Using their hands, shovels and a giant crane, search teams edged closer to the ultimate bomb-blast horror Sunday - a cavity in the ground where up to 125 bodies remain buried under the rubble.
“There’s apprehension, a lot of apprehension,” said Jon Hansen, Oklahoma City’s assistant fire chief, minutes after he had emerged from the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. “We know there’s the possibility of finding a lot of dead children in there. There is not likely to be any survivors. It’ll take a miracle at this point.”
Four days after a terrorist bomb blew away a third of the busy nine-story office building, miracles were on the minds of many Americans. As President and Hillary Clinton joined thousands for a prayer service at the state fairgrounds here, the hunt for bodies was suspended for a moment of silence. Then, amid the noise of jackhammers and the dust from concrete saws, the grisly task was resumed.
The official death toll from the worst terrorist act in U.S. history is 78. But shaken professionals from the country’s elite search and rescue teams have removed enough debris from the blast site that the grim evidence of the bombers’ work is clear. Workers could see the dead, but they couldn’t get them out.
Many of those who remain under slabs of concrete and pinned behind twisted steel are children who had been in the federal building’s second-floor day-care center. So far, the bodies of 13 children have been recovered and identified. About 15 others are reported missing.
But many more people were believed killed in the firstfloor offices of the Social Security Administration, the General Services Administration and the mail room. Others died in nearby buildings.
Hansen said he saw four more dead Sunday in a smaller office building that also housed a restaurant across the street from the federal building.
“This will be a tough day,” Hansen said.
Stormy weather, which included lightning, and worries about the precarious stability of the downtown building have slowed search efforts. Structural engineers directed shoring-up operations to enable rescuers with dogs to enter unexplored parts of the shattered building.
“There is floor-to-ceiling rubble,” said Gail LaRoque, a dog handler with the Sacramento, Calif., search and rescue team. “We are literally crawling through on our hands and knees.”
Searchers spray-paint “DB” (for dead body) or “V” (for victim) with an arrow pointing to where bodies are found.
Although temperatures in the 40s have slowed the rate of decomposition, masked and double-gloved rescuers are taking precautions. After each body is removed from the building and carried to a staging area in a nearby church, Ray Blakeney of the medical examiner’s office said, rescuers must undergo decontamination.
“At this point, it’s the tedious nature of the process, along with apprehension over what they’ll find” that preys on the minds of those working in the building, Blakeney said.
“It’s also frustrating when we can see portions of victims and can’t remove them.”
Rescuers emerging from the building after a two-hour shift said they have been using wheelbarrows and hand scoops to uncover sections of the bomb crater into which debris had fallen
. At times, they are waist-deep in rubble or stooped under cracked slabs of concrete hanging overhead.
Hansen said he expects the search to continue at least a few more days.
“The clock’s working against us. We realize it will be a miracle at this point if anybody is in there alive.”