The Bomb, the Bodies and PTSD

Today I wanted to present a topic that is usually very difficult for many police officer to discuss.  It is job-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  In law enforcement it is not talked about too often because the onset of symptoms happen slower then those in the military.  Many experts and official studies report that approximately 18% of all officers suffer from symptoms of PTSD (estimated 200,000 officers out of 850,000). The non-profit organization “Badge of Life” has researched and found “There are no departments across the nation that admit PTSD was a cause of any police death” yet suicide is leading cause of death in officers across the nation.  The chances of the onset of PTSD can affect harder working officers as it is calculated by the frequency one is involved with or witnesses traumatic events.  So those that work in “high crime” areas are more susceptible.  This does not only affect the officer.  It causes problems with their families and the public who could receive the brunt of their outburst (verbal or physical). I believe there is a direct connection between PTSD and those habitual offenders of excessive force.  Please know officers in general are a special breed that run toward gunfire and danger risking their lives for strangers.

Many officers internalize their anxiety, fear and hide their emotions so not to be ridiculed by their peers or identified as being weak.

I wanted to share this story in which I did that exact thing: April 19th, 1995 is a day that is forever etched in my mind.  Not just because it was my 25th birthday… I was a police officer with the Oklahoma City Police Department and one of four officers inside the federal court house at the time a truck-bomb exploded, destroying the Alfred P. Murrah federal building across the street.  When I look back at the start of the day I remember it was the most beautiful morning of the season.  The wind rolled across my face ever so gently and the smell of spring was in the air.  The perfect day brought calm although I was walking at a brisk pace trying not to be late for the hearing.  I’ve testified many times as a police officer in my five years of service, but this one was different.  I was one of four Oklahoma City police officers scheduled for a civil trial that day.

I walked up the east side of the federal courthouse dressed in my class A uniform which was appropriate for the occasion.  I felt good about the case yet still bummed out that I had to spend my birthday in court.  I knew it was just part of the job and that’s just what cops do.  I knew I would not always have good days, and some would be inconvenient.  Anyway, I made it to the glass front doors and walked through them at just about 8:50AM knowing I had ten minutes to spare.  I spoke to the security officer just inside the entrance and placed my firearm in one of the lockboxes on the wall.  Finally, I made it to the courtroom and took the open seat at the defense table.  Everyone was there except the jury who had just been asked to step out so the lawyers on both sides could speak to the judge in private about a pending motion.

 

We heard a BOMB!

The lawyers had just returned to our table and took their seats. They were just about to tell us what the fuss was all about. All of a sudden I felt like the back of my chair broke. But it was stranger than that as all of us were pushed back in our chairs simultaneously by what felt like an invisible force that we later found was the concussion of the blast.  We all had our eyes and mouths wide open as we pulled ourselves forward almost immediately. I then heard the loudest sound I ever heard in my life. It was ten times louder than any sound of thunder I could remember. It was overwhelming and presented itself with a distinctive “BOOM!”  As the sound seemed to dissipate the room started violently shaking forcing us to apply a death grip on the edge of the table.  I had never felt an earthquake before, but I knew it had to be that or an airplane crashed into our building. None of us knew what was going on, yet we all had a similar look of fear upon our faces.  Tiles, light fixtures and anything that wasn’t nailed down hit the floor.  We were all initially silent and looked at each other in disbelief.  The silence was broken by the judge who slammed down his gavel and stated, “Recess, that was a BOMB!”

Now, it seemed strange that we remained in our seats.  At that moment we all knew what it was, but it did seem like we needed the calm voice and direction of the judge to literally wake us out of our daze.  I remember letting out a nervous laugh because of the statement.  I thought to myself, “You don’t have to tell a brother twice!” I then jumped out of my chair like it was on fire and towards the two large wooden doors of the courtroom.

I grabbed one of the brass handles like I was about to snatch the door open, yet I slowly pulled it towards me like I needed to be quiet.  I still did not know what I would find beyond the doors.  I was stuck in thought… Was it an individual upset about a civil trial?  Was it an disgruntled worker with a personal vendetta? Was it a gas explosion? I just didn’t know, so I peeked out into the now dimly lit and smoke filled hall. I looked right, then left but saw no one.  I didn’t even see any of the employees, jurors, or other judges.  It was an eerie silence.  I looked back over my shoulder to see if anyone was wanting to take lead. They were all just lined up behind me with those “Why don’t you go first” eyes.  There was no verbal communication at all between us. I shook my head and stepped out slowly.

The light fixtures in the hall were hanging and the fluorescent bulbs buzzing as they flickered in no particular order.  Some had fallen onto the now dust-covered tile. I could feel the broken glass crunch beneath the tread of my boots with every careful step.  I moved with tactical purpose yet it felt more like a snails pace. I was moving so slow I felt like I had slipped into a slight dream state.  I absolutely forgot the other nine people were behind me.  I could see the sunlight pushing through the smoke as a few ceiling tiles finished falling to the floor.

 

Making my way out

I finally made it to the main hall that I entered earlier and believe it or not I slowed my movements even more.  I allowed only a portion of my forehead and my left eye to be exposed just in case someone was there.  Again I saw no one. The security officer was gone. No people were gathered out front.  I still felt very alone and thought it was an extension of my dream.  There was glass all over the floor. The doors and glass front was blown completely out.  Now that I could see sunlight I felt drawn to quicken my pace. I began shuffling through the glass just trying to get out of the building.  As I made it to the door frames and was about to step outside I was jarred out of my temporary stupor by a familiar voice.  It was one of the officers that was in court with me.  He said, “Soup! Don’t forget your gun!”  Soup was a name I was given in the academy by one of the instructors which was known only by my very good friends at that point.  It helped to make me snap back to reality. I turned towards the gun lockers on the wall and thought, “That’s right… I’m a cop and I’ll need that!”

I got my gun and walked out behind the others to the sidewalk.  I was breathing easier as we bunched together like it was a fire drill. I looked initially at all the broken windows of the courthouse. There was a woman starring with her mouth open looking across the street that caught our attention. She said, “Oh my God the children!  There are children in that building.” She pointed across the street to a building that was not familiar to me, but now a structure I will never forget.  We all looked at heavy black smoke bellowing over the roof and through blown out windows on the south side of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building.

One officer with us got on his radio to report an explosion at the federal building.  We all started to run across the street and it seemed almost in an instant I could hear the sounds associated with a “true emergency”.  I was wide awake now receiving a big dose of “unbelievable”.  The sounds of screams from all directions seemed to be in strange harmony with the sirens of emergency vehicles. People were running  away from both buildings now.  The four of us ran in the direction of the south courtyard.  We split up and ran towards the concrete steps that led to the south entrances, located near the corners.  We had no plan in place and were operating in auto-pilot; we just reacted knowing we needed to help.  My partners went into the other portion of the building and into the basement through the southeast entrance.  They spent the next couple of hours pulling people from the rubble on their side.  These true heroes I never saw again that day.

I made it to the top step opening into the courtyard as we were met by the initial drove of the walking wounded who had just exited the south doors.  There were a lot of people, some walking and others running away with “the fear of God” expressions stuck on their faces. The walking wounded were pouring out just trying to create distance without any communication.  And those that didn’t look to bad we did not try to stop.

 

The horror was unreal 

The first person I met which stopped my forward moment was a little white haired woman walking slowly.  She was obviously in shock, but I didn’t notice a hair out of place nor did she have a disheveled appearance. Nothing seemed to be wrong until I took a closer look.  It was a dark red void where her left eye used to be.  The lens of her glasses was also gone on that side.  She had stopped in front of me and was calm. I said, “Ma’am you’re going to be okay.”  She said, “Officer I’m alright. I’m just having a little trouble seeing is all.”  I grabbed her by her arm and escorted her to the street. An ambulance had just pulled up and I told her they would take care of her. When they looked at me I stepped just behind her and motioned to the medics to look at her eye.

They took her off my hands as I darted back up the stairs.  Others were still walking and running in all directions with dust on there faces and blood on their clothes.   I could see a large hole in the middle of the building and the southwest entrance. People that looked to be without injury or had superficial injuries were spilling out of the building.  I went just inside the opening. There was a set of stairs that went downward. I looked down and saw it was dark and flooding had begun from broken pipes.  I didn’t have a flashlight so I decided to go up.  At that time I had no clue that I was actually looking into the second floor that had collapsed into the basement. I made the right decision due to the instability of the structure.

I started up and was met by a man walking down from the upper floors who had turned the corner and it stopped me in my tracks.  Each step of his was deliberate and can only be described as “zombie-like”.  He was leading with both hands stretched in a 45 degree angle and he was moaning like he was a mummy in a Hollywood movie.  I looked at his face because I thought he had a weird looking veil on.  That’s not what it was it at all. It was the layers of skin that had literally been blown away from the muscle in his face yet still connected to his hairline near the forehead.  It was strange looking to me that the whole unit of skin rested upon the tip of his nose; like a square Halloween mask.  He continued to moan and he too had bloody voids where his eyes once were and a few droplets of blood on the outside corners.  They looked like red tears.  I felt so sorry for him. I told him I was going to get him help and grabbed his left biceps.  He grunted in pain, “MMMMM!” and I realized the bones in his arms were shattered.  I snatched my hand back and just told him, “Sir I got you.  Just keep following the sound of my voice.  I’ll get you help.”  We made it to the roadway and more ambulances were starting to arrive.  I flagged one down and pointed at my guy and stated, “Hey guys. You have to take this one to the hospital now.”  They loaded him up and I headed back in.

The first time I felt scared in years

When I got to the entrance this time I saw a few men in utility uniforms and another officer I knew (Sgt. Barry Clark). They were standing near the opening.  As I approached one of the workers looked at us and stated, “Someone has to open up the elevator doors and see if anyone is trapped. I then noticed his shirt was embroidered with his name and “Elevator Maintenance” written on it. I looked at Barry and we agreed to do it with his assistance because he would be more familiar with how to access them.  The three of us went floor by floor and checked the elevators. Each landing seemed to be structurally sound until we reached the top floor.  It was at that time that reality set in and I was standing in a spot that allowed me to truly see the devastation.  The front of the building was gone.  I was in a place that was considered the middle of the hall yet it was now the edge and a jagged drop-off.  Barry and I looked at each other then at the first responders out front climbing up rubble trying to get trapped people down.  We had no way to get to their position where we were.  It looked like a scene straight out of the Middle East. I figured whatever caused that had to be big.  I was overwhelmed by what I was looking at.  I was trying to take it in and process what could have happened. The crater looked like a missile had struck the front of the building.  As I tried to process it I began to feel anxious knowing we needed a lot more emergency workers to really help here.  I thought to myself, “We need EVERYONE!” It was actually the first time that morning that I really felt scared…

We walked down knowing we had to get around to the front to do any good.  As we exited there were police officers, citizens and firemen that had just arrived. A man in business attire was waist deep in the gaping hole in the middle of the building on the south side I remembered from earlier.  I could here others yelling, “We need help!  The daycare center is now down here!”  As I got closer I could see others were making the hole bigger by removing rubble and debris to access the center.  As Barry and I got in the receiving line they pulled out the first child.

We created a human chain and started passing the kids back towards the firemen and EMTs.  The third child was a girl about five years old with a heavy layer of dust and mud all over.  When I got ahold of her and looked into her face she was not responsive and I couldn’t tell if she was breathing.  I passed her a little slower than the previous children because in that condition she looked just like my four-year old daughter; I was so sad.  I later found that she was a little white girl.  At the time we couldn’t tell because of how much she was covered in ash and debris.  We stayed there until we could no longer reach any others.

As I waited I looked around and saw that there was plenty of help now.  I was approached by some lieutenant I did not know.  He said, “Hey troop I need you over here to watch these empty stretchers in the triage area.”  I welcomed the break because I needed a moment alone.  He walked me over to a flat area of the courtyard. The firemen had placed 20 aluminum stretchers in a pattern with two rows.  I stood there looking at the building in disbelief…

 

Was it another bomb?

My rest period was abruptly interrupted by a commotion to east.  I looked in that direction as a large group (police, firemen, medical personnel and volunteers) were falling over each other running away from the building.  They all were spilling in my direction with looks of panic.  I started back peddling as fast backwards as they were moving forward.  I yelled at the ones up front the only thing I could think to say, “What! What! WHAT!”  A nurse waved her arm at me and yelled back, “Just RUN! It’s another BOMB!”  I turned and ran faster than I have ever run with my heart pounding so hard and fast.  I ran south down the street and when I looked over my shoulder I saw approximately 50 people following me in full stride. I was about 40 yards ahead of the closest one.  I continued my sprint then an ambulance drove past me.  It slowed down and the back doors popped open.  I saw an officer I knew and he yelled for me to jump in.  I caught up to the ambulance an grabbed his arm and jumped inside as it was still moving.  I figured enough time had gone by to hear the second blast go off.  We closed the doors and the ambulance continued south until we made it a safe distance.  We got out on Main Street and walked west.  Thank God it was a false alarm. I believe one of the volunteers ran across a replica of a device on a desk in the destroyed ATF office.

I thought at that time “I need to call my family.”  When I turned my phone on I saw that my sister in California had called. Everyone knew I was going to be in court that day.  I was so surprised I immediately got through when the phones were shut down by the number of carriers trying to use the phone at the same time.  My sister answered the phone and she was so excited to hear my voice. I could tell she was emotional.  I told her I was calling to let everyone know I was fine.  She yelled, “Yes! Yes! Mom come get on the phone, it’s STAN!”  My mom was crying so hard and nervously said, “Hello?!”  I told her it was me and she cut me off mid-sentence.  She yelled, “This is not Stan… I saw that building no one is alive!”  I tried to calm her and said, “Mom! It is me… It wasn’t my building.”  She was still crying uncontrollably and I learned why she was acting that way as I later found first reports on the news advised it was the federal courthouse.  My body began to tingle as my emotions got the best of me.  Maybe it was because my mom was still crying and had thought her son was dead.  I started crying like a child and repeated, “Mom…the children are dead…there are so many gone…”

I called my wife next and let her know I was good and she was so relieved to know it was not my building.  I told her I was going to help some more and then I would be home.  As we made our way back to the area there was not a command post area set up a few blocks away.  I checked in and was told it was as stable as it could be and the supervisor said, “You look like you’ve been through enough so go home… There are enough people here, we got it.”  I went home to spend the rest of my birthday with my family… I didn’t sleep well that night as you would expect.  The next day I was glued to the television like everyone else in the country as a little information began to be released.  I couldn’t stop watching it and the images just mentally took me back.  I decided to just go to work early.  I knew they would need every able body on the street to answer 911 calls.  I thought I was ready to deal with citizens…

all the bodies and body parts there need to be bagged…

When I got to work everyone at the station were talking about nothing but the bombing.  My district partners were eager to here my story because they knew I was there.  As I started to tell my story my boss yelled for me to come into the office.  I went inside the supervisor’s office and saw he was the only one in there.  He began by checking to see how I was, and then dropped his own bomb on me.  He said, “I’m sorry to do this to you Soup but I need you to work the temporary morgue at the bombing site.”  I looked at him like he was crazy and said, “Are you kidding me?!” He continued, “Listen, the chief asked every station to send who they thought were strongest and that could handle the assignment… I don’t think anyone else can handle it because they are taking all the bodies and body parts there to be bagged.”  I agreed to do it although I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want to seem like a punk…

Image Source: newsok.com/article/5409414

They converted an old church across the street into the temporary morgue.  There were about 25 officers from our department assigned to along side employees from the medical examiner’s office.  Our duties included trying to match body parts, figuring how to identify people by going into the deceased pockets for IDs, helping to load body bags and guarding the truck filled with bodies.  Thank God I mainly got to guard the truck of bodies during that week.  It was about the third day we were all called into the main sanctuary which had all the seats removed.  The damage from the blast was obvious.  The department had orchestrated a moment that really surprised me; an impromptu counseling session.  The police chaplain was there and another member of clergy.  They put folding chairs in a circle and had ordered us pizza.  We started eating then the chaplain started talking.  He let us know that they wanted to take this time to check on us.  We all stopped chewing.  And why did he look at me and say, “How are you keeping up?”  I looked at him and I was actually extremely angry.  I said, “Are you kidding me? You are feeding us pizza and we can smell burning flesh… They brought us down here for a reason and none of us are going to tell you we have a problem. Thanks anyway. I’m good!”  No one gave him anything to make us look weak.  That intervention was brought to a halt…

We never really received proper psychological attention after that.  I was a member of the honor guard at the time and we volunteered our services for many of the families during funeral services.  There were over 160 people that died in the building that day so the honor guard was busy.  I got burned out which has made me not to attend funerals to this day.  Several of the first responders had breakdowns in their attempt to deal with what we had been through.  One really good friend (hero) was one of the first to arrive on the scene on the north side of the building; he took his own life a short time later.  Another good friend who worked that side of the building went through a downward spiral and added illicit drugs into his life and finally I had to personally arrest him following a domestic abuse assault; he lost his job.  Another was arrested for breaking into a pharmacy to steal medication.  We all received service pins and awards of valor for our response; yet we didn’t receive the psychological support we needed…

 

Remember, I’m just sharing one story but I worked for twenty long years.  I felt myself change every few years after that day.  I took on the pressure of the job, working 18-hour days not to deal with my own problems.  And because police officers are ridiculed for asking for help I file it away in my mind like the rest.  The years of dealing with emergencies, trauma, death and people at their very worst: it changes us.  I became more callous in the way I looked at my job, family and in the way I dealt with people in general.  I didn’t cry for ten years after and my last three years I self-medicated.  I knew a couple of doctors and created a daily routine of 100mg of Zoloft, 10mg of Lexipro, 10mg of Xanex and Ambien to sleep at night. (I do not recommend this to anyone!) This was before I went to work and I took it down with alcohol.  I was a lucky one because I was able to function then and retired before my downward spiral.  I quit the anti-depressants “cold turkey” and escaped the job I loved so much and rebuilt my life…

Now I’ve been retired for five years.  Two years ago I was with a female friend who decided to treat me to breakfast for my birthday.  It was a perfect a California day at my favorite restaurant in the Marina.  The food was great and the breeze was coming off the water and we sat under the shade of the palm tree above.  She asked me, “Do you love your birthday as much as I do mine?”  I told her I actually did not because it always reminds me of the bombing.  Before I could say another word a tear shot out of one of my eyes outward and onto the table. I covered the eye not knowing what it was.  Then the tears started rolling but I didn’t feel sad.  I began apologizing to her saying, “I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” She had this look of concern because my eyes were wide open and I was balling uncontrollably without the slightest grimace.  The episode lasted five minutes then went away as fast as it came.  I was embarrassed and explained I never received any help.  It’s been over twenty years and it still affects me…

The reason I tell this story today is to make a point.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not being properly addressed in the law enforcement community.  Some agencies don’t realize the importance of testing their employees and police officers don’t ask for help.  This is one more thing that leads to unnecessary or excessive force incidents.  It contributes to the increased amount of divorces and suicide involving police officers.  If you know an officer struggling with symptoms of PTSD, or numbing his pain through the use of alcohol or prescription drugs please intervene.

I was able to push through with support by my close friends and family. I am happy now, run a couple of very successful businesses and created two programs to promote de-escalating police encounters to save lives on both sides.  I’ve found my PURPOSE…

For my birthday I wanted to give all of you the gift of this story and warning. Take care of each other and get some help…please share this blog post!


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Be safe, I want you home alive,

– Stan