Remembering the Oklahoma City Bombing
Anthony Fernandez III
Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 179–82
I am a certified fire fighter and paramedic in the state of Florida. Upon separation from active service in the United States Marine Corps in 1986, I transferred into the Marine Corps Reserve. My involvement with fire rescue began in 1988. The fire service afforded me a flexible schedule that allowed me to continue my affiliation and career in the Marine Corps. The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, Miami, Dade County, Florida, is a professional fire rescue service. I was a volunteer member of Florida Task Force–1 (fltf–1) and the canine search and rescue (k-9 sar) unit.
Immediately following the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 19, 1995, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) alerted a number of its urban search and rescue teams around the country. One of those teams, fltf–1, made up of members of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, was notified and placed on alert to respond. As a member of fltf–1, I immediately prepared for possible deployment to Oklahoma City. fema activated fltf–1 and deployed us to Oklahoma City in support of its operations. A U.S. Air Force C-141 military transport aircraft brought the task force directly to Oklahoma City on April 22. The sar k-9s were secured in kennels that were secured to the deck of the aircraft. None of the k-9s had difficulties with the flight, nor were they sedated.
At that point, we, like millions of Americans, knew only what we heard on the news networks. However, the broadcast pictures that we watched would soon become surreal, as they could not convey to the distant viewer the true scope and magnitude of the disaster or its impact on the people of Oklahoma City. We would not see the remains of the Murrah Building until 6 p.m., and later that day, we would be assigned the 6 p.m.–6 a.m. shift. As we slowly made our way toward the site and penetrated each layer of security, we could see the increasing activity. The intense lighting coming from the site signaled our proximity and increased our curiosity as well as out desire to begin working as we were trained to do.
For many members of fltf–1, this was the first experience in responding to such a catastrophe. When we moved toward our staging area directly in front of the building, we were struck by a sight we could not imagine. The building was bathed in light before us, ripped apart, its soul bared for all to see, almost as if it were a once-living thing that had died. It was covered by dust and motionless, with the exception of the multitudes of dwarfed rescue workers climbing about it with urgency. There seemed to be nothing but blackness around the building, and all lights were focused directly on the building’s face. Within the torn building were its inhabitants, possibly some still alive. It would be our job to find and remove them or their remains and return them to their families and neighbors. We would work in the pit, deep in the center and isolated from the world outside. For thirteen nights our unit would work its way down into the pit, where we stayed until dawn.
Each evening, my partner Aspen and I would slowly and carefully make our way down to the pit to begin our task with the squad. Aspen was my second sar k-9. My first was Sierra, also a golden retriever from the same breeder as Aspen, Joyce Davis at Sun Joie kennels. I purchased Aspen from the kennel where I had found Sierra. Aspen was acquired and trained specifically for sar. I chose her for traits she displayed that were those desired for training as a sar k-9. She was an eight-week-old pup, and her training began immediately. In addition to being certified for search and rescue, Aspen was also a certified body recovery k-9 when she was deployed to Oklahoma City. It was Aspen’s first major event, and she was approximately nineteen months old at the time.
Aspen, one of three sar canines from fltf–1, would begin her work by moving with purpose amid the rubble, using her nose to find someone. I knew she would alert me to the remains of those lying dead and trapped, waiting. She was young and skillful; Aspen was focused. She would use her sense of smell to direct us where to dig. When not working, she would rest in a safe area, and sometimes that safe area was only a few feet away. She never displayed depression or sorrow. I was her focus, and she kept a keen eye on me. If I displayed depression or sorrow, she would react as any household pet would. If you come home sad or mad, your pet will find a place out of the way. Come home happy, and the pet wants to play. Out of the public eye, I would play with Aspen to show her that I was fine and that we could keep working.
Our staging area was located next to the Murrah Building. There we staged personnel, equipment, and everything we needed to conduct sar operations (generators, hand tools, hydraulic hammers and spreaders, radios, and water) during our shift. The area was manned by logistical personnel who accounted for and maintained the equipment. In an emergency, it was the rally point where the task force members would report for accountability. Each fema task force had a staging area like ours close to the site. After each shift, rather then riding back on the bus to our billeting area, located across from the Myriad Botanical Gardens downtown, we walked the dogs through town. Before we took care of our needs, we took care of theirs. The dogs would play, run free, swim, and eat, and finally we would bathe them before we would pat the dust off ourselves. That was the method we utilized to destress the dogs each morning when we came off our shifts. A crowd of onlookers would gather on the sidewalk to watch the dogs run and play. The onlookers were intrigued but never interfered with the dogs play unless one of the dogs came up to them. A simple pet or patting from the onlooker and the dogs were off exploring and playing in the grassy field and trees. It was a welcome relief from long hours of working in the pit and the concrete dust that formed like an inescapable fog. 1
The billeting area housed the task forces and other agencies. It was next to the garage of the Southwestern Bell headquarters, where a makeshift commissary was established and we could get health and comfort items, make phone calls home, and eat meals prepared by local volunteers. After we fed the dogs, we would bed them down next to our racks (military-style folding cots) as we saw to our individual needs. The racks were aligned in rows and made up with clean linen. The volunteers who made them up for us would put little chocolates on the pillows, which was their way of making us feel appreciated and welcomed. The k-9s would sleep underneath or next to our racks on their own bedding.
I had seen this carnage before many times. I remember how Kuwait City, Kuwait, looked during the first Gulf War and what was left for us to liberate there just a few years before, in 1990–1991.2 But this was home, and it hit home. We would ponder the possible reasons for such action after our work was done. But I could not for a moment forget the citizens of Oklahoma City. They were as busy as we were; they worked with purpose and calm. It was their city, their building, and their neighbors in there. But they spirited us on as they grieved. They were different. They supported us every moment of our days. They fed us, saw to our every need, and cheered us on. Although they suffered loss, although they were victims, their spirit was boundless. Disasters draw in the curious, the onlookers, people just occupying space. But everyone in Oklahoma City worked; they had a part and they played it. There was no time to be idle; the order of the day was work, to bring their loved ones and neighbors home. They personified what I knew to be the unbreakable American spirit, people with grit and heart. It is their image, not mom’s apple pie, that I thought of while I was in Iraq for seven months. I will remember them always as the reason why I have served in the United States Marine Corps for over twenty-four years and why I was in the pit at Oklahoma City.
I will also remember a morning after a long and hard shift, April 26, 1995. We had completed thirteen long hours and were tired. We had located the remains of one of the victims during the night. It became a quest for us all to free her from the rubble that imprisoned her, and it proved to be a difficult task. We finished an hour after our shift normally ended. We worked our way back out of the pit and out to the staging area. As we prepared to leave for our billeting area, our task force’s assigned public information officer, Lt. Roman Bas, asked us to talk to a media pool a short distance from the Murrah Building. Aspen and the other two canines and their partners began to walk over to the area where the media people were waiting. I instructed the other handlers to give the interviews; I declined as I was exhausted and did not wish to answer the same questions again.
I found a secluded curb across the street and away from the waiting reporters. As the other handlers approached, they were engulfed by reporters and the interviews began. Knowing it would not be over in a few minutes as promised, I sat down on the curb. I placed Aspen between my legs as a safety precaution. We both sat and took in the view of things we had not seen before. At some point I gave in to fatigue and nodded off. I do not know how long I was asleep, seconds, minutes, not long enough. I remember being awakened by a continuous gentle shaking. A gentleman was standing in front of Aspen and me. He said words to the effect of “thank you” or “I just wanted to say thank you.” I acknowledged with a smile and a nod, perhaps I said something in kind. He walked away without saying his name, and I would never see him again, but that was the norm in Oklahoma City at that time: acknowledging greetings, well-wishes, and expressions of gratitude from people we would never see again. As he walked away, I stood up with Aspen at my side and joined by the lead. The interviews were about finished, so I began to walk slowly in the direction we would take back to the billeting area. I was careful to keep a wide berth between the reporters and myself. Several photographers were taking pictures of Aspen and me as we began to walk, and they called to us to come over. As they tried to take photographs, I tried to avoid seeing the cameras and positioned myself between Aspen and the cameras, making any picture useless. I was tired and wanted to care for the canines. The shift was over, and we had completed our daily routine.
It was two nights later when I was approached by a few of my fellow fire fighters on site. They carried newspapers and jeered as they approached. After a few minutes of teasing and laughing—I could not imagine why—they showed me a picture on the front page. It was of Aspen and me sitting on the curb, my head down and Aspen sitting between my legs. My immediate reaction was that this must go away quick, and I hoped that it was a moment I could leave behind me. That did not happen. More newspapers ran pictures of Aspen and me, taken by David Allen or the other two photographers who were near him. It went on for days.
I left a day before the rest of our task force, April 28, 1995. I was returning to Miami to bring Aspen home and to gather my military dress uniform. I was being flown to San Francisco, California, by the Marine Corps to receive an award I had been selected for months earlier. The photo would remain behind in Oklahoma City, and I would carry on as though it had never happened, or so I hoped. Everywhere I went—Miami, Dallas, San Francisco—the photo was there ahead of me. People would walk up to me and congratulate me, ask for an autograph, want answers to their questions. It was inescapable.
When I left Oklahoma City for Miami with Aspen, I arrived to learn that there was a large gathering of reporters at the gate. The American Airlines flight crew tried to help me find a way to avoid the reporters. Before we could execute the plan, our public information officer, Lt. Louis Fernandez, boarded the aircraft and informed me that the fire department director, Chief R. David Paulison (now director of fema) was in the gateway area waiting to greet me, along with the press. I was swarmed and could think only of Aspen and how to keep her from being injured. That scene would repeat itself again and again. I received mail with clippings of the David Allen picture from people around the globe—Europe, South America, Central America, and even the Middle East—as well as from people who had seen it in most major and lesser-known newspapers around the United States. The artist Fred Stone also used the picture as the inspiration for a painting, with my permission.3
However, my memory of Oklahoma City remains that of the ordinary citizens whose lives were thrown into chaos, and how they became heroes. Aspen and I went on to other disasters and missions here at home and some abroad in foreign lands. She matured and demonstrated time and again that she knew what was expected of her. I lost my partner in November 2005 to cancer. Aspen had beaten it once, but the second round proved to be too much. She passed away in her home with her partner at her side. She was a partner I trusted and will miss.4
Anthony “Skip” Fernandez III is a colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserves and a fire fighter and paramedic in the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. He is currently assigned as the assistant chief of staff G-3, operations officer, for the Fourth Marine Division Battle Staff.
2I was a captain and officer in charge (oic) of Supporting Arms Liaison Team–Echo, Second Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, United States Marine Corps, assigned to the First Brigade, Second Armored Division, United States Army, which was then supporting the Marine Expeditionary Force.
3Fred Stone, “What’s New. Partners”—T-shirt, Coffee Mug, and Poster,” http://www.fredstone.com/whatsnew/intro_partners_collection.html.
4lafd (Los Angeles Fire Department) Media & Public Relations, News & Information, blog, “The Passing of a Fire Service Canine Icon,” http://lafd.blogspot.com/2005/11/passing-of-fire-service-canine-icon.html.