'I Thought I Was Going to Die': Tim McVeigh's Victims Tell Their Stories of Survival as He Heads to the Death Chamber

Newsweek, June 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

'I Thought I Was Going to Die': Tim McVeigh's Victims Tell Their Stories of Survival as He Heads to the Death Chamber


The wait was finally over. Last week Timothy McVeigh at last abandoned his final appeals, dismissed his lawyers and resigned himself to the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind. To many Americans, McVeigh's execution is the last act in a long, bitter drama. But for many in Oklahoma City, the anguish of April 19, 1995, will never recede. Paul Heath was working in room 522 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when McVeigh's devastating bomb ripped through nine stories of steel and concrete. "I thought, 'God, I don't want to die like this'," he remembers. Heath made it out alive; 168 men, women and children did not. Survivors and the families of those killed are still living through the aftershocks of the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in our history--battling addiction, finding faith, coping with loss. On the eve of McVeigh's scheduled execution, eight survivors shared their stories with NEWSWEEK. Together, their voices provide a harrowing timeline of that terrible day--and of a tragedy's echoes. Here are their stories.

The Doctor Carl Spengler A third-year resident in emergency medicine, Spengler was just blocks from the Murrah building on the morning of the bombing. We went to breakfast, and we were just sitting there talking, and all of a sudden it felt like the building about got knocked over. A man, seconds after the bomb went off, opened the door and said, "I think the Federal Building just collapsed." So I got up, and by the time I got to the door, debris was landing in the street. So we drove four, five, six blocks, but we couldn't go any farther because there was so much debris in the street. I was standing looking at half this building gone, and I kept thinking I was going to see hundreds of people in the building screaming and hollering. Except for one car alarm going off, and the fire burning in the parking lot next to it, you could hear the birds singing. It was absolutely that quiet. The Cop Don Hull He has spent 14 years as a hostage negotiator with the Oklahoma City Police Department. But on the morning of the Murrah bombing, Hull found himself performing an entirely different task: trying to find life amid the rubble. You'd be going along, and then you'd see a body part kind of sticking out of a pile of stuff. You'd dig that person out. They weren't alive. You'd feel this dripping, like water was dripping on you, but it wasn't water. My worst nightmare to this day: my daughter was 3 at the time, and I remember going through the rubble and I found a hand. Just a hand. And it was--it fit in the palm of my hand. And I dug and I dug, because I had to find the rest that went with this hand. I never did. But that bothered me more than anything. Because that hand was the exact same size as my daughter's. The New Mother Amy Petty Tim McVeigh's bomb buried the 28-year-old federal-credit-union employee under tons of rubble. Her brush with death convinced her, after 12 years of marriage, to have a child. But Petty is still plagued by feelings of survivor's guilt. I think the very most difficult part was returning to work. When you lose that much staff, there's people who don't know what's going on, that kind of thing. You know, sitting around in a staff meeting and looking at all these people and thinking, "Who are you? You aren't supposed to be here." Kind of almost resentment... [of] the new people, the new hires. You want the old people back. I'm now vice president of operations. It's kind of bittersweet. Because every time I get a promotion I think, "So-and-so would have been in line for this next." That's kind of hard to take sometimes.

While I was trapped that six and a half hours I honestly thought I was going to die. What made me decide to have a child was those moments thinking, "This is it. I'm dying." And those little regrets that you regretted in life. I thought, "Gosh, I never had any children. I never experienced that part [of life]." Didn't even know I wanted to until I thought this was it. …

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