Culture

The Oklahoma City Bombing Remembered

A survivor honors the memories of the Americans who lost their lives.

It was crisp and clear in the pre-dawn morning of April 19th, 1995, as I pulled out of my driveway in Stillwater, Okla., to attend a prayer breakfast at the Myriad Convention Center in Oklahoma City. After breakfast ended at 08:30, I headed for my black Ford Ranger parked in the garage. The command center for the USMC Recruiting Station in Oklahoma City was nearby, on the sixth floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Building. I was a captain in the Marines and a recruiting officer, but as my recruiting duties rarely took me to Oklahoma City, I decided to make an impromptu visit to my commanding officer, Major Don Geving.

I was headed east on Northwest Fifth Street, waiting at a red light at North Harvey Street, with a complete view of the front of the Murrah Building. As I waited, I noticed a yellow Ryder truck parked in the red-lined loading zone directly in front of the building. A young man with a military haircut and wearing a T-shirt and camouflage pants jumped out of the truck and briskly walked away, heading north across the street. I noticed him because he looked as if he could be a young sergeant reporting for duty at one of the several military-recruiting commands in the building. I hoped he wasn’t a Marine: He was out of uniform and had parked his truck in an unauthorized space.

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The light turned green, and I was thankful to find a prime (and legal) parking spot just in front of the Ryder truck. Walking between my Ranger and the illegally parked truck, I walked into the Murrah Building. I thought it was my lucky day: Here I had just found the perfect parking space, and now the elevator was empty, open, and waiting to take me up to the sixth floor, where my command was located.

As I entered the command, Sergeant Benjamin Davis greeted me with excited anticipation. The married father of one had recently completed college and had applied to the Meritorious Commissioning Program to become a Marine officer. The promotion board had met the day before, and now Davis asked me if I would call Marine headquarters to find out if he had been selected. I went to the desk of the operations officer, Captain Matthew Cooper, who had stepped away briefly, and used his phone to make the call. I got a busy signal, and I told Davis I would try again after my visit with the commanding officer. As I left the room, Captain Randy Guzman, 28, our executive officer and a personal friend of mine, entered and sat in the chair I had just vacated to answer an incoming call.

The adjacent office was our supply section, where I sat down and began to catch up with Sergeant Tad Snidecor, 25. Sitting next to him was the supply chief, Gunnery Sergeant Earl Bussell. As I sat down, the 5,000-pound fertilizer bomb in the Ryder truck six floors below exploded.

The concussion of the bomb left me conscious but grayed-out, temporarily losing my vision. When my vision did return, there wasn’t much of it to speak of. I could see nothing out of my right eye, and blood flowing into my left eye from scalp lacerations made my field of vision so narrow I could see only the floor in front of me. The bomb had shattered the glass façade of the building, sending thousands of glass shards hurtling throughout the building. A large piece lodged in my right eye, filleting it open. As the glass shards were finding their victims, the massive force of the bomb destroyed the support columns, and the building began to implode, one floor collapsing onto the one below it. Once the sound of the blast faded away, Snidecor yelled out, “It must be an exploded gas main.” I was sitting just a couple of feet to the good side of the only support column left standing. The impact of the collapsing building threw me into the west wall of the building, fracturing my skull, breaking my nose, severing two arteries, and leaving me unconscious.

After a time, I don’t know how long, I came to. As I stood up, dazed and in shock from the loss of blood, Sergeant Snidecor spoke to me and said, “Captain Norfleet, you look really bad; let me help you.” He cleared off his desk, laid me down on it, and began administering first aid. There comes a time in a man’s life when he realizes death is upon him if he doesn’t take action. This was one of those times. Sergeant Snidecor and Gunnery Sergeant Bussell tried to carry me out, but the gunny’s injuries were too severe — his left thigh was cut to the bone and his left arm was bleeding profusely from glass wounds — and I was repeatedly dropped. We decided the best plan of action was for me to walk out on my own power. (Sergeant Snidecor and Captain Cooper were later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Navy’s highest non-combat award for heroism. Sergeant Snidecor was recognized as the Marine Corps Sergeant of the Year in 1995 for his heroic actions that day.)

In shock, dazed, a hunk of glass in my right eye, I did not realize that 80 percent of the building lay in a pit six floors down. All I saw in my limited vision was a bright red trail of oxygenated blood lying on top of the fine layer of dust that had settled on the floor. It was a miracle that the back stairs were intact. I walked down, and as I exited the back of the building, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol lieutenant spoke to me and pointed me to one of the first ambulances on the scene.

The ambulance drove me the few short blocks to St. Anthony’s Hospital, and I was immediately taken to triage and on to surgery. Later I found out that my check-in blood pressure was 50/0 and I was well on my way to becoming the 169th death from the Oklahoma City bombing. Before the surgeon put me under, I implored the attending nurse to write my wife’s phone number on her arm.

Jamie was seven months’ pregnant with our daughter, Morgan, and had just arrived home with our 16-month-old son, Paul, after dropping off our four-year-old, Matthew, at a Mother’s Day Out program. It turned out not to be the kind of day out she was expecting. As Jamie got inside the door, the phone rang; it was a woman from her prayer group, Ginger Adams, calling to start a prayer chain for the victims of the morning’s bombing. By this point, Oklahoma City traffic helicopters were in the air and sending footage of the gruesome scene at the Murrah Building to the local television stations. After a few moments, Jamie recognized the building, saw my demolished black Ford Ranger parked outside, and dropped the phone.

The ladies of the church immediately coalesced around Jamie, who they could only assume was a newly minted widow. When my wife tried to call the mobile phone in my truck and got no answer, this only confirmed her worst fears. Marines, dressed in recruiters’ Blue Deltas, soon showed up at the front door. She didn’t let them in, fearing what they were going to tell her. After assuring her they had no news and were only there for support, she let them in. Five long hours stretched by while I was in surgery before the attending nurse called the number written on her arm to let my wife know I was alive but in critical condition.

Her sister’s mother-in-law drove Jamie the 70 miles to Oklahoma City to be by my side. En route to the hospital, they drove by the smoldering building and saw the babies who had been killed in the blast being laid on the dust-and-glass-strewn sidewalk. A mother’s voice pierced the din, pleading with rescue workers to clean the sidewalk and not lay the babies in the dirt and glass. Amid the despair and the chaos, Jamie started to have contractions, which quickly escalated into full-blown labor. Fortunately, she was already on her way to St. Anthony’s Hospital.

The scene at St. Anthony’s was heart-wrenching, as family members were crowded around the entrance pleading for information. Jamie was thankful to know her husband was alive, but she was frantic to find me, and she ignored the increasingly intense labor pains. A doctor she spoke with realized she was in full labor and told her, “Honey, you need to visit the maternity ward before you can see your husband.” Thankfully, the maternity-ward staff was able to stop the contractions, and our bombing baby was born at full term two months later.

The next morning, the surgeon made his rounds. With tears in his eyes, he told Jamie that he was surprised and relieved that I had made it through the night. The same morning, Marine Corps Commandant Carl Mundy visited our family to offer his support and encouragement. After my condition stabilized the following day, I was discharged with the orders to go home and grow blood. Six months later, the Marine Corps medically discharged me for injuries sustained in the bombing.

The rescue efforts continued for weeks after my discharge. Marine Reserve First Sergeant Michael Curtin of the NYPD assisted in the recovery. In an effort to find the Marines still missing, Curtin gained special permission to search in the probable location of the demolished recruiting station. Recognizing the blood-red stripe of a Marine Corps dress-blue uniform, he found Captain Guzman in the rubble still holding onto the phone I had used just ten seconds before him. Curtin soon found another fallen brother Marine — Sergeant Davis, who I later learned had been selected to attend Officer Candidates School. Six years later, on September 11, 2001, First Sergeant Curtin would be running into battle at another attacked American building. At New York’s World Trade Center, he would offer the ultimate sacrifice, as so many Marines had before him. His remains were never found.

It is a humbling experience to tell the august story of brave Marines who gave their lives in defense of their country, and an honor to keep their memories alive. May God bless America.

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