It was the birthmark on the child’s tiny thigh that told Jim Denny he finally had found his son.
There was no other way to tell. There was nothing in the bloodied and bandaged face that resembled 3-year-old Brandon, the boy Denny had sent to the day-care center in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on Wednesday morning.
“Hard to believe a dad can’t identify his own boy,” Denny, smarting with tears, said on Thursday at Presbyterian Hospital, where Brandon was in critical condition with head injuries so severe doctors had to remove a portion of his brain.
For hours after the explosion, Denny and his wife, Claudia, frantically had checked out snatches of descriptions broadcast on television or passed on through telephone conversations with someone who had heard someone else say something about a child who had been found alive.
A television report describing the fiery red hair of a little girl rescued from the rubble was the clue that led the Dennys to their daughter Rebecca, 2, who went to day care with Brandon. They found her at Southwest Medical Center in stable condition with a broken arm and lacerations on one side of her body.
But the hours went by and there was no sign of Brandon. Then, one of Denny’s sons who lives in California was talking on the telephone with a friend in Oklahoma City who had heard that there was an unidentified toddler with strawberry blond hair undergoing surgery at Presbyterian Hospital. Another of Brandon’s brothers, Tim, 23, was first to the hospital but did not think the boy was Brandon. This boy was wearing no shirt and no white Stride Rite lace-up shoes, the kind Brandon always wore.
But the father knew.
“I couldn’t see anything in his face at all - it was all puffed up, all bloody with scratches and stitches and black eyes. But his legs, his little legs. His legs were so clean.”
Others still were looking for their loved ones. The families of some 200 people waited on Thursday, aching for clues about relatives who were in the building but had not been found. Many had spent the night on cots, sleeping bags or metal folding chairs at a Red Cross center set up in St. Luke’s Methodist Church.
Anxiously, they checked each new list Red Cross workers produced of the victims who showed up in hospitals, 432 by late Thursday. But the names of their relatives remained on another list, the names of the missing, scrawled in red crayon on white poster paper and hung on the walls of the cavernous room. Most of them did not cry but sat in stunned silence, as if afraid that letting go would mean accepting the worst.
At about 2 a.m. on Thursday, Tom and Marsha Kight clutched each other. They had been there for hours and would stay through the night, desperate to hear something about their daughter, Frankie Merrell, 23, a teller at the Federal Employees Credit Union on the third floor.
Suddenly, Merrell’s husband, Chuck, rushed over.
“They just played a videotape of the news,” Chuck Merrell said, breathless. “There’s a woman. It’s got to be ‘Frankie.”
Kight stood up weakly. She had heard these hopeful reports before. She went to one of the television sets and watched as the tape was replayed. Slowly, tears streaming from her blue eyes, she returned to her husband.
“It’s not her,” she whispered.
Across the room, a call came on Doris Washington’s cellular phone.
“They just put up a new list,” she told the caller, her son. “But she’s not on that one either.”
Washington and her husband, Jerome, were trying to find Washington’s aunt, Laura Garrison, 61. Garrison did not work in the Murrah building but had gone there on Wednesday morning.
“She just happened to go there to the Social Security office to get herself set up for her retirement in July,” Doris Washington said. “She’s not on any list. She’s not anywhere. We’re assuming she’s still in the rubble somewhere. She has a brother in a wheelchair and she calls him two or three times a day. She hasn’t called.”
The day was marked by acts of great humanity and inhumanity. Neighbors and people from across the state brought piles of diapers, baby formula, clothes and blankets to the Red Cross center. But on Thursday morning, someone called in a bomb threat to Children’s Hospital of Oklahoma, and the hospital, with its share of those wounded in Wednesday’s explosion, had to be evacuated briefly.
Late on Thursday, families waiting at the Red Cross Center said they were told that no more information about the victims would be released until today. Additional forensic experts were being brought in to examine bodies, the families were told.
“They said it was just too confusing, with all the bits and pieces and false hopes,” Kight said. “I guess they’re right. But this is just slow torture.”
At Presbyterian Hospital, the Denny family kept watch over Brandon’s fragile life. Brandon, head wrapped in bandages, face lashed with dark red cuts, lay unconscious in intensive care. Nurses gave him strong pain killers to quiet his flinching and rocking.
Difficult as it was for him, Jim Denny said he wanted people to be viscerally aware of the horror of the bombing. “I want people to understand what this does,” he said. “By maybe looking at Brandon, they can see.”
On Thursday afternoon, Tim Denny asked doctors if he could hold his little brother’s hand, if he could say something to him.
“Hey, Brandon,” he said in a choked voice. “It’s Tim. How you doing, buddy? You be good, O.K., buddy. You be good.”
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