April 26, 1997 in Nation/World

Shock Waves Roar At Mcveigh Trial Prosecution Opens With Earthshaking Explosion Tape, Mother Mourns Dead Toddler, Survivors Relive Horror

Washington Post
 

The violent blast that ripped apart the federal building in Oklahoma City two years ago reverberated through a courtroom here Friday as the government opened its case with the only known recording of the fatal explosion.

Relatives of the victims openly wept as a tape recording of a mundane water rights hearing on April 19, 1995, turned into a chilling five-second tableau of horror. Recorded in a building 100 feet from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the tape begins with a voice routinely explaining the upcoming hearing, which is abruptly interrupted by the deafening blast and frantic screams.

“I thought the whole thing was coming down on us,” said Cynthia Lou Klaver, the government’s first witness, an attorney with the Water Resources Board who was running the meeting. “I didn’t see any way we were going to get out.”

Prosecutors began their case against defendant Timothy J. McVeigh with what is likely to be some of the most emotionally wrenching and graphic testimony of the trial. It included descriptions of the 9:02 a.m bombing by a 28-year-old mother whose toddler son perished in the building’s second-floor day-care center, a former Marine Corps sergeant who narrowly escaped death, a General Services Administration official also grievously wounded, a Housing and Urban Development administrator who lost numerous colleagues and an Oklahoma City television cameraman whose raw video of the pandemonium and heroics of that day was played for a spellbound jury.

The most heart-rending testimony of the day came from Helena Garrett, whose 16-month-old son, Tevin, was among the 15 children who died in the day-care center. Two jurors, a prosecutor and several reporters cried quietly as she described how she frantically tried to get close to the Murrah building and how rescue workers began bringing out the dead and wounded children.

“I didn’t see Tevin. I was screaming,” said Garrett, weeping on the witness stand. “I said, ‘My baby’s in there.”’

As rescue workers lined up tiny bodies at her feet on a walkway covered with debris, Garrett said she told them: “Please don’t lay our babies on the glass. I didn’t realize those babies were dead. … A lady came, a nurse, and she started tagging our babies right there.”

Garrett testified that she didn’t find out that Tevin had died until rescue workers had identified him through fingerprints taken from his Mickey Mouse doll. “I saw him at the funeral home,” said Garrett. “They had a closed casket because he had a severe head injury. I just saw my baby’s feet and his hands. I kissed his feet and I kissed his legs - and I couldn’t go up higher.”

None of Friday’s moving testimony about the bombing, which killed 168 people, ties McVeigh to the crime. But it builds an emotional foundation for the prosecution’s forthcoming presentation of largely dry and circumstantial evidence against the decorated Persian Gulf War veteran.

Witness after witness, all of whom seemed meticulously prepared by the prosecution, described their routines that morning: getting up, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, chatting with spouses, visiting with colleagues as the workday began.

The former Marine, Michael Norfleet, dispassionately described how the bombing “filleted” his right eye and severed two arteries as he stood in an office on the Murrah building’s sixth floor, conversing with two Marine colleagues. “I could feel the life ebbing out of my veins,” said Norfleet, who lost 50 percent of his blood and was within minutes of death when he arrived at St. Anthony’s hospital. “I knew if I stayed in the building, I would die.”

It had earlier seemed “my lucky day,” Norfleet said, when he drove to the Murrah Building and secured a parking space for his truck directly in front - just ahead of a yellow Ryder truck packed with 4,000 pounds of explosives.

Prosecutor Patrick J. Ryan, clearly trying to establish that McVeigh knew he was about to murder a group of toddlers and children, asked Williams to describe what someone at the front of the building would see looking up to the second floor where the day-care center was located.

“You could see the children,” Williams said. “You could see on the windows from time to time, there would be certain occasions - Christmas, Halloween - things would be placed on the windows. You could see the cribs. You could see the children running around. You could see them playing, see the children putting their hands on the windows.”

McVeigh’s attorneys largely gave prosecutors a clear field today, cross-examining witnesses only briefly to establish that they had not seen the defendant at the Murrah building that day. McVeigh watched stoically, betraying no emotion as he listened to the dramatic testimony.

Susan Gail Hunt, 49, the HUD administrator, described in extraordinary detail her casual encounters with more than a dozen colleagues that morning, from helping a new employee gather office supplies to talking about arranging the flowers for another’s upcoming wedding. Over and over, in response to Ryan, she said that was the last time she had seen them alive.


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