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 eighth day helping
to cover the bombing in downtown Oklahoma City.
A few years ago, I was on a John Irving kick. I read The World
According to Garp, in large part because a teacher had recommended it
and because a former pen pal whom I met when I lived in Germany had
raved about it.
I ended up writing a huge research paper about Irving's use of
"tragicomedy" in his works.
My life, which, for all my emotional openness and my ability to
cry at, say, The Joy Luck Club, has been nothing compared to the
capacity I've found be happy and sad at regular intervals this week,
in the same hour, even at the same moment.
Some terrible things happened to me - one a shock that brought this
entire tragedy straight home to me. Another is just what I needed -
a new friendship that restored my faith in journalists.
As I wrote before, the story is not going away. Today: 96 dead,
96 still missing, 88 identified.
I'm glad I'm able to have this journalistic detachment right now,
and for all our bitching, maybe it's a good thing that they're not
letting us anywhere near the building and are (I hear) sneaking
bodies from the building to the morgue late at night when the news
shift is weakest.
From far away in Press Town, I can be detached. I can concentrate
on - hey is that Bernard Shaw? Did I just see Geraldo? rather than -
oh my god is that a child? Are those toys in the rubble?
I don't think I'd trade emotional detachment and some semblance of
profssionalism for the personal hell every person over there must be
going through right now.
I had decided to try to go to all my classes this week since I
wasn't needed to go downtown for long periods of time.
Wednesday (has it been a week? An entire week? Just one week
ago, life was so normal) I have Jack's class at 11:30 a.m.
I stayed up last night writing until past 3 a.m., and as much as I
wanted to go to Mas'ood's rally, there was no way I would have been
able to get up.
As it happened, I made it to consciousness at about 10:45 and got
dressed while I checked my email -- a few new compliments about the
accounts and about our web site. I felt pretty good.
At the newsroom, Joy and Michelle described the rally. They said
it was incredible and that about 500 people showed up at the clock
tower. I was amazed. Mas'ood and his co-organizers (including Joy,
who'd helped) had stayed at The Daily till 3 a.m., making last-minute
phone calls and doing some more organizing. Again, incredible.
I checked on some email I had. Tiffany asked me how to access
these accounts on my web page so she could announce it at the rally
where she was scheduled to speak on behalf of the paper.
Jack's class was, as usual, great. We discussed libel, which Bill
Loving had briefed us on nearly every semester I'd been at The Daily.
I began to think about email as publication and began to fret that
maybe in my rush to write these accounts and with my style to write
just the way I see it with few omissions, I'd maybe libeled someone.
I thought back to the AP incident and began to feel a little sick.
Jack spoke to me later about it and after reading some of it,
assured me that I was probably okay. He said that since they
probably didn't agree on what was true with us, it might be
questionable but that ultimately "the truth hurts," and as he said in
lecture, truth is usually a pretty good defense.
I was running around, scrambling because I had spoken to Larry
Medina and he'd said he could probably meet me at the press area
about 1:30 p.m. It was 12:30 and I still hadn't eaten lunch and I
knew traffic would probably be bad.
Joy told me to meet with Larry and give him the camera I'd checked
out from Jack's office (a general point and click job) to have his
photographer take photos from inside the building. Then, go to the 3
p.m. press conference and come back. She didn't want me to go way
over deadline like I had yesterday.
Then, a change of plan: Annette said we had photos from a guy
who'd given us good inside pictures. We were going to run them on a
two-page spread. I decided to take the camera anyway to take
pictures of Larry for a feature I wanted to do about his work out
I sailed out of the newsroom and went to my car.
I had to get gas and stop for food on the way. Despite the
general smallishness of McDonald's nuggets, I decided on Arby's
nuggets, which, in my opinion, seem a little healthier.
I was worried because I'd been eating on the road for the half
hour trip to OKC. I remembered the smallish boxes that Arby chicken
fingers come in and that decided me.
On the way up, I was trying to dip chicken fingers in barbeque
sauce, fries in ketchup, tap along on the steering wheel to Hole's
Live Through This and, oh yeah, drive.
With relatively little mess, I made it just outside the press area
at about 1:33.
I rushed up to the phone area and on my way heard, "Omar!"
I turned and saw Larry in his Air National Guard fatigues hanging
out by his golf cart inside the press area and inside a new
collection of Port-O-Potties.
Two women were sitting in his cart. He introduced them as
reporters from Univision, one of the Spanish networks.
They were unbelievably nice, and since Larry introduced me in
Spanish, I felt an obligation to speak as such even though I was
pretty sure they were okay on their English.
I found they were based in San Antonio, where I spend a large part
of my childhood and were even familiar with my hometown, Weslaco,
They were on their cellular phones and Larry said he would drive
me around the area in the golf cart as soon as they were done.
As I was talking to Larry, I noticed Barbara, the reporter from
The Muskogee Phoenix. I rememembered our wonderful discussion
about Animaniacs the week before. I waved to her as she went to
the Salvation Army booth to get a banana.
Larry was still chatting with me and another reporter was talking
to him. When he heard I was getting the cart tour, he got a little
huffy and walked off.
The ladies from Univision started talking about a party Larry had
gone to the night before, his first night away from the scene since
the previous Wednesday. Larry is assistant director of student
support services at OU and is involved in all the Hispanic student
organizations. He had gone to an awards banquet and who knew what
The Univision people said they had to leave and that they would
meet up with Larry later.
Larry explained that he was handling some PR for the military and
that included contacting Spanish-speaking TV crews and reporters and
filling them in on what was going on.
He asked if I was ready to go and we were off. The cart was
small, brownish and very powerful for its size. He drove it like a
pro, heading towards the CNN area. I saw Barbara walking along and
asked Larry if it would be okay if we picked her up and brought her
He said it was fine and I invited her along. She looked surprised
and pleased and thanked me.
"How do you find people like this to do these things for you?"
I introduced them and said, grinning, "So, you like my ride?"
We circled around a few areas of the press and a lot of reporters
were gawking at us, wondering what the deal was. Larry had assured
me, to my disappointment, that he wasn't going to take me inside the
sealed-off areas. He was going to chat with me about what he'd seen
as we made a trip around the perimeter. I told him that sounded
great to me.
Barbara sat behind me on the back area of the cart where I was
sure she was worrying that she'd fall off if Larry made a sudden
Larry turned out to be an expert driver and as he navigated curbs
and perilous sidewalks, she was as safe as I was, though not snug
in the seat next to our driver.
Larry was a wealth of information. He pointed to C-130s flying
overhead and told us they had a photograher strapped to the open
cargo ramp taking overhead photos for the FBI that were being
transmitted instantly to the Pentagon.
He pointed out some of the wreckage and started talking about the
inside of the building. He said he didn't like some of the flower
arrangements being sent because they had small teddy bears. The
teddy bears made him think about the children and began to make him
He talked more about the search for bodies -- inside, he'd seen
body parts and he described a scene that still chills me. He saw an
arm sticking out of the rubble with a ladies' wristwatch still
attached. I felt instantly like getting off the cart, ending the
interview, just getting away. But that wouldn't be fair. To me or
to Larry, who was opening up.
Larry had worked the first day in the building, spray painting
areas of evidence. He had gone on to work at the FBI ID office,
giving out IDs to people and as a public affair liason.
He had not left downtown OKC until the night of the awards
banquet. He remembered his wife bringing him t-shirts and supplies.
The first day or so, she'd been able to come to the building. She'd
seen the hand he'd described to me. Upset, she'd gone home.
As we circled the perimeter, Larry would stop for a minute while I
took pictures, trying to get Larry in the shot with backgrounds of
the devastated buildings.
He went on -- about the condition of the building, the emotional
impact it had had on him (he said he just kept working to avoid the
pain. He figures it will hit him later), the OU students who were
helping to assist and the gathering of evidence the FBI was doing.
He said he'd stay another four days before going back to some
semblance of a normal life.
What kept him there? Larry said he knew of two Hispanic men from
the Housing and Urban Development office who were still missing. He
said he felt it was his responsibility to stay until they'd at least
identified the two.
We circled around. I took more pictures. Larry talked. Barbara
and I took notes, unable to fathom in any way what Larry had seen.
His calm and friendly exterior, I knew, hid some incredible pain and
some memories that would stay behind his eyes for years and years to
This man, whom I'd known at OU, was now one of the walking wounded
-- the scarred and mangle-hearted who would come out alive, but with
images that would haunt and hurt them forever.
Larry had spent nearly an hour with us, just driving us around,
talking and being incredibly friendly. I was amazed under the
Barbara and I thanked him profusely and he said I could stay in
contact with him by calling his cellular. He was going to go to the
Southwestern Bell volunteer area and help out where he could.
We walked back and around the press area, where one entrance used
before had been blocked off. I saw Diane just inside and waved her
over. I asked if she'd heard anything new. Nope.
Barbara and I walked around the fenced area until we got in
through the other press entrance. Talking to her, I was really
beginning to admire her. She was smart on her feet, was a fan of
Animaniacs and, I would learn later, could crank out better copy on
her worst days than most pros could on good ones.
She told me Muskogee reporters had been called back the previous
Friday, then, anticipating a relaxing week, she'd found herself
called back to cover Week 2 of the rescue effort all by herself. She
said she didn't want to come back. Now that she was here, though,
she said she was glad she'd come.
The 3 p.m. press conference was soon to begin. We scurried over
where already a large mass had gathered. It was the daily feeding
frenzy to get close to Jon Hansen, the assistant fire chief.
We scrambled to get there. Hansen had already started talking and
I was worried I'd missed something very important. I didn't need to
be -- there were so many reporters, he was moving from one end of the
circle to the other and repeating his information to each side.
I jammed my way into the three-deep crowd of reporters, and saw
that I was elbow to elbow with the NY Times reporter again. She
noticed me and smiled. The OU cap was back.
Hansen seemed in good spirits and I soon learned why -- the work
in the building was about to increase. Because of the good weather
and less trouble with the building's structural integrity (cranes
were being used to secure some of the areas with cables), the number
of workers in the building was going to be nearly doubled from just
over a hundred to between 200 to 220.
Although, they still hadn't reached the areas with the day care
and social security office (he paused here for a moment when he
brought that up. Or, it may have been my imagination.), they had
gotten more work done today than on any other previous day.
They were on the 4th level of the pancake slab in the front -- the
area they believed housed the day care and social security office a
few floors below.
Winds had been a factor -- the night before, work had been delayed
for about five hours during high gusts.
Finally -- the count. I braced myself. It was 94 bodies
recovered. About 130 still missing. Of those, anywhere from 10 to
20 kids. I stopped scribbling for a minute. I couldn't write, I
couldn't think, I couldn't process. Again, the urge to run.
Instead, I wrote the numbers down, and circled them so I could
spot them easily later.
Number of child fatalities -- still 13.
Hansen was getting used to this. This man, whom I'd heard was
married to Jenifer Reynolds, a local news anchor, had learned through
this grim process how to deal with the press and he was doing it
well. Straightforward, and he wasn't taking shit from anybody.
He moved on to the middle of the press crowd. I had to scramble
to get close enough to hear him as broadcasters hung overhead mikes
and other print reporters jammed mini tape recorders at Hansen.
He repeated what he'd said about the work getting done more
quickly. He said they were getting closer to the day care. Another
pause. He said they'd found "toys and children's records to indicate
we're getting closer to the child care center."
I fought it. Fought it as hard as I could. I kept writing.
I reminded myself that I'd have to call the Medical Examiner's
office after 5 p.m. to get the last official counts of the day since
I wouldn't be able to go to that press conference with my deadline.
Hansen was explaining to reporters exactly what the areas that had
come to be called The Pit, The Pile and The Cave looked like. He
explained that in the area where the day care was believed to be,
about nine floors had compacted themselves into an area about a story
and a half high. I couldn't even imagine it.
Hansen began to make a sketch on a legal pad as he talked. I
wasn't sure if anyone else noticed, so I started making a mirror copy
on my notepad of the squiggly circles he was drawing.
It turned out to be a map of the inside area with The Pit on the
upper left side, The Cave next to it and to the right and the
Pile/Pancake area next to the raw opening of the buiding that faced
the press area.
He was pointing out different areas, places where there were huge
cracks and where the cranes were in relation to everything else. I
was drawing, my sketch as rough as his, and I added arrows and
notations to each area he pointed to. Where the last survivor had
been found (The Cave), where the day center is (deep in the right
side of the Pile), where the parking garages were (back and to the
right and left) and what the actual layout looked like inside.
Hansen started to get nervous as he held up the drawing.
"Nobody's filming this drawing, are they?" He put down the sketch,
worried that his crude scribbling would end up on TV. "This is not
an artist's rendition of this."
Reporters started laughing. Finally, some levity.
One reporter asked if he could have Hansen's drawing. I wanted to
kick myself for not thinking of that. Hansen clung to it, unsure.
"Why do you want it?"
"I'm a print reporter! I can't draw!"
Hansen looked him over and slowly gave it to him. I asked for a
photocopy, but the reoprter was already taking off. The press
conference was over. I had become a Jon Hansen fan.
I hooked up with Barbara again, who hadn't really gone near the
press conference. Muskogee had sent her with the intention of
getting local color and since they were probably running AP stuff on
the nuts and bolts, she wasn't really needed for the Hansen press
She was going to head out to some of the area churches to do some
color about rebuilding and volunteerism which we had pretty much done
to death already with an early story Greg wrote and the story I did
about the churches, the cathedral and the chiropractors.
Barbara, who I was really beginning to like -- she has a great
sense of humor, is resourceful and, as I said before, likes
Animaniacs (there are two kinds of people in this world -- those
who get Animaniacs and those who just don't. It works the same
with The Simpsons.) -- was going to give me a ride to my car since
I really needed to be heading back to Norman to begin writing.
I was excited because I knew I'd have a story about the quick
progress the workers were making as well as the feature I wanted to
do on Larry.
I called Joy to tell her and she was receptive to both ideas, so I
was ready to make my exit.
I didn't tell Barbara that my car was parked just outside the
press area. Parts were blocked off, so we'd have to circle anyway.
I was curious about her car anyway. Call me curious. Because I was.
So you can call me that. Yes. Curious.
On the way, we ran into a reporter from a small university paper
whose name escapes me. She probably gave me a business card, but at
this point, does anyone really care that I go look it up? I didn't
I had met her at a journalism job fair a few months ago (just
before I found out about my Tulsa internship when I still had my
hopes pinned on The Dallas Morning News) and remembered her as very
friendly, chatty and desperate to make contacts with any journalism
I think it's because she was from such a small paper and college.
You know it's a small college paper when the editor (which she is)
writes most of the articles.
She talked with me for a few minutes and congratulated me on
Tulsa, which she had really been pushing for. She didn't hide her
disappointment and asked (in a very friendly way, so you don't
mistake her meaning) why I thought I'd been hired.
I told her it was probably because I'd already worked for a
community newspaper (The Midwest City Sun, where I'd covered the city
of Harrah, written and laid out the front page of The Harrah Herald
and written, edited an laid out the Sunday entertainment page by
myself), and I had pretty great clips from The Daily.
Then I was blunt. Tan Ly, who also got the internship and will
hopefully be my roommate this summer, and I had talked about it. Two
of the three hired had been minorities. Tan is Asian-American and
I'm Hispanic. It was, I really like to think, not the only factor,
but I'm pretty sure it had to be one of them. I take a management
class -- it's about making your staff more diverse.
We talked for a few more minutes until Barbara and I started
getting fidgety and we left.
Barbara, true to her word, took me to my car. I cleared a few
books from the front seat, including The Scarlet Letter. I asked to
make sure it wasn't the novelization of the coming Demi Moore
adaptation (god help us all) and we chatted a bit more.
I urged Barbara to come to the newsroom to write her stories
rather than go to Kinko's and pay to fax and write. I said we could
get together later and hang out or something and she seemed
I drove pretty hurriedly. Traffic had been bad every day about
this time, especially where construction was going on between Moore
and Oklahoma City. Long rows of still vehicles, most with their
lights on over a week after the explosion, sat, motionless.
I finally got back just after five and started writing.
Joy urged me to write quickly because my frequent trips to the
city were making me go over deadline almost every night.
And here is where I add my bit about Joy -- when I first met Joy
Mathis, over a year ago when she came in as a copy editor, and later
on as a reporter, one of my first impressions was that she was a
little pushy. That turned out to be true, but not in the way I
Joy is the kind of journalist every newsroom needs to have -- she
doesn't settle for good enough like a lot of people do when they want
to go home or get tired of rewriting their copy till it's perfect.
She is pushy in the sense that she pushes her reporters to strive for
excellence and not settle for good enough.
Almost every day, when I think I've written brilliant copy that I
think children could eat off of, Joy will ask a very simple question
or point out a hole that you could fit Nell Carter through. I'll
uhhh and ahhhh and try to come up with an explanation and realize it
was just laziness. She's good about things like that.
Anyway, I was working on a general overview of the downtown work,
mostly with information from Hansen. I called the Medical Examiner's
office. Since we didn't go to the 5 p.m. press conference, I needed
an official update on the death toll, the number missing and other
vital info. I also included Larry's story about the C-130s into what
I wrote. Overall, it turned out pretty well and saved us from using
an AP story.
The number, I'm pretty sure, turned out to be 96 dead, 88
identified, and about 96 missing, with that number fluctuating daily.
I asked them to fax the latest list of victims, which they did
only minutes later.
Everything was going smoothly. A few minutes later, Barbara came
in and started working on her story. She asked me for Larry's
official title and we ended up calling his cell phone because I also
needed to know what time the C-130s had begun to fly over the
Larry gave us the information and we kept writing.
I had Jack open the business office (it closes at 5 p.m. It was
about 6 p.m. by this time) to get the faxes. A basic press release
update on the Red Cross, including number of volunteers. And a list
I ran through the list pretty quickly -- but not so quickly the
name didn't jump at me like a bolt of lightning. I stood by the
chair I'd been sitting in just minutes before, writing. My mouth
wouldn't work. And so, I didn't speak for a while.
Carla Wade was our UOSA reporter last semester. I will tell you
this: anyone who covers student government for The Daily is just a
trooper. They have to put up with lots of BS (or at least they did
in the past -- relations have gotten a lot better this semester) and
put up with a lot of abuse from people in student government who just
don't like us.
She had been a quiet reporter who was almost always on top of her
beat. She'd been hired to be a reporter this semester, but had to
back out when she got a job at 1140 AM as co-host of a morning show.
We missed her, but still saw her occasionally. She's in my Modern
American Women class.
We found out on about the second day that Carla's dad was missing.
She'd called one of her professors and told him she was missing
class for that reason and he'd told us. We'd been pulling for her
the whole time, knowing, or hoping, they'd find him.
I looked at the list.
JOHNNY WADE ..... 42 APRIL 26
I still couldn't speak. No words came. I couldn't cry either.
Everything in me just blocked up.
All I could do was go to Joy, then go to Tiffany and show it to
everyone. I pointed to the name. Everyone was shocked. We'd talked
about doing something for Carla, and had been unsure during this
crazy week what would be appropriate with her not knowing if he was
alive or dead. Now we knew.
I went to the backshop and made a general announcement.
I rememebered the last time I'd talked to Carla for any length of
time was when I covered the Black Student Association's Miss Black OU
Pagaent. Carla, who'd been a contestant last year, had been there
and we'd had a nice long conversation. She is wonderful and one of
the last people I'd ever want to see this happen to.
I put the list back on my desk. I kept writing. I was past
deadline and not caring. The writing was slow, deliberate. I put it
all away and kept going. I don't know how I did it.
I got done at about the same time Barbara did. Joy finished
editing my stories and I think they were pretty clean because it
didn't take very long.
Mas'ood and I chatted. I told him I was sorry I didn't make it to
the rally and he said it was fine. Michelle was writing the story
about it and I hoped that reading it would give me a sense of what
I was scrambling around, trying to print my first three accounts
out of Netscape because the online web versions look much prettier
than these plain text versions.
When it was all done, I collated and stapled. It was a pretty
Barbara and I had agreed to go get dinner because we were both
starving. She had maybe two bananas all day and I'd had only the
messy chicken fingers.
First, though, she needed to find a book about bombs. Those wacky
people at Muskogee -- they wanted to do a story about how easy it is
to make a bomb and as such needed to find a book on how to do it.
I suggested The Anarchist's Cookbook and after doing an OLIN
(Orthodontic Library something or other. I don't know the meaning of
that acronym), we saw that the OU library, Bizzell, had it.
We walked it over there, chatting along the way. When we got
there, they told us it was in special holdings and you could only get
it during day hours. Crap.
Barbara suggested we scour the bookstores to find it and I was
happy to tag along, so I grabbed my things and headed out. She also
needed to find where her hotel was and check in, so we were going to
the city. Well, I could follow her. Or I could take her. No, that
wouldn't work -- she wouldn't have her car. I suggested that if we
took separate cars, we wouldn't be able to chat. So maybe she could
drive me up, then bring me back to Norman later. "Get in," she
finally said, and we were off.
The drive was short and full of conversation. She talked about
what it was like to work for Gannett and how the OSU O' Collegian had
slipped a notch in quality since she'd left. Maybe that's just what
all alums say when they leave their college paper.
She told me the story of how she was picked up by Gannett pretty
much right out of college. The story involved meeting an editor at
what turned out to be a gay bar (unbeknownst to all parties except,
I'm supposing, the gay men who were at the bar) and wanting to write
We talked college papers and bombing coverage and just made an
evening of it. When journalists get together and start talking, you
can't shut them up. Non-journalists beware: this is not a good
thing. Don't get us started. We think we know everything.
We got to the Holiday Inn WAY THE HELL out on I-40 and Meridian.
by that time, all the bookstores were closed, so we went to dinner
instead. There was a place attached to the Inn that was closed. We
were scouting for food after she'd checked in. She got an expense
account from Muskogee and a room at a place that wasn't Motel 6. I
We went to a place called Calhoun's. I immediately asked the
waitress if I could see Calhoun. Turns out there is no Calhoun.
Now, if I was naming a restaurant and there was no Calhoun, I sure as
hell woudnt't name it after him anyway. But we don't live in a
logical world, do we?
Dinner was wonderful. Barbara had a steak craving and had a
12 oz. that was a little bloody for her taste. I had a smothered
chicken. The waitress, who was very sweet came to our table.
"Now, before I order this, I want to make sure -- smothering is
how the meal is cooked, not the means of killing the chicken, right?"
I went on about chickens being stalked by chefs with pillows for a
Barbara and I talked about everything. What it's like to be a
minority in Oklahoma (she is half-Japanese and is from a small town
just outside Tulsa), the grind of working for a paper and foregoing
your dream of writing The Great American Novel (which I may be doing
anyway by accident) and just about ourselves. It was great fun.
She ordered dessert and gave me a bite. Something very chocolaty
with a lot of coconut. Not bad.
Again, I was really getting to like Barbara. She had a very high
silliness threshhold and knew what it was like to be a journalist.
Not all journalists are silly. Believe me, I've looked.
She took me back to Norman and we talked more all the way. It was
about a 45 minute drive and it was over too soon when she dropped me
off at the Daily parking lot, where my '82 Buick Skylark sat. (And
yes, smartasses out there, it DOES run and very well, thank you.)
I hugged her goodnight and told her I probably wouldn't make it
out downtown tomorrow because I had the Larry story to write. She
said she'd be in the newsroom anyway when I asked her when I'd see
I was happy -- euphoric, on top of the world. What a nice way to
end an evening.
I immediately thought of Carla the last time I'd seen her.
Happy (she smiles almost more than anyone else I know. On that basis
alone, at least, she was a great UOSA reporter). It all came
crashing down suddenly.
It wasn't fair, this happiness. It wasn't right. Yes, it's life
and yes we move on, but no... it's a tangled mix. Sad, happy. I
thought of the whole terrible mess and how if it had never happened I
would never have met this wonderful person and never began to write
this journal that has reached so many kind people and ... and...
I can't think like that. This is not why it happened. You can't
justify things like this or paint silver linings where there is only
black smoke and deafening thunder.
So much good had come out of it -- from the volunteers to the
prayers ... in my case, publicity, the launching of the web site,
contacts, feeling whole in my work. What right did I have to be
happy? To feel like it was good that I be a part of this horrible
I needed sleep. I needed to sort things out. It wouldn't happen
I got home and began writing immediately. I had a test to study
for in Human Resouce Management, so I ended up knocking off at about
2 a.m. and going to bed, not having finished Day 8. I continued
writing well into the next night, relying on notes and memory, but
probably leaving a few holes. But that I'll probably go into in Day
Copyright ©1995-2001 by Omar L. Gallaga