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Day After Blast, Oklahoma City Reflects on Destruction

By Jesse Katz and Lianne Hart
Los Angeles Times
OKLAHOMA CITY

A thundering, half-ton car bomb blew away nearly half of a nine-story federal building Wednesday in downtown Oklahoma City, killing at least 19 adults and 12 children, leaving 300 people missing and stabbing icy terror into the American heartland.

One 15-year-old girl was saved after 13 hours under the tangled wreckage. But rescuers could see bodies on every floor, and they were certain the death toll would climb. One nurse said: "Children's bodies were mangled and decapitated. There was lots of blood and debris." Another said "school papers and toys were strewn on the floor."

The blast sent a red-orange fireball into the blue prairie sky and rocked the flatlands for 30 miles around. It threw a dirty black cloud of smoke and debris high into the air and hurled shards of glass in every direction around a ragged five-block circle. Cars in the streets nearby burst into flames and exploded. Men and women ran for their lives.

Rescuers, their faces ashen, brought most of the injured, bloody and battered - including children as young as 18 months old - to St. Anthony Hospital, which reported treating more than 200 people for cuts, burns and shattered bones. A nurse, bloodstained and crying, said: "I was shocked to think that someone could do that to small children."

The FBI said it had hundreds of potential suspects. "A number of coincidences have occurred," said spokesman Bob Ricks in Oklahoma City, without elaborating. "But to say that it was one particular group or one individual, we're not anywhere near making a statement with regard to that. We have no indication with regard to group or with regard to reason."

At nightfall, Oklahoma City was eerily reminiscent of Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, when the U.S. Embassy was car-bombed and 62 people were killed. In both cities, the faces of buildings were sheared off. All of central Oklahoma City was under curfew, and national guardsmen patrolled the streets like Beirut militia.

The terror here began at 9:04 a.m., local time.

Hundreds of employees had reported for work at the Alfred P. Murrah Building, which houses offices of agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Social Security, Veterans Affairs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Housing and Urban Development, a federal employees credit union and military recruiting offices.

Many had dropped off their children at a day-care center on the second floor. Employees in other downtown offices had just brought their youngsters to day care at the YMCA nearby.

With a rumble like the wrath of God, a bomb - thought by some authorities to have been in a parked car near the front of the building - exploded and sent the entire north side of the structure crumbling to the ground.

The bomb was a large one, perhaps 1,000 to 1,200 pounds, said John Magaw, director of the ATF. Keating told reporters: "Obviously no amateur did this." He added, bitterly: "Whoever did this was an animal."

He said the FBI told him they were looking for three people in a brown pickup truck. They appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, the governor said. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol issued an all-points bulletin for the trio. One was described as 25 to 30 years old and the other between 35 and 38.

People, some in their underwear because the blast had torn their clothing off, staggered, screaming, out of the building. They were covered with glass, plaster and blood. Many were in tears.

A nurse, Bobby Johnson, 42, was just getting off work at the South Park Medical Center, 4 miles away. He heard the explosion, then what sounded like another one, or perhaps an echo.

"Boom, boom, and the earth shook," he said.

Johnson went home, turned on his TV, saw what had happened and drove to the scene.

"It was awful," he said. "Children's bodies were mangled and decapitated. There was lots of blood and debris."

Another nurse, Rena Keesling, 28, made her way downtown.

Nearly half the Murrah Building was gone, as if a nine-story bite had been taken out of its side. Cables and air ducts dangled from its bare ceilings and shattered bricks.

"I saw decapitated bodies," she said. "Children were just all over. Their school papers and toys were strewn on the floor. One doctor picked up a group picture of the children and burst into tears. She couldn't take it."

Keesling said she saw a pair of women's shoes standing alone, as if someone had been blown out of them.

Emergency workers tried to cover the bodies with blankets, she said, but the wind kept blowing them off.

Christine Johns, a nurse who was part of a team who collected the dead, said she had never in her entire career seen anything like this.

"Babies," she said, "were wrapped around poles."

A priest, Father George Miley, wearing purple vestments and carrying blood-covered latex gloves, arrived to minister to the dead and dying.

"They were all children," he said. "Six babies."

Rescuers began wading into the rubble with chain saws. Periodically they turned them off to listen for moaning, calls for help or other sounds of life. Most often, all they could hear was silence.

At one point, sheriff's deputies told more than 75 doctors and nurses at a triage area nearby that anyone who was still inside had to be dead.