Nobody ordered Rebecca Anderson to run for the door when her house shook from the force of the blast. No one demanded this nurse leave her new husband and four children and rush to the heart of chaos, where the injured needed her.
She just had to do it.
So she raced downtown, where a 4,000-pound package of terror had just torn apart a nine-story federal building, burying hundreds of people in a tower of rubble. Rebecca wanted to be there. She wanted to help.
She never got a chance. Shortly after she arrived, she was struck on the head by concrete from the collapsing building. Within hours, she was hospitalized. Within five days, she was dead. She was 37 years old.
Then, she went to the rescue once more: Her great heart was implanted in a sick man’s chest.
On Tuesday, her husband, Fred, her children - ages 10 to 17 - and other family and friends bid farewell to Rebecca Anderson in her hometown of Fort Smith, Ark. As they mourn, they also find solace knowing she died doing a good deed.
“Rarely do we go out of life doing what we want,” Anderson said, puffing on a cigarette, his eyes red with tears and fatigue. “She gave her life doing what she wanted to do.”
“I wish,” he said, “I had half the compassion and heart that she had.”
Rebecca was just beginning a new life when tragedy struck. Divorced, she started nursing school about three years ago and then went to work at the Brookwood Nursing Center.
Her personal life was flourishing, too, thanks, to a husky, blue-eyed truck driver she’d met through a mutual friend. Their first date was Oct. 2, 1993 - Rebecca’s 36th birthday. He had scouted out a restaurant that served her favorite dish, Alaskan king crab. The next day he brought her gladiolas. Nine months later, they stood hand in hand at the church altar.
Both Andersons had work off last Wednesday and were watching television when their house shook. Immediately, Rebecca grabbed some clothes and told her husband they needed to go help.
Though they’d been wed less than nine months, Anderson knew his wife was a determined woman. He would take her to the blast site, and then go off, looking to help where he could.
“If I told her no, I wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said wistfully. “Nobody could change her mind. If she told me it was important, it WAS important.”
When Anderson arrived at the hospital, he said, a doctor showed him X-rays, indicating a severe blow to the back of her head and small hemorrhages. When he entered his wife’s room, she recognized him. “I said, baby, ‘what happened?”’ he recalled. “She said, ‘I don’t remember.”
That night, she lost consciousness.
Over the next five days, her family, including four brothers and a sister, kept vigil, exhilarated when Rebecca answered a command to wiggle her toes, distraught when all the drugs, surgery and modern marvels of medicine couldn’t quell the swelling of her brain.
“Rebecca was fighting so hard to stay alive,” her husband said, his voice breaking. “With all the trauma she had suffered, she surprised people she had lasted so long. I said a word of prayer and said, ‘God, go and take her. It’s OK.’ I said to Rebecca, ‘Quit fighting now. You can go now.’ “
He stops talking, bows his head, covers his eyes with hands and starts sobbing, his shoulders shaking, then leans over to hug his sister-in-law.
Before Rebecca died, her family agreed to donate her organs - something she had stipulated on her license. Her husband said he struggled with that, but knew he had to respect her wishes.
Her sister, Lori, said it was fitting.
“I just couldn’t see all of it being in vain,” she said. “There had to be a reason for the madness.”
Rebecca’s heart was transplanted into a 55-year-old Oklahoma man working at a Louisiana casino - a Coast Guard jet rushed him to Oklahoma City for the surgery. Her kidneys also were donated.
On Monday, as her family prepared to take Rebecca home for her final journey, a package arrived in the mail. Always a planner and a gift buyer, she had ordered five 1995 Christmas ornaments - one for her husband, one for each child.
“It was like she was planning ahead,” her sister said softly, “and she didn’t even know it.”
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