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Then & Now: Brian Espe

Then: Brian Espe's rescue after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing captivated a nation.



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(CNN) -- On April 19, 1995, Brian Espe was working in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City when a deadly bomb ripped through the facility. Ten years later, the survivor still thinks about the people lost that day.

Images of Espe's rescue -- a survivor moving slowly down a ladder out of the open sore of the federal building -- continue to define the horror of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until September 11, 2001.

For Espe, a veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the morning was just beginning in a meeting room on the fifth floor of the building when he heard a rumble, and then a sickening silence.

"I don't know how long after the rumbling stopped and things stopped falling [that] I looked around and could see sky," Espe remembered in a recent CNN interview.

It took more than an hour for crews to reach Espe and get him to solid ground. Climbing down the ladder to safety was a major obstacle for the shocked man, but firefighter Mark Mulman coaxed Espe down to safety.

"I'm deathly afraid of heights," Espe told CNN. "And that's why I came down the ladder in a more unconventional way: facing out."

Scope of tragedy

Only later, when he saw the devastation on television, did Espe grasp the scope of the tragedy.

At 9:02 the morning of the attack, a crude bomb made of fertilizer and fuel oil and tucked away in a Ryder truck parked in front of the federal building exploded. The blast collapsed floors and blew off the face of the nine-story structure, burying victims in mangled concrete and steel.

Rescue workers recovered 168 bodies from the wreckage, 19 of them children from a day care facility inside the building.

Seven out of 10 of Espe's colleagues on the fifth floor died that morning, and Espe survived only by ducking under a table.

"I think my first thought was, 'It's an earthquake.' Then, my second thought was, 'It's an explosion.' I guess bomb didn't really enter my head until after I got out from ... the rubble I was under. We don't think of bombs in Oklahoma City," he told CNN in an interview shortly after the attack.

Decorated gulf war veteran Timothy McVeigh was convicted of planning the attack and detonating the bomb, and was executed in June 2001.

But he did not act alone. McVeigh's ex-Army buddy, Terry Nichols, is serving multiple life sentences on federal and state charges for assisting in the crime, and a third man, Michael Fortier, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for not warning authorities about the plot.

Federal prosecutors theorize that the Oklahoma City attack was motivated by anti-government feelings over the raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, in 1993.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms believed that the Branch Davidians had stockpiled weapons, and the ATF attempted to stage a surprise attack. During the initial raid, four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed, and a 51-day standoff ensued. On April 19 of that year, the FBI stormed the compound, and a group of buildings caught fire and burned to the ground, killing some 80 men, women and children inside.

The Oklahoma City bombing occurred on the second anniversary of the fire.

Ten years after the bombing, many of those affected are still trying to make sense of it, and remember their friends and colleagues.

"My life has gone on since that day," Espe said. "I think of it. I think of all the people we lost, but I don't dwell on it."

Espe recently retired from the USDA, and he and his wife, Evelyn, moved from Oklahoma to Arkansas and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. He has five children and 11 grandchildren.

And after 10 years of healing, Espe is still in touch with Mulman, the fireman who talked him through his rescue from the battered building.

"Thank God for Mark, because he talked me down every step of the way."

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