Skip to main content

Terror on Trial: Oklahoma City bombing survivor remembers

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

Editor's Note: As part of's new Crime section, we are archiving some of the most interesting content from This story was first published in 2001.

(Court TV) -- Court TV Host: We're going to be talking to the founder and leader of the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Survivors' group, Dr. Paul Heath. Dr. Heath is a retired psychologist, who was on the fifth floor of the Murrah building when the bomb exploded. Almost immediately, he helped in efforts to calm and minister to victims and was a founder of the association of survivors. We're very fortunate to have him with us on the sixth anniversary of the the Oklahoma City bombing.

Court TV Host: Dr. Heath is here with us...welcome, Dr. Heath...

Dr. Paul Heath : Thank you for being a participant in one of the more difficult stories to tell and to listen to.

ctv_warhorse46: What is the mood of Oklahoma City in regards to the bombing today?

Dr. Paul Heath : There is an up mood today, when 500 people came to a 9 o'clock sixth anniversary ceremony. With the 500 people of family members and survivors. They brought with them tokens of appreciation and grief typically found on loved ones' markers at cemeteries on Memorial Day. We all know the symbolic chairs that now occupy a sacred piece of ground where the Alfred P. Murrah federal building once stood and served the public with constitutionally guaranteed services. Those services were provided by individual civil servants who were dedicated to providing those services and in the process were sworn to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States

nytetouch: What was going through your mind as the explosion went off?

ctv_warhorse46: Describe to us what you felt, thought & saw that day.

Dr. Paul Heath : At 9:02, while standing near the only wall in my office suite that did not crumble under the force of a 5,000 pound fertilizer bomb, I turned and looked over my right shoulder and was peering into the burning bomb pit that later was measured to be 8 feet deep and 23 feet long For an instant, I thought I had died. I was encased in materials that came off the ceiling and from around me and was buried to my armpits. Three sounds registered in my ears and brain. The first sound was what an ordinary person would say was a dynamite sound: boom! The second sound was registered by my auditory powers as a humming sound similar to what you hear when a large electrical transformer is shorting, but a louder hum. The third sound was the eight floors falling on to one another and the sound lasted 14 and a half seconds. I know that because I have a tape recording of the sound of the bomb and the building coming apart. I began immediately to bargain with God with a process that registered in my brain without words I was later able to recall this repressed memory. The words were: "God, I don't want to die like this, I don't want to die this way, and I don't want to die in this building. If it's is all right with you, I want to die later." The smoke cleared, and I could hear a co-worker screaming that they were hurt, and I began to uncover the material from my body and prayed God help me keep my head and get out of this alive. My brain registered that we had just had an earthquake which could have ruptured a large natural gas line thereby explaining the smoke and the fire I had observed. Then if it wasn't an earthquake, then perhaps it was an airplane that crashed into the building. But because there was no fire in the building I thought perhaps it could be a meteor that hit the structure. But if it was not a meteor, perhaps it was a piece of space junk.

Dr. Paul Heath : I reached the first employee, who had his left eye in his left hand, after pulling a large piece of glass that had lodged in his eye socket. He also had a large opening in his scalp and other cuts. When I reached him I tore half of his shirt from his back and made a pad for his eye, verbally reassuring him I would get him out of the building, but I would have to kick a wall down in order to get us into the hall. After doing so, I greeted another employee who had a large eight-inch piece of glass lodged in the back of his head and neck. He had lost his glasses and was blind without glasses and was hysterical. I hooked his hands into the belt of the first person and reassured a third employee who was semi-conscious and had his right eye put out and multiple cuts that I would come back into the building with help and bring him out

Dr. Paul Heath : Since that time, the last guy and the guy with eight-inch piece of glass have experienced fatal stress-induced heart attacks. I spent today with the other guy who had his left eye in his hand at the memorial service.

pcook220: Were you hurt? Or did you even think of that?

Dr. Paul Heath : I thought of it. I thought I was dead to start with. As it turned out, I only had dozens of shards of glass that had perforated my clothing and my skin. Later I learned I had lost my high frequency hearing from 2500 decibels upwards. No person who was close to the epicenter of the bomb escaped the emotional trauma. The closer you were to the epicenter the more likely you were to develop one or more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is an anxiety reaction to the fear caused when you believe you are about to die or someone around you that you care about died or was about to die. This kind of experience creates an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. And because your mind wants to survive, the anxiety disorder takes over and can continue if not treated successfully for a lifetime.

Dr. Paul Heath : Of the many symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder: flashback of the original events, sleep disorders, depression, anger, rage, survivor guilt, and in some cases increased drug and alcoholic usage, as well as anger that is so severe that it makes difficult to deal with any kind of authority figure. No two people develop the anxiety disorder alike. Therefore no two people can be treated successfully with a single method of treatment.

Dr. Paul Heath : One other symptom is called hyper-vigilance. Of all of the symptoms, the one I seem to have developed as a result of the bombing was hyper-vigilance. Luckily for me I found a way be hyper-vigilant in a positive and helpful manner that allowed me to move immediately in the direction of positive, new, normal, doing the best I could to provide helpful physical and psychological first aid. I was privileged to work with many of the mothers whose children were in the daycare center who had gotten into the rescue area before it was secured. If one needs further explanation of hyper-vigilance, it is best described as a mental state of alertness. Unfortunately, it can make you overly sensitive to verbal and situational clues that you might have ignored prior to the bombing. People close to you might have commented to you "My you are awfully touchy."

dwight_hedger: Dr.Heath, the people that helped in the rescue, were they there today?

Dr. Paul Heath : A few. They were not there in large numbers. Probably because the police department and fire departments did not let them have time off from work with pay. My guess is that those who served as a security force today, probably volunteered. I personally saw ten or 15 firemen that I recognized. I was privileged to help one emergency medical worker who had lost her composure feeling survival guilt that she did not help enough. I asked her permission to visit with her and her permission to allow me to wrap her in my arms and hold her tight, and allow her head to lay on my shoulder, and I encouraged her to cry as long as she wanted to. As she cried and talked, I suggested that she was feeling guilty because she was not able to give all the help she wanted to that day of the bombing, and that her grief today was stored up for six years. Because grief unresolved will wait for you even a lifetime. I was able to assist her well enough that when we parted, she agreed that her job was not to be able to find someone alive but rather her job on the day of the bombing was to be prepared through careful training, which she was, and be willing to come and help. She agreed, dried her tears and thanked me. But I said you have given me the gift by telling me how this bothered you. And for that gift, I thank you.

laurazuniga23: Do you think that it is correct that some of the victims of the bombing will be able to see the execution of Timothy Mcveigh?

Dr. Paul Heath : Yes. I am the person who hired an attorney in January 2001 and petitioned the United States Bureau of Prisons to reconsider the arbitrary decision that would allow only eight people to view the execution. As a result of that petition the Bureau of Prisons agreed with us that this particular act affected more people than almost any other criminal act in recent history and should be treated with a unique policy customized to fit the needs of the population that was affected by the bombing. They recommended what I purposed to John Ashcroft, the new attorney general. And as a result he wanted to meet us in person. A meeting was held in Oklahoma City, and one family member from each family surveyed from the qualified viewer database that was in place and kept current by the Bureau of Prisons. Over 100 people were in the meeting with Mr. Ashcroft.

Dr. Paul Heath : I was the first one on the floor to speak at that meeting, outlying the same proposal that my attorney had put forth to the administrative head of the federal Bureau of Prisons. I asked for consideration of a closed-circuit encrypted feed for any qualified viewer who had already registered their name when surveyed. The total number was 250 on the day of the meeting. Mr. Ashcroft carefully listened and took notes and heard the next recommendation for an increase in the number of qualified viewers who could be in the small building where the condemned person, who had demanded that the government allow him to request an execution date on May 16 at 6 a.m. central standard time, and a lethal dose of medication which consists of three injections. One will be sodium pentathol The next medication will cause the lungs to take in less oxygen. The third medication injection will cause the heart to cease its muscular activity and that will result in the termination of the condemned delusional and suicidal person who has admitted bombing our community.

cynickel2: Would it help the healing process for the victims to watch TM(can't say his name)die?

momamiappp: Do you think his execution will help bring closure to many?

Dr. Paul Heath : Individuals who elect to be allowed to view the execution basically want the opportunity for three things. The three reasons that people request either to be present or present by closed circuit television is to be able to tell others that they heard the condemn person apologize for their criminal behavior. Second they want to be present and be able to tell others they heard the condemned person tell their motivation for the criminal behavior. Less than one in 20 ever apologize or tell their motivations for their criminal behavior. Therefore qualified viewers will be disappointed 19 times out of 20 expecting this to happen. The third reason qualified viewers express the need to view the execution is to be able to tell others later and recall it themselves that they were there on the day the calendar said May 16, and the clock said 6 a.m. central standard time. And those two markers mark the time when the condemned person can never get out of prison by escaping or by winning a frivolous appeal. And they want to be able to tell others they witnessed the time and place where the condemned person will never hurt or harm anyone else in other peoples' families or their own families. Often people who are qualified viewers are accused of being vengeful by requesting permission to attend an execution. But my own experience with this subject is that most people are motivated by the three reasons I have just outlined. My own experience is that when properly diffused and debriefed about what to expect from and execution by viewing a videotape to allow them to learn from the content of the tape about expectations--realistic ones and unrealistic ones. After viewing the debriefing tape, most then elect to attend the execution, and it is noteworthy that a percentage of people elect not to attend the execution. Those who do attend seldom say they had a negative experience when properly debriefed. Mr. McVeigh has already told in a recent book that he would never apologize. He outlined in excessive detail his motivations for the bombing. He has announced that the only thing he will say, either in total or a few lines, is from William Henley's poem "Invictus." The lines that he likes most probably are those that go: "I am the captain of my own ship, and I am in charge of my own destiny." Perhaps this also explains his own claim to be an agnostic. I fully expect him to quote what he says he will quote. I doubt seriously he will use that opportunity to inflict pain on those qualified viewers. However he is capable of that, I know that for sure. Anyone who can murder 168 people, including 19 children in a daycare center, is certainly capable of inflicting a little more pain on their family members and on the survivors that he intended to kill.

beachgirl_ca2001: Dr. Heath, I am so thankful to have you here with us to share your experience. But on the other hand, does re-telling the story over and over help or hinder your mental and emotional recovery? Thank you and God bless.

Dr. Paul Heath : Telling the story has been perhaps the one thing that I can do to explain why I was not hurt. The VA department in Washington DC the next day after the bombing appointed me to be the official VA spokesperson about the bombing. When I started and founded the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Survivors Association, and served as vice president for two years, (the corporate office is in my small private office suite) that has allowed to tell my story more times than anyone. My telling the story is simply a bump in the road or a mild distraction in a day's activity. Most of the time the bombing and the aftermath does not interfere with my everyday reality. In closing I want to assure to anyone who is listening that I would have preferred to have been the person standing in my office 65 feet from the bomb truck than to have any other person in the world experience it. My family, my community, my state, my country have lent adequate support and emotional encouragement. That has been payment enough for what I experienced in the bombing and telling the story of the bombing.

Court TV Host: Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us this day, the sixth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print