We Will Never Forget: My seven most memorable stories on the Oklahoma City bombing

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By Bobby Ross Jr.

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, I had just stepped off The Oklahoman’s eighth-floor newsroom elevator when we heard the boom and saw the smoke in the distance.

In all, 168 people died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11 six years later.

Twenty years ago today, my Oklahoman colleagues and I found ourselves covering the biggest story of our lives, even as we joined our grieving community in shedding tears over an unfathomable tragedy.

I was blessed to tell many stories of victims and survivors. Here are links to seven of the most memorable:

1. Neighbor cares for boys when mom doesn’t return

Thirteen-year-old Ricky Hill and his brother Jonathan, 11, waited up late Wednesday hoping to hear from their mother.

Even as they drifted off to sleep, they clung to hope that Army recruiter Lola Renee Bolden, a 40-year-old single parent, had survived a thunderous bomb blast.

But her call never came.

The boys’ distress turned into a real-life nightmare about 1 a.m. Thursday.

That’s when three men and a woman, all clad in their best Army green, arrived at the door with the horrible news.

Neighbor Mechelle Murray, a single parent with children herself, had taken in the next-door neighbor boys when their mother failed to return home.

Even while calming Ricky and Jonathan, Murray had feared the worst.

“I immediately thought, ‘Oh my God, Renee works in that building,’ ” the 38-year-old accounting student said of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

2. Somber vigil taking toll on families

For a third straight day Friday, family members of Rick L. Tomlin and scores of other missing bomb victims maintained an excruciatingly familiar routine: Wait and hope.

“It’s getting a little tense out here,” said Tomlin’s 24-year-old son Richard.

The Piedmont man’s family once again convened at a downtown Oklahoma City church with many other families, anxiously awaiting any word – each passing hour taking its toll.

“We’re three days into it and still waiting,” said the son, from Kansas City, Kan.

Yet the Tomlins, like countless others victimized by the nation’s worst terrorist attack, refused to give up hope.

As the likelihood of finding survivors seemed to dim, a light nevertheless continued to shine in the minds of people like Richard Tomlin. And Caye Allen. And Marian Spears. And Keith Coverdale.

3. Child’s ready smile, affection remembered

Fifteen-month-old Danielle Nicole Bell was asleep when she and her mother arrived at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building about 8:30 a.m. that tragic day.

When Deniece Bell, 28, lifted her daughter out of her car seat, Danielle opened her eyes and leaned her head against her mother’s chest.

As the mom explained Thursday, the blue-eyed, light-brown-haired beauty liked to show affection that way.

Once inside the America’s Kids Day Care, Deniece Bell said she kissed her baby on the forehead, handed her a cup of milk and hurried to work at the post office two buildings away.

“She didn’t like to be away from me,” Bell, a 1985 Douglass High School graduate, said of her daughter, who clutches a stuffed teddy bear in a treasured snapshot.

But Danielle didn’t mind spending Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the federal day care.

Before new management had taken over three weeks earlier, “I used to have to chase her to get her to come home with me,” Bell recalled, laughing. “But she was just getting used to the new one.”

4. Injured fight to rebuild after bombing

More than three weeks after the bombing that nearly killed him, Fred Kubasta leans back in his reclining chair, a yellow blanket covering his propped-up legs.

Flowers, cards and letters, including a child’s note that begins “Dear blasted person,” fill his Nicoma Park living room. These “get well” tokens rest alongside stuffed puppies and rabbits and two teddy bears signed by his No. 1 team, the Dallas Cowboys.

A recently developed snapshot shows Kubasta, in his 10th day at Presbyterian Hospital, trying on Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Irvin’s Super Bowl ring.

“That was the first time I had really seen Fred smile” since the bombing, said his wife, Joan, who believes a guardian angel must have had a hand in her husband’s “miraculous survival. ”

At least 490 people were rushed to Oklahoma City area hospitals in the hectic hours after the April 19 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, a survey by The Oklahoman has found. Not all survived.

That number of injured, higher than previous estimates, does not include the numerous people treated at the scene, or the unknown number who, like Lorri McNiven of Edmond, made it home in a daze, then realized they needed to see their private physician.

Most of those fortunate enough to survive have begun the difficult task of rebuilding their lives.

Only nine bomb victims remain hospitalized.

But, as Kubasta understands all too well, rebuilding won’t be easy.

5. Compassion, closure draw record crowd

On a sunny Mother’s Day perfect for an outing, Laurie Conaway of Norman and her mom, Lynnette Wooten, knew where they wanted to be.

With rescue efforts over and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building’s remains soon to be demolished, they saw Sunday as their last best chance to view a somber piece of history – in person.

“We wanted to see it and take some photographs,” Conaway said. “It really makes it more personal. ”

Thousands of people had the same idea.

People wearing church clothes and Mother’s Day corsages mixed with those clad in shorts, T-shirts and sunglasses.

All stood in silence as they leaned their heads back, blocked the sun with their hands and peered high at the nine-story building where so many died.

An apparent record crowd surrounded the wreckage of the bombed-out federal building on Sunday, getting what Reba Dooley of Idabel described as the “full scope you cannot see on television. ”

“Basically, everybody’s saying it’s the largest crowd they’ve had,” said Sgt. Bill Ward of the Oklahoma City Police Department.

Ward said a picture-perfect holiday, the impending demolition of the federal building and a special memorial service for survivors, friends and family members combined to draw visitors “well into the thousands” to the building destroyed by a truck bomb on April 19.

6. Six miracle children reunited

EDMOND — To the casual observer, they looked like any smiling, cheerful children invited to unwrap Christmas gifts and pull the chubby fellow’s white beard and red suit.

Except, that is, for the scar down 2-year-old Joseph Webber’s face. Or the pint-sized wheelchair carrying 4-year-old Brandon Denny. Or the tube attached to 2-year-old P.J. Allen’s neck.

“They show the battle scars,” Brandon’s father, Jim Denny, said of the six America’s Kids day-care classmates who survived the Oklahoma City bombing. “But they will heal. They will heal in time. ”

Of that, the six miracle children’s parents seemed surer than ever Monday.

Their spirits were raised as all six baby-faced survivors – Joseph, Brandon and P.J. along with Nekia McCloud, Christopher Nguyen and Brandon’s sister, Rebecca – reunited for the first time since April 19.

As the parents explained, a Christmas party at the Boulevard Bowl in Edmond wasn’t the first planned event for all the children.

It was just the first time all their still-recovering bodies cooperated.

“You always think about the ones that didn’t make it,” said P.J.’s grandfather and guardian, Willie Watson. “To see all these babies together, healthy and doing fine, it just kind of almost overwhelms you.”

7. Tears, prayers, bells, headlights offer tributes

With sunglasses concealing her teary eyes, Marsha Ferguson managed a smile Friday as her 23-month-old daughter, Taylor, played with a necklace and talked with strangers.

Oblivious to her mother’s pain on the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the blond toddler jumped playfully onto an older gentleman’s lap and made his tears disappear.

For thousands of Oklahomans, Friday was a day to remember the senseless deaths of 168 people.

For Ferguson, it was that and much more.

“Today’s a day I lost a best friend, and I lost my security,” said the Mustang woman, whose friend, Diana Day, was killed in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

But she, like many, hoped to begin the healing process Friday.

“It’s really bringing a lot of peace,” she said of the numerous public memorial services conducted throughout Oklahoma City and surrounding cities.

And her daughter helped her forget the nightmares of the night before.

“That’s the main reason in having my daughter with me,” she said, “to remind me there’s laughter and life still going on.”

Across the metro area, thousands of Oklahomans and out-of-staters found ways to pay tribute.

Motorists’ headlights shown through the day — and activity almost everywhere stopped at 9:02 a.m.

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UPDATE: I made my first visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in 2015 — and recorded a journalist oral history for the museum’s archives.

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