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OUT OF RUBBLE, NEW RESOLVE
TIM MCVEIGH'S ATTACK LEFT MANY SCARS, BUT A NEW CITY IS EMERGING

The worst day of Florence Rogers' life began with a routine meeting in her third-floor office in the Murrah Federal Office Building.

It was April 19, 1995. Rogers called some aides together to discuss an upcoming audit for the federal employees credit union she supervised.

The easygoing Rogers was known as "Mother Goose," and the women who worked for her as "Flo's girls." They sat in a semi-circle around her desk. About 20 minutes into the meeting, Rogers turned away from her staff for a moment to check something on her computer screen.

When she turned back, at 9:02 a.m., they were gone. Katherine Finley, Jamie Genzer, Valerie Koelsch, Claudette Meek, Jill Randolph, Victoria Texter and Sonja Sanders.

"I didn't even hear the explosion," Rogers recalled. "Suddenly, instead of a ceiling and office walls, all I could see was the blue sky. The building was blown away . . . My people dropped down into the basement. Six floors of rubble collapsed on top of them."

Rogers, 69, now retired, suffered cuts, bruises and a neck injury, but she was the only person in the room to survive the blast. In all, 168 were killed and 500 hurt in what was then the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Ten years ago this week, a truck bomb delivered by Pendleton native Timothy J. McVeigh turned life inside-out for Rogers and other residents of Oklahoma City.

But the attack didn't defeat them.

"We should be known as the community that defeated terrorism," said Kari Watkins, executive director of the national memorial here. "A terrorist tried to divide us and destroy us . . . Instead, it made us stronger."

Since the bombing, the city has mourned its losses, as it will again in a series of ceremonies this week.

Many wounds -- physical and emotional -- have healed.

Signs of a resurgence can be seen in the downtown area, not far from the bomb site. Since the bombing, the community has seen one success story after another.

A beautiful and tranquil national memorial stands on the blast site, turning a place of misery into one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. A half-million people visit the memorial each year, coming from all over the world. A new federal building was constructed nearby.

Major projects were built in the central business district, including a $34 million stadium for the city's Triple-A minor league baseball team, a $22 million library and learning center, an $88 million sports and entertainment venue, and the $26 million Bricktown Canal, which spawned the development of restaurants, night clubs and a Bass Pro store.

Private developers raised $667 million for other projects, including airport renovations, a new art museum and two major medical campuses.

Aside from the Oklahoma City National Memorial, it would be wrong to say that any of the projects were the result of the bombing, said Mayor Mick Cornett, 45, a former television news anchorman. But he believes the bombing united city residents and strengthened their resolve to turn their community into a cosmopolitan 21st century showplace.

"Our attitude here is, when you get knocked down, you grab hands and pull yourselves back up," said Cornett. "I think our religious faith had a lot to do with our recovery. We have 1,200 churches in a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people."

"People here are very strong," said the Rev. Jack Poe, an Oklahoma City Police Department chaplain who has counseled many of the rescuers. "Victims focus on things you can't change. Survivors concentrate on what you can change. We're survivors."

And yet, for many who live here, painful memories won't go away.

Patti L. Hall has physical and emotional scars to remind her.

Eighteen surgeries later

Hall, 67, also worked in the credit union office. Moments before the bomb went off, she left her desk and walked to a closet to get a can of air freshener, because a man with terrible body odor had just left her work area.

"A girl who worked with me, Robbin Huff, sat down at my desk for just a minute, while I was getting the air freshener," Hall said. "When the bomb went off, Robin was killed. She was pregnant. That has haunted me ever since -- survivor guilt. Why did I live?"

But Hall hardly got off easy.

Dug out of the rubble by rescue workers, she was in a coma for more than five weeks. She has had 18 surgeries since the bombing. She walks with a pronounced limp. A metal rod runs from the toes of her left foot to her shin. She still needs medication for sleep, pain and bouts with depression.

Her religious faith, her sense of humor and volunteer work with the Salvation Army have helped Hall to carry on. But she still spends time lamenting her losses.

Hall said she knew at least 100 of the people who died that day.

Message of peace

"It's tough to live in a city where the thing you're known for is a tragedy," said Hall, speaking in a hushed voice during a recent visit to the memorial site. "Every time I come back here, it's hard to imagine this really happened. Every anniversary, I think I'm going to be OK, but it hits me hard."

Emmett "Bud" Welch, 65, whose daughter, Julie Marie, died in the blast, has found his own way to deal with the pain. The bombing turned Welch, a former gas station owner, into an international crusader against the death penalty and human rights violations.

Welch has spoken about human rights in London, Rome, Kenya and dozens of other places all over the world.

"For 11 months after the bombing, I dealt with my situation by drinking. I'd go to the bomb site two or three times a day, with my head splitting from a hangover," Welch said. "Finally, one day, I said, 'What are you doing to change your life?'

"I remembered how Julie was so adamantly opposed to the death penalty. She felt so strongly, she started an Amnesty International chapter in her high school at age 16."

Welch opposed the death penalty, too. He decided that the best way to honor his daughter was to tell the world some of the things she would have said. Welch's crusade has upset some people in Oklahoma City, who believed that both McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols deserved the ultimate punishment.

"I forgave Tim McVeigh before he died," Welch said. "I don't think everyone has to forgive, but if you are able to do it, the feeling you get in your heart is tremendous. I am at peace."

Welch and Hall said they feel solidarity with victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. But, like many Oklahoma bombing victims, they feel their community was financially shortchanged by the federal government.

After 9/1 1, the government gave billions in compensation to people who lost loved ones. Those families received an average tax-free payout of nearly $1.7 million.

No such fund was established for victims in Oklahoma City.

"I have nothing but sympathy for the 9/1 1 victims, but I am bitter toward the government, and the way they treated us," Hall said. "We were attacked by terrorists. We suffered just like they did in 9/1 1."

Only three men -- Army veterans McVeigh, Nichols and Michael Fortier -- were convicted in connection with the bombing.

Conspiracy suspicions

McVeigh was put to death in June 2001. Nichols is serving a life prison term, with no hope of parole. Fortier, who played a lesser role in the crime and became the government's prime witness, was sentenced to 12 years.

McVeigh went to his grave insisting that he alone was the mastermind of the attack, with help from Nichols and minimal help from Fortier.

But many Oklahomans refuse to believe that McVeigh and Nichols alone could pull off such a horrific crime. Federal and state grand juries found no evidence to indict others in the bombing. Cornett and Watkins said the vast majority of people in the community do not believe there was a wider conspiracy.

Hall disagrees. She said she and many victims believe McVeigh had help from other sources.

Charles D. Key, who served in the Oklahoma State Legislature at the time of the bombing, still believes McVeigh had help from terrorists from the Middle East.

Jane E. Graham, an employee of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is also convinced of a larger conspiracy. She suffered partial hearing loss in the bombing and witnessed the deaths of five close co-workers.

Graham believes a second bomb exploded after McVeigh's truck bomb. She said the second bomb was planted in the basement of the building, probably by members of al-Qaida, with help from the government itself.

A half-hour before the explosion, Graham said, she arrived for work and saw two federal agents in "raid jackets," talking to a third man outside the building. She believes the three men had something to do with the bombing.

"People have a hard time believing the government would be involved in killing innocent people," Graham said. "I really believe God saved me because of what I saw and what I know and nobody can ever change that."

She says the government may have gotten involved in order to make a case for the passage of stronger gun control laws.

The government has denied any role in the bombing.

Some of those who believe in a bigger conspiracy plan to protest at the memorial during 10-year anniversary ceremonies on Tuesday. That upsets Tom Kight, an Oklahoma City businessman who lost his stepdaughter, Frankie Ann Merrell, in the blast.

"(Tuesday's) ceremony will be a time to remember the victims. This day is for them," said Kight, who strongly disagrees with the conspiracy theories.

Kight did not hesitate when he was asked what will be on his mind when he visits the memorial for Tuesday's ceremony.

"Frankie," he said.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com
and lmichel@buffnews.com

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