This is the time of year when I reflect on April 19, 1995. Twenty years have passed. In some ways, it seems like an eternity. In others, it seems like just yesterday. It was a horrifying day and an uplifting day. I’m sharing my day as I recall it. The quotes are as close as I can recall these 20 years later.
My personal life was in chaos. My husband and I were separated. My cats, dog and I were living in my parents’ house. Mom and Dad were in Florida with their dear friends, Barney and June Mitchell. They had driven from Pensacola to Fort Myers beach/Marco Island to visit my older brother.
I had been fighting either a bad chest cold or bronchitis. My cough was horrible. I had a lot to do at work that day. A coworker, Kim Clark was engaged. We were throwing her a wedding shower on Friday. I had the flowered paper tablecloth in my car. Final details were going to be discussed over lunch.
I had been assigned to oversee a special project at work. The deadline was September 30, but it was enormous. I felt extremely responsible for the success of the project.
Staying home because I was sick just wasn’t an option.
When I woke up that morning, I felt horrible. I sat at the table smoking cigarettes and drinking juice debating on if I was going to do the responsible thing and go work, or stay home. I know, smoking wasn’t very smart when you are sick, but if you have never smoked, you won’t understand. If you do smoke, it makes perfect sense. I have since quit, just fyi.
For the first time in my life, God spoke to me. In a gentle voice, he said, “Stay home and take care of yourself.” Another, harsher, insistent voice said, “Go to work. You have a lot to do.” This dialogue continued for about 10 minutes. Finally, the sweet, gentle voice won and I called Teresa Lauderdale, my boss’s secretary and a friend of mine, and told her I would not be in because I was sick. If I felt better by lunch time, I would be there.
I never spoke to Teresa again. She, our boss, Jim McCarthy and everyone around my desk was killed. Even Kim Clark was killed just weeks shy of her wedding. A mangled nameplate and a few crumpled family photos were all the personal items I have left of my first 6 years with HUD. It is very certain that I would have perished with them had I not been sick that day.
Just after 9, the entire house at 133rd and May shook. The Federal Building took up the block between 4th and 5th streets. So, I was 128 blocks north and about 4 miles west away from the site. The dogs started barking and wouldn’t stop. I stepped outside to see if a large truck had driven by. A woman in the house kitty-corner across the street was on her porch too. We waived and both went back in.
The phone rang. My brother’s ex-wife was on the phone and hollered, “Thank God you are home! They just blew up your building!” I thought she was nuts and said I had to go and hung up. I immediately called the office and the phone just rang and rang. I turned on the TV just in time to see black smoke and hear the newscaster say that the Federal Courthouse had suffered some sort of explosion.
I ran out of the house to the neighbor’s house where I had just seen the wife outside. The news had said that the explosion was at the Federal Courthouse. My cousin was a judge in that building. When the neighbor opened the door, I was standing there in my nightgown, robe, socks, glasses and crazy bed hair. I gasped that the Federal Courthouse had blown up and she pulled me into her house.
There was a very large TV on. As I stared at it, the smoke cleared and I was looking at the bombed out shell of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. My building.
I looked behind me and saw a recliner. I said, “I need to sit.” She said, “Sit”. When I did, I saw a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I said “I need to smoke.” She said “Smoke.”
As I put the lighter back on the table, I saw a telephone. I said, “I need to call my family.” She said, “Use the phone”.
I called my sister Vicki’s office. When the woman answered, I said, “May I speak to Vicki please? This is her sister Jennifer calling.” The woman said that she hadn’t come in yet. I said my thank yous and called Vicki at home. She answered and was obviously upset. She questioned me on where I was. I said at the neighbor’s and she wanted specifics. I couldn’t think straight and said I would go home. After we hung up, I called my sister Melissa’s husband. She was a teacher and it was difficult to reach her during the day. When the woman answered, I said, “Bill Brett, please. This is his sister-in-law Jennifer calling. She started yelling, “She’s on the phone! Bill, she’s on the phone! Jennifer is on the phone!” Bill picked up the phone immediately. He said that he would call the school and they would be over later.
My time at the neighbor’s was over. She walked me home. The answering machine was already blinking like crazy. I spent the next several hours in complete shock. I was overwhelmed at the enormity of the loss of life and the crushing thought of having to rebuild our office when I was the only survivor. Thankfully, the phone continued to ring and I discovered that some of my friends and colleagues survived, or were not in the building at the time.
Family and friends called and showed up throughout the day and into the evening. Every call was very special. I’ll only describe a few that show the intensity of the day.
Before 10 one of my best friends called. Leshia startled me by barking, “You worthless *** government employee! Thank God you didn’t go to work today!” I asked if I had done the right thing or not. Our other close friend Janet was 8 months pregnant. She had called Leshia and told her that she had to find me because she couldn’t given her current state. That is how I understood their conversation. Once Leshia and Janet knew I was safe at home, I felt that I didn’t need to reach out to any other friends. They would handle that for me and they did.
Dwight Davidson was the President of Liberty Mortgage. He had interviewed me as a favor to my father, but hired me because of my resume. I had left Liberty to go to work with my dad at the Department of Housing and Urban Development 6 years before. Mr. Davidson had called to find out about me and to check on my parents. My dad had retired from HUD in February 1993. Fortunately, I answered the phone.
Late in the afternoon, I answered the phone and a woman said, “This is Barbara Shouse from the Fort Worth HUD office. May I speak to Mr. Jaggers?” I said, “Barbara this is Jennifer.” Barbara and I had worked together for several years and she knew many people in our office. She didn’t know how to reach anyone from the office, but had met my dad and found his home number. Not only did she want to find out about me, but also our colleagues.
Throughout the day and evening, I had been calling the Mitchell’s in Florida trying to reach my parents. I knew they would be frantic. The phone lines were jammed and it could take 10 minutes to get a call to go through successfully. About 11 pm, I finally got through and June answered. I said, “June, this is Jennifer and I’m alive.” She said, “That’s good, honey.” I took a deep breath and asked if she knew what was going on. She said she did. I knew she must have been talking about my separation from my husband so I said, “The building was blown up and everyone died. I called in sick, so I’m alive.” She asked if I wanted to talk to my mother. I said, “Yes.” As she passed the phone to my mom, I heard her say, “Phyllis, you need to talk to Jennifer. I don’t know what she is talking about. Barney, turn on the TV. Something must have happened.”
As soon as my mother said hello, I burst into tears for the millionth time that day. My brother irritated my mom, so they had driven straight through from Fort Myers to Pensacola, stopping only for bathroom breaks and gas. I think they ate mostly from drive-through restaurants. None of them had any idea what had happened. Later, Mom told me that God knew that she would have never survived the day not knowing about me so she just knew nothing until I called. My dad retired as the Director of Development and Barney retired as the Chief of Public and Indian Housing. Between the two of them, they had hired the majority of the 35 HUD employees killed that day. They were both crushed with sadness of what had happened.
I never suffered from survivor’s guilt because I firmly believe that God told me to stay home. I’ll never understand why the 168 people had to perish that day, but I do know that it wasn’t my day. Psalm 139 says that God knew the number of days I would walk this earth before I had seen one and I believe that with all of my heart. People have said that I was spared for some great purpose. That thought stressed me for a short time until I realized my only purpose on this earth is to worship and praise God. Everything else is just a bonus.
With the help of many new friends and colleagues, we were able to rebuild the Oklahoma City HUD Office. I like to think that I made positive contributions to that effort. I took early retirement July 31, 2014. That chapter of my career has been written, but the memories of friends and co-workers will always be there.
It seems like I remember that day with complete clarity. I may or may not, but it seems pretty clear now. I’m always willing to tell my story and answer questions. However, I’m always reluctant to be the one to bring it up. Some people are very uncomfortable with the whole subject. I traveled to 22 HUD offices over a year working on a special project from April 2012 to April 2013. I was only asked if I had any connection to the bombing in one office. I might be reading too much into it, but I think that is very telling.
HUD was very good to me and my colleagues. I am grateful that I worked for HUD versus another agency for my entire career, but especially in 1995. 20 years is a long time, but also a very short period of time. Questions will always remain and will never be answered. Some people have healed and are better because they have worked hard to be better. Others have healed and are about the same as they were before. Some have not been able to move beyond that day. A counselor told us that would happen shortly after the bombing. It has proven to be true. I think I fall into the category of being better than I was before and strive to be better, but that is really for others to say.
I could go on for another three pages about the days, weeks and months after April 19, 1995, but I’m going to stop here and leave this chapter about my experience that day. Maybe I’ll share about the days after that day at some other point. However, I really am willing to answer questions so feel free to contact me.
Twenty years later, I still miss my friends. Our office was never quite the same. The one constant is that time keeps marching on. I make the choice to find joy in life and hope to make it a little better for others. I would be remiss if I did not recognize my family and friends who have been there for me every step of the way throughout my life. Without them, life would be a much more difficult struggle and would have fewer blessings!