Barely 14 hours after they called off their mournful search for victims, hundreds of firefighters, police officers and other rescuers Friday stood shoulder to shoulder beside the shattered ruin of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, silent witnesses at a memorial service signaling the end of hope and beginning of healing in this wounded city.
Just before midnight Thursday, exhausted teams of searchers who had spent the last 16 days crawling through the rubble of the building pulled the last of the 164 victims from the wreckage left by the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack. Two more are missing.
But as the living gathered in gauzy sunlight Friday afternoon to remember the dead, they also honored those who worked with such courage and determination inside the building’s jagged skeleton.
As the brittle rasp of drumbeats and a bagpipe dirge echoed off the broken granite ruin, and the rescuers turned and walked away for the last time, scores of spectators watching from behind police lines began a chorus of applause that lasted for more than 20 minutes.
Some in the crowd, their faces streaked with tears, came forward silently to embrace the men and women who had spent so many hours inside the rubble.
“We can’t understand why it happened,” Gov. Frank Keating said, as he stood on the plywood boards that cover the yawning crater left by the bomb and addressed the ranks of searchers.
“The magnitude of our loss and the sadness we feel can’t be described with words. We know we are people of faith and that those who died behind us are with You in paradise.”
But the bomb that had sent hundreds running in terror on April 19, ultimately brought thousands more rushing to help, hold and heal.
Bands of bright orange netting secure the torn front of the nine-story building, hemming in the jumble of file cabinets, doors and heating ducts exposed by the blast.
A large slab of dangling concrete has been lashed securely near the ninth floor, while another large pile of debris presses up against support beams.
Having picked the rest of the building clean, searchers cannot burrow further into that mound of rubble for fear it would make the building’s support columns buckle.
The two missing victims, identified Friday as Christi Rosas, 22, and Virginia Thompson, 56, worked in the Federal Employees Credit Union on the third floor.
Medical examiner Ray Blakeney said the searchers had “a very good idea” where the women’s bodies were and that the FBI would mark the spot with fluorescent paint. When the building is demolished rescuers can make a final effort at retrieving them.