MONTVILLE, NJ - When discussing the value of the Living Lessons presentations at Lazar Middle School on Wednesday, May 18, eighth grader Katie DeAngelis said it well, “When you are at an all-time low, there is always hope.”
And hope was the theme of many, if not all, of the 50 speakers who spoke at the event.
The Living Lessons program: Voices, Visions and Values occurs at Lazar Middle School every other year which gives students an opportunity to hear speakers on diverse, challenging and touching stories designed for their grade level.
One of the presenters at the seventh biennial Living Lessons program was Richard Williams, who is a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing.
It was a normal day for Richard Williams as he sat at his desk chatting with his co-workers on the first floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. And then it happened - something that would change his life and hundreds of others forever.
At 9:00 a.m., an anti-government militant, Timothy McVeigh, pulled up in front of the Murrah Building in a Ryder rental truck filled with 4,800 lbs. of diesel-fuel-fertilizer. McVeigh fled, and minutes later the bomb exploded leaving 168 people dead and hundreds more injured. Of those killed, 19 were children who attended a daycare center on the second floor of the building.
Williams told this tragic story to a room filled with captivated Lazar students. He used actual photos of the incident and played an actual recording of the bombing to make his point perfectly clear.
He explained that on that morning, a court case was being recorded across the street when the bomb exploded. The explosion was caught on tape. Williams told the students that the tape they were listening to actually was used as evidence in the McVeigh trial.
Williams has no recollection of what happened. “I don’t remember anything. I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t see anything at 9:02 that morning,” Williams said.
Over the years, he had to piece together what happened. He found out that Police Officer Terry Yeakey, a first responder, spotted an arm sticking out of all the rubble. Yeakey checked for a pulse but didn’t find one, so he left to help another victim. The arm belonged to Williams. When Yeakey returned, he heard a noise and then realized Williams still was alive. Then Yeakey dug him out and carried him to an ambulance. “He is my hero,” Williams said.
Williams went on to describe more of the heroes of that day, including Rebecca Anderson, a nurse. She had heard about the tragedy on the news and went directly to the sight especially to help the children. After saving many lives, she was struck by debris on her head and went to the hospital where she died days later on April 23.
Williams told the students that heroes are the police, firefighters, nurses and anyone who gives of themselves to help others. Williams also mentioned the line of people outside the hospital volunteering to give blood.
The bomb went off at 9:02. By 9:35 Williams was in the hospital. He said it was remarkable on how fast he was helped. He was severely injured, had multiple surgeries and went through months of physical therapy. But he did not give up.
One would think the rest of the story would be one of anger and hatred. Though there was suffering for Williams and his family, they were able to overcome it and find peace. He said it is a story about survival, resiliency and hope.
Williams returned to work after 45 days against his doctor’s wishes. He needed to heal and needed to move forward.
Williams became involved in the designing and building of the outdoor symbolic memorial and museum. He said that everyone heals differently, and working on the memorial “helped me heal,” he said.
Williams said that the survivors believe that McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols intended to kill everyone in the building, but they failed. He said, “We became stronger. We did something positive. We wanted something good to come from something evil. We wanted people to understand that the impact of violence is difficult for everyone.”
He described the outdoor symbolic memorial as a place of reflection, honoring the victims, survivors, rescuers and all those who were affected by the bombing. It includes the ground where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood.
Williams went on to describe the 168 empty chairs at the memorial site that are on the footprint of the Murrah Building. Each chair has the name of one of the 168 casualties of the bombing. These chairs are organized first by row, agency and then alphabetically. The nine horizontal rows represent the nine floors of the building. There are five chairs on the western side of the footprint that lie outside the pattern, honoring the five lives that were lost outside of the Murrah Building.
The names of survivors are found on the Survivor Wall. The wall consists of four granite slabs, salvaged from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It is built upon the only remaining portion of the building that still stands.
He said that he had a lot of family support and stated, “Without my family I wouldn’t be here. They were my support base.” He continued to say a person “needs family, faith, and friends.” But he also said, “There is no such thing as closure. Don’t let anyone in the media tell you differently because something each day will be a trigger or a reminder for you.”
He spent 15 years involved in the building of the memorial, and he still is involved. He said that without his family’s support and understanding, he would not have been able to do this.
And then came 9/11. Williams served on the World Trade Center Survivors Network’s steering committee. He worked with survivors in their healing process.
When speaking on how he was able to heal, he said that “humor was important in the healing process.” He also said that talking about what happened and sharing stories with others also was helpful.
When asked if he hated McVeigh and Nichols, he said, “It serves no purpose and they were the ones with hate. If we hate back, then we are just like them.”
He also said that during the trial, McVeigh showed no remorse.
McVeigh was executed for his crimes in 2001. Nichols received life in prison.
Until September 11, 2001, the Oklahoma City bombing was the worst terrorist attack to take place in the United States.
McVeigh remains the only terrorist to be executed by the federal government.
The following comes from Lazar’s Living Lessons: Voices, Visions and Values.
Richard Williams, Oklahoma City Survivor
Richard Williams, now retired, is the former district manager for the General Services Administration (GSA) Public Buildings Service for the state of Oklahoma. He began his career with GSA in 1976. His responsibilities included operating the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when it opened in 1977. Later, his responsibility encompassed over 3 million square feet of property including government-owned and leased property throughout the state of Oklahoma and parts of Texas. During his 27 years of service with GSA, he was directly or indirectly responsible for the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and for the Murrah Building site, plaza and parking garage.
Richard is a survivor of the Murrah Building bombing on April 19, 1995. He was in his office on the first floor. Severely injured, he underwent several surgeries and months of physical therapy. After returning to work, Richard became very involved in the memorial process. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation and numerous committees for the building of the memorial. Nearest to his heart is his work on the committee which drafted the mission statement from which all aspects of the memorial are patterned. Richard was selected by President Clinton and then again by President Bush to serve on the nine-member trust which had oversight of the construction of the outdoor symbolic memorial, and the operations of the Memorial, the Memorial Museum and the Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.
Since 9/11/01, Richard served on the World Trade Center Survivors Network’s steering committee working with them in their healing process. Recently, Richard was recognized by the Daughters of the American Revolution for his leadership, trustworthiness, service and patriotism and was awarded the Medal of Honor, their highest honor. Richard, a native Oklahoman, served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. He and his wife, Lynne, are the proud parents of two sons who are both teachers. His life has always been a busy one with involvement in youth sports, coaching basketball or baseball for 14 years. In 2005, he and Lynne moved to Texas to be near their grandchildren. He continues to speak to school groups, civic organizations and church groups about his experience and the hope that has kept him strong.