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Families of Missing Victims Begin to Accept Inevitable

By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times
OKLAHOMA CITY

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating had an emotional meeting Monday with several hundred family members of people still missing in the bombed-out Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building as rescue workers prepared to start using heavy equipment, including a giant set of mechanical jaws, on the remaining debris.

Keating said the use of the machinery, which increases the risk of bodies being damaged or buried - does not indicate that searchers are abandoning efforts to find the missing victims.

"These are our neighbors and friends," Keating said. "We want to retrieve their bodies intact."

Still, implicit in the switch to heavy equipment is an assumption that none of the missing, still numbering 40, is still alive and that more delicate removal methods are no longer needed.

Sharon Parker, whose husband is lost in the debris, said she understood that it no longer is reasonable to expect firefighters to risk their lives by going into an unstable building to find persons who are probably dead.

"The last thing we want is for more people to die in that building," she said. "I wish they didn't have to do it (with machinery), but I prayed on it and I know they have no choice."

This marked a grim stage in the unfolding story of the April 19 blast and clearly outlined the scope of its expected death toll: about 178.

"For the first time I have seen a look next to despair in the faces of the family members who are still waiting," said John Long, whose mother, Rheta, a secretary, was killed in the blast. "Amid this despair, there is still understanding that there are limits to everything, including this search."

"The families have begun to realize that there's no hope," said Parker, whose husband, Jerry, was a civil engineer with the federal highway agency.

Keating met with the family members at the First Christian Church, where they have been receiving counseling since the day after the blast. Several participants said many of those present wept but none showed anger at the change in the recovery process. Some had been taken aback by Keating announcement Sunday night about the heavy equipment, but Monday they expressed gratitude for the exhaustive rescue efforts.

Engineers have concluded that a large portion of the building where many of the bodies are thought to be trapped is too unstable for firefighters to approach, despite efforts at shoring it up.

One of the first pieces of heavy equipment to be used is a track-hoe outfitted with a long claw to grab massive hunks of concrete and hoist them clear of the site where they can be examined for remains.

In the process, there is the likelihood that bodies may be damaged or even buried beneath shifting concrete.

Until now, the sifting of debris has been done by hand, using jackhammers and saws. Firefighters formed bucket-brigades to remove the small chunks and pieces without causing shifting or sliding in the rubble.

Ray Blakeney, director of operations for the Oklahoma state medical examiner's office, said that the remaining victims were probably all killed instantly by the explosion. As of late Monday, the number of bodies recovered stood at 137, including 15 children.

The Rev. Mike Hays, among the local clergy counseling the families, said that Monday represented a turning point in getting them ready to accept that their loved ones are dead and that all their bodies may never be found.

Just a day earlier, Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen had held out hope that shoring-up efforts by structural engineers would succeed in stabilizing the building and allow rescue workers to re-enter the area known as "the pit" to search for bodies.

Monday, Hansen sought to put an upbeat interpretation on the change. "There's no way we're going to give up," he said. "We just can't get humans in there so we're going to use equipment."