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Federal Diary

10 Years Later, Hope Has A Home in Oklahoma City

By Stephen Barr
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C02

This morning, Richard Williams plans to be in church, speaking about the importance of hope and faith. He is a survivor of the April 19, 1995, truck bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

"Yes, it has been difficult," Williams said of the last decade. "But throughout this time, hope has been our goal -- that things will get better, that we will understand the impact of violence, that people will heal."

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He added: "We want people to know what happened here and never forget it. But we also want them to know and understand what we've accomplished in the last 10 years."

One of the accomplishments is the Oklahoma City National Memorial, with its field of empty chairs that are reminders of each life lost. This week, the memorial is sponsoring a National Week of Hope that will include a remembrance ceremony and an address by Vice President Cheney.

Kari Watkins, executive director of the memorial, said she is proud of "how people have picked up their lives and moved on." One of this week's goals, she said, "is trying to make sure that people understand that the hardest part is to remember. . . . Remembering and being forced to remember is often the hardest route."

It was a horrific day. On that April morning, Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck, loaded with explosives, in front of the Murrah building. At 9:02 a.m., a blast demolished the north side of the building.

The numbers give a sense of the horror: 168 killed; 850 injured; 30 children orphaned; 219 children lost a parent; 7,000 people with no place to work. Records show that 98 of those killed and 140 of those injured were federal employees and that three of the dead and 126 of the injured were state employees.

Six years after the bombing, McVeigh was put to death by lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

On the morning of the attack, Williams was in his ground-floor office at the Murrah building. He had started his career at Murrah as a maintenance engineer with the General Services Administration and had moved up to become the assistant building manager.

His office was only 70 feet from the explosion. He has no memories of what happened after the blast. He later learned that he was pulled from the rubble by a police officer.

Williams, who retired two years ago, worked for the GSA eight more years after the bombing. Along the way, he chaired a committee for the memorial, which is on the site of the Murrah building, and he serves as a volunteer there.

He believes the Oklahoma City bombing "brought a little more respect to government workers. The public realized that sometimes we are in danger because of the work that we do, the fact that we were targets . . . and brought to life that this could happen anywhere."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development lost 35 employees in the bombing, and some of the surviving employees probably will stay away from this week's ceremonies as they have past events, said Jennifer Parsley, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3138.

Fifteen employees have chosen to stay at an alternative work site two miles from the memorial, she said. Most of HUD's 110 Oklahoma City employees have moved into a new federal building near the memorial. Still, Parsley said, "there are people in the federal building who are not happy there. They have a lot of fears. They are very uncomfortable."

Diane Leonard understands those feelings. Her husband, Don, was a Secret Service agent killed in the bombing. "All the things that occurred during that time are still so vivid in our minds -- etched in our memories forever," she said.

After the bombing, she came to Washington to lobby, successfully, for changes in the federal appeals process and in rules that barred family members who gave pretrial testimony from attending trials. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, she went to New York six times to assist families.

"There is hope, no matter how difficult an event that you experience," she said.

Leonard said she has learned "that the sun can shine again, and I've learned that there are gifts from tragedy, not that they outweigh the tragedy, but that they make it more bearable."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this column.

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