriefing team, had to bring some therapists back from the edge. "You had to set limits for the crisis junkies," he says. "Sometimes you had to force people to take time off, or they'd get exhausted and lose their perspective."
Rescue workers were also encouraged to stop in at the Compassion Center, but many of them felt that they ought to be able to handle the stress by themselves, even though the emotional toll on them was heavy. Working long hours, with on-site massage therapists to help them continue, racing against time to find the day-care children and other potential survivors, they often pulled out body parts, shoes, wedding rings and wallets instead. To counter the sickly sweet smell and taste that hung over the bombsight, workers chewed wintergreen tablets. Later, at home, some workers could still smell or taste the bombsight; others became nauseous when they smelled wintergreen tablets leftover in their pockets.
The therapists who debriefed the rescue workers were also profoundly affected by the experience. For several days, social worker Virginia Dedman watched bodies being pulled out from the rubble, noting that each day there were fewer survivors and
more bodies. Finally, when the rescue workers announced that they were changing the bombing site from a triage center to a morgue, the emotionally exhausted Dedman suddenly lost feeling in her body. She sat down near the rubble and felt waves of shame and guilt wash over her. She could not shake the thought that she was abandoning people.
Dedman had been instrumental in bringing the controversial trauma treatment Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to Oklahoma City. In the days immediately after the bombing, she shared her home and office with EMDR therapists who had flown in from around the country. In some cases, EMDR seemed to have had a powerful effect. …