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Amazing place

Terrorism | A decade later, Oklahoma City remembers and worships

Issue: "Rick Santorum: Penn Station," April 30, 2005

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, Florence Rogers finished reading from a computer screen in her office and turned to address seven employees for the last time. Just as the credit union CEO leaned back in her chair, the callous actions of two hate-filled men terminated that meeting-along with the lives of all in attendance but one. "I saw everything fly in the air," Ms. Rogers told WORLD. "And then I saw blue sky all around me. The six floors above us came down in seconds."

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. Ms. Rogers sustained only minor scrapes and bruises but lost 18 of 33 employees. At the time, it was the largest terrorist attack within American borders, and the nation grieved alongside those closely affected. On April 19, Oklahoma City commemorated the 10-year anniversary of a blast that left as much psychological residue as physical destruction.

In the bombing's immediate aftermath, authorities charged with picking through rubble summoned Ms. Rogers to deliver personal effects to families. She vividly recalls returning a purse to one brokenhearted husband who fell to his knees and wept bitterly. Another purse had ultrasound photos inside, evidence of at least one unnamed victim.

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Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have documented numerous other victims outside the official death toll. They found that the divorce rate among city firefighters in the three years after the bombing increased 2.4 times from that in the three years prior. Ms. Rogers, who now chairs a committee that oversees memorial efforts, has witnessed the kind of deep wounds that might explain such a rise: "Some rescuers are just now wanting to talk about it and go downtown. Ten years later and they haven't been down there."

Many survivors avoid the site as well, still haunted with guilt. For them, Ms. Rogers is a source of strength, able to speak frankly of the event without tears. This week, her phone rang incessantly, fellow survivors and victims' families asking her to share a meal-and grandmotherly affection. Ms. Rogers, 69, gladly accommodated whomever she could. "God gave me incredible strength," she said. "He wasn't ready for me to leave this earth yet."

Danny Hinkle, pastor for 27 years of Antioch Christian Church where Ms. Rogers attends, witnessed his surviving congregant undergo a rekindling of faith after the bombing-a change reflected in much of the community. "A good three months after, we still had increased attendance at services," he said.

Other churches recorded similar initial spikes. Within a year, people had largely settled back into their previous routines, but the spiritual impact remains measurable even today. Chuck Garriott, former pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church for 21 years, had several regular attenders confess that the bombing shook them from the trappings of religiosity to true Christian faith.

Even for the Bible Belt, Mr. Garriott recalls the religious nature of the government's public response as striking. Gov. Frank Keating and his wife Cathy organized a Billy Graham-led worship service on the Sunday following the Wednesday attack. Many public leaders attended without outcry over the mixing of church and state. "They could have had a more secular response, but instead they chose to gather people for prayer," Mr. Garriott said. "That struck me."

Remnants of that spiritual legacy were evident this week. Though Tuesday's memorial event was largely secular-with 168 seconds of silence, Dick Cheney as featured speaker and Bill Clinton as guest of honor-the week of remembrance opened on April 17 with Max Lucado attaching moral significance to the tragedy: "What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good." That Sunday-evening candlelight service received almost no media coverage, as reporters chose angles celebrating the human spirit.

Ms. Rogers insists, however, that community-wide reliance on another Spirit has characterized the last 10 years: "In the snap of an eye many people became religious through this. We tend to neglect God until something bad happens to us."

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