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 fourth day helping to cover the bombing in downtown Oklahoma City.
Day 4... April 23, 1995
Part of an ongoing confessional
A few weeks ago, I was part of an Oklahoma Daily group that went to a Society of Newspaper Design conference in Wichita. While there, we visited The Wichita Eagle.
A reporter there, wish I could remember his name, had written a piece that had come close to earning him a Pulitzer. It was about a doctor who had been crippled by a tractor accident and the slow and painful recover he faced.
The three-part article, a riveting piece of journalism, had moved me beyond belief. When we finally got to meet the reporter, he told us how the story had taken more and more of his time until it had completely consumed him, taking up his free time and cutting into his personal life.
Iím beginning to feel consumed and overwhelmed by it all here. There is the human angle that keeps coming up -- today I saw the most amazing examples of human kindness and dreaded what we all know is coming -- the exhumation of more bodies, and as rescuers get close to the day care area, the bodies of children.
Apart from that, it is everything else that is keeping me wired. The growth and mass use of our web site -- we've gotten so many compliments from so many people whose mere titles blow me away. The national media keeps calling, asking for photos, info on the web and even spare reporters.
Personally, though, it's the way I've just abandoned everything in my life for pursuit of the story, work on the web and continuation of this journal.
Iím a little afraid. It's getting too big and I don't know how we'll continue to handle it. I fear burnout and fear overload, but so far, Iíve been lucky. So far.
Cold and early morning
The phone rang and instantly, without even achieving consciousness, I knew I was late. Michelle, Tiffany and I had agreed to meet at 10a.m. at the newsroom to head downtown. Tiffany, our brilliant editor, still hadn't made it downtown and she was feeling, rightly so, I thought, left out.
I didn't put on my glasses and without them, I couldn't make out the digital clock by my bed. I answered.
"Where are you?" Michelle.
"What time is it?"
"Are you still going?"
"Can you wait for me?"
"How long will it take?"
"10, 15 minutes."
"I'll pick you up."
I rolled groggily out of bed. I had known the night before, when I put Day 3 to bed, that I was going to have trouble getting up.
Surprisingly, I was feeling pretty peppy. I turned on my radio and sang along with Live. "Lightning Crashes," but without the sound.
I recycled a shirt from two days ago because I'd had no time to do laundry and began to blow-dry my hair and to dress, mindful of the freezing weather and rain that had come in the night.
I got my things together and waited to put my contacts on. They are always the last thing I put on before I leave the house because if I put them on too soon after I wake up and I've had little sleep, it feels like inserting shards of glass into my eyes.
Michelle arrived and she watched some MST3K as I finished getting ready. She'd never seen Mystery Science Theater 3000 and I could hear her laughing from my bedroom. It was a good sound. I clipped my press badge on to my heavy black trenchcoat, made sure I had my gloves and umbrella and looked down at my brown leather shoes. Theyíd have to do. Damned if I was going to wear a pair of basketball Nikes to this.
It was colder outside than I'd expected and raining twice as hard as it had for weeks. (In Oklahoma, that's quite a lot) Michelle drove, and we were going to drive about 10 minutes north to meet Tiffany and photo queen Anita at the Moore McDonald's.
We deserve a break today
They weren't there yet, so Michelle and I ordered breakfast. I got the last hashbrown and a sausage egg and cheese biscuit. It was past breakfast serving hours, so I didn't bitch when the food was cold and stale.
I had realized on the way through the growing storm what a shitty time we were going to have downtown. It began to hail. I also saw that I'd forgotten my blue ribbon. Michelle had no
extras and wouldn't give me a piece of hers, which was a huge, multi-layered shoestring-bow ribbon. I fretted. How the hell was I supposed to he the sympathetic reporter without my sympathy ribbon? I felt like a complete heel.
When Tiff arrived, she told me to go out to her car and look in her backpack. I found the ribbon, which was huge and untrimmed, along with some other items I'd rather not go into except to say that Iím a very innocent man and the items rather frightened me. I told Tiffany so and she made a quite clever remark about how silly men are.
I borrowed scissors from a McDonald's guy and, lacking a needle, used the clip on my press pass to keep the ribbon on my lapel. We were waiting for Anita. She got there from Wal-Mart, where sheíd been getting color film processed and we were off.
Downtown, Michelle wove through the side streets and got as close as any of us had parked to the scene. She parked just outside the north press entrance. We got out of the car and got our things. I worried about the weather and took all my non-waterproof things out of my backpack except my notebook.
We trudged in the cold, windy, wet weather. My shoes instantly turned three shades darker brown as they were soaked. Tiffany moaned about picking the wrong day to come as the freezing gales cut through our clothes.
Michelle and I pointed out different areas to Tiff, including a building within the press perimeter where the roof had been a sharp V. It was no longer a V. It was more like a collapsed Z. The water had probably weighed on it and brought the roof crashing. The first thing I noticed was the distinct lack of press. There were fewer trailers and vans and almost no one was out interviewing. Even the Salvation Army, the beacon for the snacking reporter-types, was getting few takers.
Only about five camera crews were filming live on the fence facing the blown-up building. I figured there was little new to report and people were taking shelter and a break. Good for them.
We continued south and found Jeff, who had been wandering around for a few minutes. He suggested we go to St. Paul's Cathedral where it was warm and where people were working and hanging out. We had nothing better to go on, so we made the trek. The road was blocked to the south, so we would have to go east and out of the press area and around the Southwest Bell Telephone building that was serving as the command post for volunteer organizations.
The wind and rain was worse now. We were having trouble walking straight and our umbrellas were flapping around. Michelleís did an inside-out and I tried to help her fix it.
After what seemed like hours, we made it to St. Paul's. I hadn't been on this side of downtown facing the Alfred Murrah building. The cathedral was in the direct line of sight.
Shivering and shaken, we walked into St. Paul's.
We were hearing things like, "Would you like coffee? We have cookies! There are sandwiches and drinks!" before we even made it through the door.
I'd expected lots of people, but there were only a few. However, they were all working and keeping busy and all of them were interested in how hungry we were.
We politely declined. I was wondering if they'd seen our press badges and whether they would be as warm and kind if they knew who we were. As it happens, they were.
The woman who escorted us in said they'd had lots of press people come by. She checked again to see if we wanted anything to eat and when we said no, she took us upstairs to a temporary chapel. I was having flashbacks of elementary school as we went up the stairs and entered a cafetorium complete with mini-stage. The stage was set up beautifully with flowers.
There were chairs set up and in the back, people worked in the kitchen to make sandwiches and lay out goodies. There were people sweeping and cleaning and they all took time to make sure we were well fed.
We were still cold and shaky, so we all just sat and absorbed the warm and incredibly hospitable karma. It was wonderful.
Jeff, whom we'd separated from outside, joined us. He was going to wait for Greg, who was supposed to meet him at the free phone booths, but he got tired of waiting in the cold.
He'd forgotten gloves and his hands were trembling. A woman noticed and immediately brought heated washcloths and started rubbing his hands with them until theyíd been warmed. We all sat, stunned. We were amazed. We had the frozen, wide-mouthed grins of children on TV who are discovering the TRUE meaning of Christmas. I felt a tear coming and instead of ruining it, I just continued to smile.
As she walked off, we whispered amongst ourselves how much we couldn't believe how wonderful people here were.
When we'd warmed up a bit more, Michelle and I went downstairs in search of coffee. We found it and moved on to the cathedral, which wasn't being used because there was structural damage.
The entrance to the cathedral, the carpeted area just within the outside door, had its floor lined with plastic wrap. Inside, my eyes opened wide. The church was beautiful ≠ or rather, it would be beautiful under normal circumstances. Lots of stained glass, dark wood and a quaint, homey architecture.
All the pews and carpet were wrapped in plastic. The front of the church, where the priest and choir would normally stand (have I mentioned Iím not very religious and, as such, am not familiar with the proper names of church geographies? It would be like being on a boat and being unfamiliar with 'bow' and 'stern.').
A woman asked us to help draw and put up signs that said "keep out" Michelle drew, Tiffany and I hung signs. I went into reporter mode and, as I helped, asked her questions about the damage. A pile of stained glass window frames lay twisted and piled behind police tape put up at the front of the church. It looked like a crime scene, and I suppose it was.
The building had taken some serious damage. There were cracks in the wall, broken windows and the ceiling was said to be in danger of collapsing
The woman led us to other people who were willing to talk to press including the bishop diocese (starboard bow?) of Oklahoma. He was very nice (surprising?) and told me about their rebuilding efforts. He also told me about counseling that was being given to rescue workers who were needing emotional and spiritual support. He directed me to some clergy men who had done such counseling. Before that, we gave in to temptation (in a church! get it? oh, never mind) and had some small sandwiches and fruit punch. It was very, very good, and I usually don't like mustard. Downstairs, I spoke to a priest who works just a few doors down and he told me about some of the victims and workers he'd spoken to. No real surprises, but some genuine emotion. He told me that mostly, they were providing a place for rescuers to go when they needed a break and a sympathetic ear.
I was thinking that I just couldn't imagine the kinds of things they'd heard and the hell those workers were going through. I remembered the Vic's Vap-o-Rub and shuddered, not from the cold. We finally decided that we weren't going to get much done downtown because of the inclement weather and because in reality, there really was nothing going on that we could get to.
Anita, Jeff and Greg decided to stick around while the rest of us would go hack to Norman and take some time off.
I felt I had a story with St. Paul's, so I would work on that later.
I was happy because I was finally going to get to go to Midwest City and see my parents and relax for a while. It was 2:30 and we were on our way back to Norman when I remembered that today was staff selection day. The editors for next fall would be getting together to pick next semester's staff.
I wanted to cry. Instead, Michelle and I sang Dancing Queen.
After Michelle dropped me off at home and I went straight to editing Day 3 so I could get it ready to e-mail and to set it up on my home page.
I wasn't (and still haven't been) able to update my home page to include Day 1 and Day 2 because the server has been acting funny and a file transfer to a new server left me with a changed password that I don't know yet. I can't get in there to change anything.
I was file editing for about two hours before I got everything squared away, ready to send out and laid out in HTML format.
I was going to start sending it when I saw how late it was getting. I had about twenty minutes to get to staff selections. I made a quick check of my new e-mail and was stopped cold. Margot sent all the letters of praise and congrats for us to me and I started reading some of it. I got a nice note from a high school journalism teacher and an especially witty one from an insightful guy from Bell-South.
I was feeling pretty full of myself until I read a note from an America Online person. He said to Margot, "thank you so much for sharing those two pieces from the kids at Okla and that incredible story. Omar has captured the essence of first rate reporting and writing. I cried."
Then I cried. Not just the tears I'd had before, but choking wracking sobs. It was everything all at once -- grief and sadness over what happened mixed with an incredible and deep feeling of accomplishment and worthiness. All my life, I've only wanted to write, to tell stories, to make people feel and hope and understand and listen. Suddenly, someone I don't know, maybe thousands of miles away, I'd touched with my writing and made them feel what is going on
I was still crying when I wrote Margot back and thanked her for the messages and for all her help and support from Columbia. I was late for the staff picks, but I was past caring. I called home and talked to my dad for a bit, detailing what was happening. As I talked, I printed out all the e-mail to give to the other editors.
You know, it just occurred to me that the above few paragraphs sound like one of those awful authorized biographies where the celebrity opens up and reveals that they once helped Rwandan refugees by donating their last pair of tickets to Sunset Boulevard or something. Pardon my dwelling.
Anyway, I left the house in tears, but happier, more hopeful and more full of a sense of duty than I had felt since the story began.
Saturday night's alright in the newsroom
Staff selections went by relatively painlessly, and I won't go into it except to say we made some good decisions and I think everyone will pretty much be happy with what they got.
I went straight to the newsroom with Joy after we finished and Mas'ood and one of his assistants RuTesh (forgive me, RuTesh and Mas'ood if I screwed up his spelling) were hanging about, making repairs and updates to the web site.
I was to write my stories so I wouldn't get backed up Sunday for our Monday edition, but I was getting sidetracked with phone calls, conversations with Mas'ood and Joy and seeing some TV coverage. Mas'ood was continuing to work on organizing a rally for Wednesday to support multiculturalism and to honor Trudy Rigney, an OU student who was killed in the explosion. I still can't believe this guy. When does he sleep? Probably the same time I do, poor guy.
Joy had news -- a university professor from Kansas University is working on a textbook and plans to use us for her chapter on covering disasters. She wanted to know how we organized so well, how we covered all our angles with a small staff and where all our ideas came from. She spoke to Joy who suggested I send these testimonials to her.
I heard from someone that our web site had been featured on the CBS overnight news at about 2:30 a.m. (central). We missed it, but we were still excited about it.
Things went by quickly. I was answering phone calls, talking to interns about next semester's staff picks and, having given up on writing stories, was trying to at least transcribe my notes. I still wanted to make it to Midwest City. I needed fresh clothes and had no other place to go and no time to do laundry. Mas'ood asked me something interesting.
He had talked to the man who had been arrested in England and who had turned out to be so innocent it was almost frightening. He wanted to invite the man to the rally and was wondering if I thought it was a good idea.
I told Mas'ood I thought it was good if he wanted to make the statement that people are quick to jump to conclusions about race and blame. Mas'ood agreed, but later changed his mind. He was worried that the situation was so emotionally charged that it might be too dangerous. I suggested a written statement from the man be read at the rally and Mas'ood agreed.
The night, like all others, wore on. We'd heard that fire fighters were getting close to digging to the day care center, so Anita and I were planning to go out there, she with camera, I with camcorder. Mas'ood and I were talking about getting video footage to convert to Quicktime movies for use on the web site.
As it turned out, the firefighters wouldn't reach anything till well after midnight, so we decided against going for the meantime.
I was talking to Mas'ood and Joy and they told me about the wonderful concept of "incompletes." The way they work is if a professor allows, you can get a week or two or whatever off and make up the end of the semester a week or two later without any hindrance
to the grade and with no weird stuff ending up on your transcript. It sounded like a great idea to me. I'd called a few of my professors earlier and asked about assignments I'd missed and they all assured me I hadnít missed anything important/
I thought maybe it could work. Jack, at least, would excuse me from class, I was sure.
Later on, when I talked to my parents, they flipped. They thought I was trying to jeopardize a semester of work, that I was getting a big head about all this attention and that I would lose my National Merit scholarship.
I told them right now NOTHING was more important to me than covering this and continuing what I'm doing. They said they worried about my health, my lack of sleep, my lack of studying time and my lack of correct priorities.
I agreed on about two of those, but explained that this was the biggest story of my career, possibly, and classes were just not going to get in my way.
We argued for a few more minutes. I assured them that if there was a chance Iíd lose the semester or jeopardize the grades, I'd back off and forget the idea. That seemed to satisfy them. I told them I'd be in Midwest City soon and went back to work. I was thinking about some of the mail I'd gotten, the people who'd called us and our coverage. I was thinking about Margot's constant suggestions that we start thinking Pulitzer. It was frightening. Lastly, I remembered a suggestion Mas'ood made to me a few hours before. I was chatting about editing Day 3 when Mas'ood said something like, "Omar, you know you have a book here, right?" I looked at him, dumbfounded. "Omar, you have enough material here for a book. How much have you written?"
I remembered printing out Day 1 and 2 and that was about 30 pages. Day 3 was about half that. Maybe close to 50.
"Thatís half a book! You really need to talk to Margot and see what she thinks."
That one was a punch in the gut. A book. Jeez. This was just e-mail I was writing to my friends to let them know I wasn't dead or worse -- writing for a tabloid about the explosion. It was too big to grasp and I stopped trying. I went back to transcribing notes.
Other stuff happened I won't go into. I got a page from my former girlfriend of two and half years, whom I'd broken up with about a few months before. She was concerned and we chatted for a while, despite how busy I was. I won't lie and say it didn't feel good to tell her just how exciting it all was and how much attention we were getting.
I left early, about 11:30 p.m., and went home. Joy gave me a big hug before I left and Masíood, as always, seemed sad to see me go. On the way home, on the same street, the road was blocked and I saw flashing police lights. I thought, oh no, there's been some kind of fire or something at the Rupel Jones Theater. I pulled out my notebook and made my press pass handy. It turned out to be a minor accident. It just doesn't end for me.
I was hungry. The last thing I'd eaten was a piece of sandwich at St Paul's.
I stopped to get gas and money at a gas station. After ATMing, I grabbed a microwave burger, some chips, orange juice for the morning and a Dr. Pepper.
I asked the cashier how quickly our paper had run out. He said the Thursday had gone immediately and the Friday had gone just a bit later than that.
"Iíve sold about three times more newspaper than normal," he told me.
I went home, ate while I did final edits on Day 3 (rough, maybe, because I was eating that dreadful burger). I checked e-mail, copied files to disk and packed up for Midwest City.
The drive was short because I took Pearl Jam with me. I got home, greeted my parents, who were already in bed and showed them the papers. They were impressed.
I sat down to write immediately, figuring because the day was less eventful, Iíd have far less to write. How wrong I was.
Every few minutes, my dad would come in and show me something from another paper he thought I hadn't seen. Some I had seen, other stuff was new, but not really that important.
Sometime during the writing of this, I took a break to go take off my contacts, I broke my thick, ugly brown-framed glasses right at the center. I've had them for maybe five years and here I am running wound the house hunting for tape to make myself look like a real jock without waking the parents up. Sigh...
I continued on until 3:40-- right now. Tomorrow I'm supposed to be downtown at 10 a.m. and help with Clinton coverage. Letís see if I make it through the day without collapsing.
One last thing --I should mention Michelle Villanueva, who I have a bad tendency of leaving out every time I write this. Michelle, who lives in Hawaii, is the person I speak to every night on the Net before I go to bed. We meet on a MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination) and chat every night. In fact, our characters, Phluke and Shinchan are engaged to he married on FurTOONia, our MUSH of choice.
Although we've never met face to face (thatís planned for summer), she's probably been closer to this than anyone and has been the one person I've found the time to talk to even as I've been writing this with the magic of multitasking. Thanks Michelle. Lots of love. Goodnight.
Copyright ©1995-2001 by Omar L. Gallaga