Dust and Tears Attend the Fall of a Tragic Symbol
By Sue Anne Pressley
OKLAHOMA CITY, MAY 23 -- No one applauded, no one cheered, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building tumbled down this morning with a thunderous bang and billows of pale smoke.
For nearly five weeks, the bombed-out shell had dominated this downtown landscape -- as an awful symbol of the tragic events of April 19, and a shrine to the many lives that were lost here. But its demolition was met with a quiet, almost church-like reverence.
"You can't stand to look at something like that forever," said Lawrence Glover, 70, a retired highway department employee from Crowell, Tex., who drove 200 miles to witness the implosion. "It's like when a family member dies and your heart is broken, but you've got to bury them and try to get back to the land of the living. Even when you don't think you ever can."
At first, the hundreds of spectators were shocked into silence by the abrupt roar at 7:01 a.m. as the building folded into itself with the detonation of 150 pounds of strategically placed dynamite. Warning sirens that were supposed to wail at two minutes and at 15 seconds before the implosion were inaudible to many, and for a moment, the sensation of surprise reminded the crowd in some small way of what it must have been like on the morning of the bombing.
In eight seconds, the collapse was complete, reducing the nine-story structure to a compact, 27-foot-tall pile of rubble. But the image of the Murrah building, an open wound of flapping cables, toppled furniture and shattered lives, is burned into the public consciousness forever.
"I had stayed away before now because I felt guilty," said Linda West, 49, of nearby Yukon, Okla., who made her first trip to the building today. "I felt like I was intruding somehow. Now that it's all over, I need some sort of -- it's not closure, because there is no closure on this thing, but it's like going to the cemetery after the funeral. I was listening to a radio talk show about how most people didn't know why they came here, they just felt like they had to. I'm like that. I don't know why, but I had to."
Many of the spectators began to cry quietly as they stared at the smoking, dusty ruins, then drifted back to their cars and trucks and drove away.
Although rescue workers had recovered the bodies of 165 people, including 19 children, from the building, the ruins remain a tomb for at least two, and possibly three, victims. Virginia Thompson's grown sons, Phillip and Ken, watched the demolition from the 15th floor of the nearby Regency Towers with Mayor Ronald J. Norick. Their mother, 56, and Christy Rosas, 22, had worked at the federal credit union on the third floor, and searchers moved in as the dust cleared to make a final attempt to recover their bodies from an area marked with fluorescent orange paint.
"This is a good day for us because we can move on," Phillip Thompson said.
Norick said he feared that a retiree named Alvin Justes, a regular customer at the credit union, might also have died in the bombing. Justes was not reported missing until May 10, after he had missed several doctor's appointments and failed to pay his May rent. Neighbors recalled that he was last seen early on the morning of April 19.
Despite its sad context, the demolition of the Murrah building was judged a great success, "surpassing all expectations," said Doug Loizeaux, vice president of Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix, Md. The firm has razed earthquake-damaged buildings in Mexico City, Scud missile launchers in Hungary and the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.
Today's task was particularly treacherous because of the weakened state of the building -- the bombing had ripped steel reinforcements from the floors, and workers had to spend much time shoring up certain areas -- and the notorious nature of Oklahoma weather. High winds Monday night wreaked havoc with some of the advance work the demolition crews had done, and city officials had feared that the implosion might have to be postponed.
The crews placed explosive charges in 300 locations in the wrecked building, inserting them into small holes drilled into the supports. The charges were wired together and detonated by remote control. The west and east sides folded first, followed by the intact elevator shaft on the south side, and the entire structure collapsed to the north. Built in 1977 at a cost of $14.5 million, the building toppled like a child's toy.
In its last hours, the building was photographed and videotaped with grave industry by spectators who realized they were recording not just a historic event, but an emotional landmark as well. Troops of young children marched through the downtown streets, accompanied by camera-wielding adults. An elderly woman implored a police officer behind a perimeter fence to hand her a small piece of concrete as a memento; he did, and she thanked him profusely.
Paul Limberg, 31, a factory worker who drove 175 miles from Fort Smith, Ark., carefully held a piece of jagged glass blown from a window. He said he has videotaped about 30 hours of news coverage on the bombing, and will never understand the reasoning behind the act. "When I looked at that building, all I could see was the hatred," he said.
No decision has been reached on what to do with the site, but everyone tends to agree there must be a fitting memorial erected to the people who died here. A children's playground has been suggested, or a children's library, or perhaps a tall column with an eternal flame and the names of the victims inscribed on the sides. Many favor a statue modeled after the famous photograph of the firefighter cradling a mortally wounded baby in his arms.
"It doesn't really matter what they choose," said Bruce Ligon, 47, as he watched the smoke and dust settle over the ruins, "because nobody in this town, or in this country either, is ever going to forget what happened."
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