A National Tragedy

An Eyewitness Account

Richard H. Dean

Claims Representative
Social Security Administration
Oklahoma City, OK

photo of Richard Dean

Our staff normally consists of 62 employees; however, at 9:02 on 04/19/95 we had 50 employees on duty. Within minutes nearly one third of our staff (16) and 24 visitors in our reception area had been murdered. Twenty-six of the remaining 34 employees required medical treatment. Four had to be hospitalized; the last, Sharon Littlejohn, being released May 22, 1995.

I was sitting at my desk located against the north wall (NW 5th street) 10 feet east of the large glass windows which exposed the front half of our office and determined the portion of our office located under the additional 8 floors of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I had just finished my first cup of coffee and paper work started the day before. I remember seeing a brilliant flash of light, simultaneous with the sensation of an invisible force pressing me out of my chair to my knees and hearing a huge explosion before everything turned pitch black. I found myself covered with bulky 5 foot square ceiling tiles, shattered glass from light fixtures, modular furniture panels, and overhead doors from my modular credenza unit which had sheared off hitting me in the back. My immediate concern was my ability to see. I thought my eyes were wide open but they were not adjusting to the darkness. Breathing also became difficult due to dust and debris floating in the air. While groping for anything familiar I could hear the cries of individuals trying to free themselves over the roar of what sounded like sliding gravel being dumped from a truck. The cries for help from the front of the office and the sound of the collapsing upper floors stopped simultaneously. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I responded to the cries for help from Claims Representative Sharon Paulsen and Operations Supervisor LaQuita Cowan. They were both covered with 2 to 3 foot piles of rubble and debris. I led them out the emergency exit located in the breakroom at the rear of the office (east end of building). The interior walls surrounding the breakroom had collapsed and the exit door had been blown open providing the only light source for the back half of the office.

I immediately returned, working my way to the center of the office. Aisles and reference points had all but disappeared, debris and rubble was a minimum of 2 to 3 feet deep. Some employees who had been initially knocked unconscious at their workstations were regaining consciousness and slowly making their way to the rear exit. The only light source at the front of the office was the skylight located in the stockroom whose interior walls had also been knocked down. From out of the darkness, Claims Representative Laura Bode grabbed me from the front with both arms around my neck. She was obviously hysterical and disoriented. She had to be carried to the rear exit before she thought about letting go.

During my third trip back into the office my concern turned toward the 8 inch pressurized pipe located above what used to be the office ceiling. The pipe, which provided "chiller water" for the building's entire air conditioning system, had severed and was pouring 42 degree water into the work area. It was apparent anyone trapped on the floor could possibly have drowned. During this period of time an Oklahoma City firefighter appeared and made his way to my location in the center of the office. After indicating my concern for the rising water in the work area, he attempted to radio out but encountered too much interference and had to exit the building. Approximately 20 minutes later the water was finally shut off.

During this third trip I located Sharon Littlejohn, Service Representation, who had been standing in the front of the office. The force of the explosion had blown her 40 feet back from the reception area. She was under 3 to 4 feet of debris and rubble. Her outer clothing had been blown off and she was completely soaked with blood and water. I had to ask her name because she was not recognizable due to significant blood loss in the scalp and facial areas. She also complained she was not able to breathe and requested CPR. It was apparent I could not get her out by myself due to her extensive multiple injuries, blood loss, and shock. I explained to her I needed additional help to get her out and went to the rear of the office where I found Sgt. Richard Williams and Sgt. Keith Simmons of the Oklahoma City Police Dept. It took the 3 of us to carry her out due to the debris we had to climb over and through. (See related photo in The Daily Oklahoman, Thursday, April 20, 1995, bottom of page 15.)

The scene outside the rear exit on Robinson Avenue was frantic. The area surrounding the north, south, and east of the building was saturated with rescue workers, firefighters, police, and ambulance personnel. The streets were congested with the walking wounded. Temporary first aid stations shared opposite corners with burned vehicles.

Later, charter buses were brought in to transfer the walking wounded to area hospitals.

After borrowing a flashlight from an Okla. City firefighter I reentered the building concentrating my search on the front part of the office. Accompanied by 2 Okla. City firefighters, I pointed out areas where employees should have been sitting at the time of the explosion. We found an office visitor partially buried in the rubble. Unfortunately, there was no pulse. Moments later, I discovered my supervisor, Carol Bowers, a dear friend of over 20 years, who had taken a fatal blow to the back of the head.

After several minutes of lifting and removing debris we found Claims Representative Katrina Wreggit, who had recently transferred from West Virginia. She was unable to speak, curled up in a fetal position next to her desk and obviously in severe shock. Due to the distance from the rear exit and concern for her condition, the decision was made to carry her up the ladder through the skylight.

By this time the water had reached a depth of 2 feet in the office area. I continued to search our office area after the Okla. City firefighters received instructions via radio to proceed to the second floor to search for survivors (day care).

Unfortunately, I was not able to find any more survivors among the debris and I exited the building.