Busloads of praying relatives and friends of those who perished in the federal building made a final pilgrimage to the site of the blast Saturday afternoon, marking the beginning of what what they hoped would be a spiritual healing.
Three thousand people whose lives had been shattered by the bombing filed past the gaping wreckage of the building, staring in disbelief at the devastation. Most had not been allowed near the site since the day after the explosion.
They stood first in light drizzle, then under sunny skies, in front of the crater where the bomb had been detonated, demolishing the federal building and wreaking death and destruction for blocks around.
One woman wept uncontrollably as her young daughter stood at her side. “This shouldn’t have happened,” she whispered, her hands covering her eyes. “This just shouldn’t have happened!”
Many clutched red roses, and most stood gazing at the building in silence. Some gave their flowers to the guards to place at a makeshift shrine of teddy bears, poems and photographs.
The families, who arrived in groups ranging in size from two to 60, were kept behind barricades about 40 feet from the building, in order to protect them from any debris that might fall from the building. Oklahoma City Fire Chief Gary Marrs and Assistant Fire Chief Jon A. Hansen collected small chunks of rubble and put them into yellow buckets for the families to take home.
Before the families boarded the buses that would take them to First Christian Church for further counseling, Gov. Frank Keating gave each a package containing a state flag and a blank diary.
Counselors were on hand everywhere, it seemed, to hug family members and offer words of support.
Most families had been given the news of their loved ones by the Medical Examiner’s Office at the First Christian Church. When the last searcher left the building on Thursday night, 164 people had died and two victims were still missing.
At the site of the blast, the abstraction of numbers gave way to the reality of broken concrete.
“Going to the site is the acceptance and acknowledgment that the person has died,” said Barbara Cienfuegos, a clinical social worker from Los Angeles who has been counseling families at the temporary center established at First Christian Church.
“For the families whose loved ones are still missing, it’s an important part. If you are told someone is dead and you don’t actually see the body, being at the site helps the families to see for themselves that this occurred and put it into context.”
But for some, the acceptance has yet to come. Cienfuegos said one woman still refused to believe that a sibling - Cienfuegos would not say whether it was a brother or sister - had died, even after the body had been identified. A man who lost his wife said he just could not bear the pain of visiting the site, so he preferred to grieve at home instead.
“There will come a time when these people can deal with this level of intensity,” Cienfuegos said. “But right now, the thought of going there is just too ravishing for them.”
For the last 18 days, the families have gathered daily at the center, waiting for news about their loved ones, praying for miracles. But as time dragged on and hope for any survivors diminished, their only consolation lay in the grim thought that the bodies of those identified could be given a funeral.
In the process, they have banded together and become family to one another. Those whose relatives had been identified came back daily to offer support to those still waiting to hear. The body of Rheta Long, a secretary at the Department of Agriculture, was recovered last Sunday, but her son, John, still came to the center each day to lend support.
In the room filled with flowers and laden with gifts, he hugged those still waiting and clutched their hands, giving them words of encouragement and reading to them from the thousands of letters arriving from all over the country.
“Once you become a part of somebody’s family, even though you yourself have been blessed with the return of your loved ones, there are still others out there that you care very much for, that you also want to see come to that same conclusion,” Long said.