Omar L. Gallaga is an administration reporter for The Oklahoma Daily,
the campus newspaper for the University of Oklahoma.
He has been on staff for two years and will serve as managing
editor next fall. This is his account of his tenth day helping
to cover the bombing in downtown Oklahoma City.
From the end of 10th grade until I got to college, I worked at
Whataburger in Midwest City.
I don't know why. It still makes me wonder.
It wasn't that I didn't have marketable skills. In fact, I think
Whataburger was the first place I applied.
A friend of mine worked there and got me the job. I stayed there
for the next year and a half.
I don't know why I stayed there for so long. I could have gone
anywhere else, but I stayed. And it wasn't because I liked the work
-- as Barbara would say, it wasn't hell, but it was certainly in the
same zip code.
To this day, I've never quit a job. And I've been working since
about 7th grade continuously in some capacity, whether it be as a
bagger, burger flipper or reporter.
I left the bagger job because I moved from Wiesbaden, Germany back
to the U.S. when my father got stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in
I finally left Whataburger because I was going to college at OU
and was going to live in Norman. Plus, I'd gotten a job at a little
paper called The Oklahoma Daily.
I don't know if it's loyalty, or stupidity or what, but when I
have a job, I just do it and keep doing it until something compels me
to stop. (These journals for instance. Maybe somebody out there
should start trying to compel me to stop.)
I'm not exactly a workaholic because I love to procrastinate. But
when I have a job, I do it and continue to do it until something
makes me stop.
Tomorrow I'm stopping.
Well, not exactly. I'm taking a day off, but to me it's
practically the same thing.
Today, I decided I'd had enough. I'd seen too much, pushed myself
beyond the limits of exhaustion, and was running on fumes.
It was lack of sleep, abundance of tears at every odd moment and
just a general weariness. I didn't want to be there anymore. I
couldn't do SuperReporter anymore. It was time to rest, to collect
myself and to figure out if I indeed had a life outside the story.
It was Joy who made me see. She told me to take a day off
tomorrow and go home to relax. I almost protested. I might miss
something. As it happened, what I'd been waiting for finally
happened and after that, it was only a matter of going home and
learning to stay there.
There's still a job to do and I intend to get back to it. But
right now, I'm at rest, recharging my batteries and trying to digest
some of what I've bitten off, chewed and swallowed almost whole.
It's not exactly burnout because I know I'll go back and that
doesn't bother me. But it is a realization that if I continue like I
have, I could put myself in danger.
It's the biggest story of my career. Is it worth it? I'm still
not sure. But the resting feels right. I need it. For one day of
peace at least after 10 of constant work.
I'm ready for it. And in another day, I'll be ready to go back.
The night before, Mas'ood had asked if he could go downtown with
me in the morning.
There wasn't a whole lot of reason for me to go back there. As
I've said before, we don't publish on weekends, so getting any kind
of update on the progress of rescue workers would do no good by
Part of why I went back was to see if I could get in the pool
George had told me about yesterday. Another reason was that Larry
had called last night to say he had about ten more pictures that were
as good if not better than the last batch he'd given me. Still another
reason was that it might be the last chance I'd have to see Barbara
before she left for Muskogee.
I'd gone to bed at nearly 4 a.m. working and editing Day 8, which
I was about a day late on. I finished and was deep into Day 9 when I
decided it was too late and I'd have to just finish tomorrow (or
today, as it turned out).
If I was going to pick up Mas'ood and get into town by 11, I'd
have to leave my house no later than 10. It was late and I hadn't
made any kind of arrangements to hook up with Mas'ood in the morning,
so before I went to bed, I left him email asking him to call me
before 10 a.m.
If there's one thing I've learned about Mas'ood in the short time
I've known him it's that he checks his email religiously and since he
never sleeps, I figured he would see it before then.
Mas'ood called at about 9 when I was deeply engaged in sleep and I
promised to meet him in the newsroom after I had another half hour of
sleep and got up to get dressed.
I parked across from the newsroom where, if I stayed too long, I
might get towed. I am really starting to think that tow-away-zone
sign is just an empty threat.
Mas'ood was there. I checked my mail box, went to get my paycheck
and borrowed the camera again from Jack.
It was cloudy and cool outside. I was speeding along down I-35 as
Mas'ood began to blow my mind with some of his thoughts on how the
political climate of the country has changed and how the bombing is
only a symptom of it.
Mas'ood, as I've said before, is incredibly informed on politics,
religion and society in general and he keeps up on the news. He, in
turn, calls me a master of overstatement.
His thoughts, which I hope to remember without messing up (I was
sleepy, you'll remember) were as follows:
The bombing was a symptom of a kind of fringe white-male alienation
that includes frustration over perceived wrongs done against them by
government. The most obvious would be affirmative action, which is
almost the opposite of what many people think it is. If you throw
religion into the pile, you're also talking about frustration over
abortion and the idea that Christianity is being shuffled out the
door in favor of a more "open" means of govenment dealing with
Unemployment (which Mas'ood said is part of the profile of many
militia gun-nut types, as well as being white, male, sometimes a
military vet and sometimes divorced) can sometimes set them off.
Mas'ood said he went out and bought about 10 magazines that dealt
with guns and other weapons. He wanted to see what kind of mentality
breeds this. He read me the gun magazine equivalent of personal ads.
Things like, "Christian survivalist, SWM, seeks like-minded
brethren to prepare for day of overthrow." That chilling. Many of
the ads quotes Old Testament scripture. Mas'ood observed, astutely,
that these people didn't seem to be into the New Testament messages
of love and understanding.
Mas'ood made lots of other interesting connections, tying in
incidents like the Tulsa race riots of the 20s and the murder of a
man in Detroit believed to be Japanese during the early 80s when
American motor companies were getting their collective asses kicked
by foreign car-makers.
The last point I remember Mas'ood making is that when Clinton was
elected, many people called it The New 60s, comparing Clinton to JFK.
Mas'ood said they may have been right in the sense that the
confusion and political turmoil of the 60s seems to be returning.
Only this time, it's not the left wing that's questioning the
establishment. Now, it's the right wing opposing the government and
the left wing sticking up for the Constitution and the federal
Mind-blowing. It was too early for me to digest it all properly,
but it certainly opened my eyes a little.
If this is all true and this is the thinking, then we may be in
trouble. There's lots of people that think Waco was a tragedy, but
there are also quite a few who think the government did it on
purpose. Killed the people inside because they wanted to. I don't
know what's coming, but if these are the warning shots, then we may
be in for something large and terrible soon.
Mas'ood had gotten a kind of honorary press pass for this trip and
he used it to get inside Press Town. We had parked very far away and
by doing a half-jog, we'd been able to make it over at about 10
minutes to 11 a.m.
I spotted Barbara and Erik immediately. We were going to go see
about getting in the pool.
The number of press people was diminishing rapidly. Where before
you'd have to squeeze in between trailers and news vans, now there
were open spaces.
We stood near the front of the side where the press area faced the
Murrah building. "Near the CNN post," is what people usually called
We waited. And waited. I'd introduced Mas'ood to Barbara and
Erik and soon we were all chatting. I shared what Mas'ood and I had
talked about on the way. I don't know what Barbara (who is herself a
Republican) thought of our pinko leftist bleeding heart liberal
thoughts, but it made for interesting conversation for a while.
We waited a bit longer. I was thirsty, but didn't dare leave. I
had a business card in my hand, ready to give over if they were going
to put cards in a hat and draw to see who would go in.
Barbara and I talked. Just random things. We were killing time,
anxious to find out if we were going to go past the press area and
into the perimeter.
A firefighter had talked to us and had promised there would be
some kind of pool. Now, he came back to tell us they'd turned the
idea over to Oklahoma City police, who would decide what would happen
next. He said they would come talk to us when they were ready.
We fretted. And waited. And waited some more.
A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer was talking to us. He
was very friendly and said he'd seen some of our work. He said he
was impressed with the effort we'd put into our web site and our
Mas'ood was carrying a folder with an incredible amount of
information he'd gathered and one of the things he shared with the
Inquirer guy was an amazing article that had appeared in a Toronto
paper. It talked about our web site, and at one point said
something like, "And while CNN was reporting that middle eastern
terrorists were responsible for the bombing, The Oklahoma Daily was
one of the first to advance the theory that U.S. militia groups may
have been involved." The Inquirer guy got a kick out of it and when
he phoned the home office, he told someone there about it.
Right about that time, Mas'ood and I got the idea of faxing that
Toronto article to CNN. Better yet, we thought -- why not fax it to
the major networks?
We found a fax machine in a small building within Press Town that
was an electronics store. It still was an electronics store, but now
it had lent space to NBC news and wasn't getting much business.
The ladies working inside were very nice and let us use their fax
machine. Mas'ood was schmoozing so much that I wanted to tell him to
get out of chemistry and English and become a reporter.
To get the fax numbers, we'd gone to the CNN trailer to ask for
their number. No one was there and the door was wide open. We
knocked. No answer. Then we saw it --
Taped to a wall was a list of phone numbers. They included fax
number for CBS, NBC, and ABC as well as CNN. And they were local
numbers -- the OKC trailers.
Mas'ood faxed, while I went back to wait on word about the pool.
Nothing. Just a bunch of reporters standing around.
Mas'ood came back and we had a laugh about our malicious prank.
We wondered if it would get the networks talking. It probably wasn't
a big deal, but it still made us feel pretty good.
Barbara was going back and forth between the place where the
pool-hopefuls waited and the free phones where she was making calls
to sources for a story she was working on. I followed her because I
had nothing better to do.
While she was on the phone, I called the newsroom. Joy was there.
I don't know if she heard how tired I was or not. I was excited
about possibly getting in the pool.
"Omar, I want you to go home tomorrow. Take a day off. Relax. I
think you've done enough for now."
I didn't know what to say or think. I didn't know how I could
just go home and not think about things. It's like this story was
part of my bloodstream. I told Joy I would do that and the more I
thought about it, the better the idea sounded.
Barbara called her mother and told her she'd probably see her
tonight. She was tired, worn-out, ready to make the long drive back
to Muskogee and crawl into her own bed.
I tried to remember what it was like to crawl into bed at a decent
hour and found I couldn't.
While Barbara was on the phone, I started to notice photographers
were gathering around. I looked across the street, where you can get
a clear view of the Southwest Bell Telephone building (which serves
as one of the command centers for all the rescue operations and
volunteers), and noticed a line of cars.
I started to hear people chatter about it. I heard "Barry
I saw people getting out of cars and I could see Switzer, Troy
Aikman and a few others in Dallas Cowboy jackets shaking hands and
getting pictures taken with volunteers.
All I had was my point and click camera, so I wasn't able to get
any good pictures. They weren't anywhere near us, anyway.
We went back and waited. Still no word. Barbara was getting
frustrated, so I took her and Erik to the Salvation Army truck. I
borrowed a dish towel and did a trick I learned during my time at
Whataburger. Using any ordinarily towel, I can make a very
realistic, headless chicken. They laughed, but it was the laugh of
Soon, they decided to leave. It was past 3 p.m. and Barbara
needed to be at an interview at 3:30. This was it. She, Erik and
I stood around a bit, saying our goodbyes. Then, she gave Erik some
sort of signal. He said, "Oh!" and walked off, leaving us alone.
She told me to look her up when I got to Tulsa -- she was in the
phonebook. I told her I'd do that and that was pretty much all there
was to say. There was no hug and certainly no kiss - in the press
area that probably would have looked pretty unprofessional. I was
sad, not knowing why. It was like I was alone all of a sudden. I
said, "bye," softly and waved. And she was gone.
I wanted to go home. Larry's cellular was down most of the day,
so I wasn't able to get pictures. Barbara had left, making me feel
like most of the fun had gone out of being in Press Town. I doubted
there would even be a press pool, so I didn't see any reason to stick
They were doing the 3 p.m. press conference, which was still
useless to me because the info would be old by Monday.
I told Mas'ood I was ready to leave soon. He concurred.
Then, it happened. I saw a trooper with reporters starting to
gather like vultures. He was taking down names of reporters for the
I joined the masses, taking off my press pass and jamming it at
him, hoping he would notice it above the others.
He wanted to take just 10. There were easily 25 print and
broadcast reporters standing around him.
He was writing down local news channels. Then a few print
reporters. The guy from Philadelphia was one of them.
A person from The Daily Oklahoman almost got on the list until I
mentioned to the trooper (who I was standing right behind) that The
Oklahoman had already been inside. He asked the reporter if it was
true and they confirmed it.
He finally noticed me and I was on the list. I asked if I could
take in a photographer (meaning Mas'ood) and they asked if I was
I was excited anyway. This was a big deal.
I instantly felt bad that Barbara had left. She'd said right
before she left that as soon as she was gone, I'd probably get in.
She'd been right.
People gathered their things. In all, about 19 had made the cut.
Mas'ood was following and I told him to keep with us until they
turned him away. He stuck next to me and they never stopped him from
The large group went in past the police tape and continued through
a parking lot where there was glass and rubble on the ground. We
went through an alley or two to cover the two blocks or so to be near
We finally got as close as we were going to get. The photographers
set up instantly, getting as many shots as quickly as they could.
We were on what I think is the west side facing the building. It
was a side view of the torn out hole, and seeing if from this side,
it looked a bit like an amphitheater, told out with an ice-cream
It was horrifying. You could see the damage that had been done to
the Water Center building across the street. You could clearly see
the cranes like deathbirds, hovering their payload near the wreckage.
Just ahead on the street we stood on were rescue workers and
volunteers, changing gear, eating lunch or just chatting, maybe
waiting for their time to go in.
There was really no one to talk to. Mostly it was a
picture-taking trip. I pulled out the film I had and used it all. I
asked a guy from Rescue Magazine if I could pop a roll into his
zoom-equipped camera and he let me. I took pictures of the building,
pictures of a banner thanking the rescuers and pictures of people
After the third roll of film, I just stood there and watched. The
photographers were tireless, trying to get that one perfect shot.
It had been about ten minutes, and I was ready to go. I didn't
want to be this close. I'd had my look and I was ready to leave. It
was too much, too real. I didn't want to be there.
We were there another ten minutes. Mas'ood was taking notes and
the photographers kept going.
When the police officer gathered us up and told us it was time to
go, I was relieved.
We trudged back to Press Town. I noticed a few people who hadn't
made it in -- CNN was one of them.
On our way out, Mas'ood said he wanted the autograph of Judy
Woodruff on the Toronoto article. I thought it was amazingly funny
and we went up to her. She didn't read it at all. She just signed
it and smiled at us. We smiled back, maybe too broadly.
The press pool trip done, it was time to go. I asked Mas'ood to
drive back because I was sleepy and afraid of not being able to make
We got back to my car and it wouldn't start. I'd left the lights
Luckily, I had jumper cables and someone nearby was nice enough to
give me a jump start.
Traffic was jammed up on the highway, and when I noticed we
weren't moving, I looked over and saw Mas'ood had dozed and we
were about four car-lengths behind whoever was in front of us.
"Mas'ood? Are you okay?"
He popped awake. "Huh? Oh, yeah. I guess I must have dozed
I sighed. It had been too long a week.
There was little conversation the way back. I was tired, sad,
worn out and lacking any kind of direction. I was exhausted
physically, mentally and in all other kinds of 'LLY's' I won't even go
We got back to Norman and saw Joy exiting the Daily parking lot.
We waved and drove on. Inside, the newsroom was completely locked
up. There was no one in the business office or backshop to let us
in. I looked at my watch. It was past 5 p.m..
Mas'ood said Entertainment Weekly wanted to interview him
about the web site. We parted ways and I went home.
I packed my things slowly. Friday night and I just wanted to go
to Midwest City, curl into a tiny ball and sleep for a while. I
didn't know when I'd be able to write or start putting things on the
web. Sleep and rest were going to take priority just this once, I
I put my personal accounts on a disk to take with me so I could
work on them in Midwest City this weekend. I called home to let
them know I was coming, and found the loudest music I could find for
I made it home all right and walked in. My mom gave me a hug and
looked at me, I think seeing how much of a toll the week had taken.
She gave me my mail -- Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, a few
random computer catalogs and some CD's that had arrived from BMG
music service -- Mazzy Star, Monty Python and Weezer. I put them
aside and went straight for my bed.
I told my parents I was going to take a nap for a while maybe
before I did anything else.
I lay there for a while in the darkness. Sleep didn't come.
Instead, I was turning over the events of the week in my head as if
my thinking of them would solve some problem.
Instead it made me feel worse. I was thinking about babies and
mothers and fathers and buildings torn apart. It really was like a
war out there, I thought.
Then -- personal. My father, while I was growing up, was an Air
Force recruiter in south Texas for about six years. I remember
seeing the list of federal agencies housed in the building. I
remembered Army and Navy recruiting.
I thought about what would have happened if he'd been recruiting
in that building. I thought about my brother P.J., who, if he's been
younger, might have been in that day care if both my parents still
Lots of what-ifs. Lots of it could have been me's. I was
projecting myself into the disaster and it was unhealthy as hell, but
I couldn't stop. I was seeing them there, seeing my life blown apart
like all the families of the victims had seen their lives torn apart
with live coverage on TV.
It was too much. I was shaking, sobbing, trying to hold it in so
my parents wouldn't hear it in the next room. Under the covers, I
let out everything I'd been holding in, everything that had turned me
into a magnet of tension.
My body went limp. I was lying there, still shaking, still
crying, unable to move. I felt pinned, paralyzed. I felt so
hopeless. It could have been us, I kept telling myself. Some sick
motherfucker who wants to tote his M-16 around Main Street without
a permit could have taken my family from me. It could have been us.
I didn't sleep. I lay there for a while, finally calming down,
finally trying to get past it.
I got a phone call a few minutes later that brought me out of my
attempt at slumber.
Matt Cheek. One of my best friends. We went to high school
together and were part of the senior drama men. We called ourselves
(at the height of our arrogance) "The Fab Five."
We talked for a long while.
Matt works at a day care center in Edmond everyday after he
goes to school. He's been there for about two years, and loves the
kids. The kids love him, too.
He told me a terrible story. The day of the bombing, two of the
kids had been left there, with no parents arriving to pick them up at
the end of the day. They had waited and waited and no one had
"I went into the other room and just broke down," he told me. "I
just didn't know what to do."
Parents finally showed up at about 5:30, but it had torn Matt
apart just thinking about what might have been.
"I've just felt so helpless this week. I drive by there on my way
home and I just see and I feel like I can't do anything about it."
Matt was crying. I was crying. We were both lost. This was our
city and neither of us could handle the wounds that had opened up.
We talked a while longer. Matt said he wanted to volunteer
somewhere tomorrow. I said that was a good idea. We said our
goodbyes and I felt a lot better. I wanted to go help -- to feel
useful. It was going to be a good day.
I finally rolled out of bed and went to try to write, but nothing
came. It was all bottled up and I was too tired to type. I wanted
to put it off because I didn't want to think about it any more.
Officially, I was off duty. No more death. No more story. It
was going to my time off and my discharge from this tour of duty.
But I couldn't forget. I couldn't shut it off. The memories and
the trauma stuck out in me like that hideous building sticks out in
the middle of downtown Oklahoma City.
Eventually, I would sleep. I would go on and move forward and try
to stop following the news so closely. But not to forget.
This was the last day I would go downtown for a long while.
Copyright ©1995-2001 by Omar L. Gallaga