April 17, 2015

A Survivor’s Perspective 20 Years after the Oklahoma City Bombing

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Photo: Field of empty chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Photo credit to Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

Michael Reyes is now a Management Analyst in the HQ Office of Single Family Housing. His father, Antonio Reyes, was one of the 35 HUD employees killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building on April 19, 1995. He was also in the building that day and suffered injuries.

It is wonderful that Secretary Castro will be in the Oklahoma City Field Office on Wednesday, April 22, to honor the 17 HUD Oklahoma City employees who are still working for the agency 20 years after the bombing.  I am among those 17, and as I now live in Washington D.C., I will not be able to be there in person, but I will be there in spirit.

The support I received from the community and HUD immediately after the bombing was so great that at times it was overwhelming.  I remember colleagues in headquarters, the Tulsa office, and other field offices who jumped in and helped to continue operations as much as possible during those first few months when we had no office space. When I think about how HUD took care of us immediately after the bombing, I remember that of all the agencies housed in the Murrah Building, no agency was more generous to its survivors than HUD.

I remember my supervisor Matt Gardner, who also lost his mother, J. Colleen Guiles, that day, setting up weekly group counseling sessions with those of us on his team before HUD had set-up another office to return to.  I remember going to individual counseling (for several years) at Catholic Charities.  At one point, I reminded my counselor, Sister Betty, that my case worker with the Department of Labor was asking for a status report, and that without it, Catholic Charities would not be reimbursed for my counseling sessions.  I was stunned when Sister Betty said, “Oh, we’re not seeking any reimbursement.”  This is how I learned that Catholic Charities was providing counseling free of charge.  I never saw a bill, and I never wrote a check.

I also remember no loss of income.  HUD continued to pay my salary.  The Department of Labor paid all medical bills, and I never really had any significant out of pocket expenses.

A few years later, a friend of mine told me how proud he was of me for being able to live a normal life.  I was shocked to hear this, and responded that the alternative, to hide away in your home like a hermit, is not living!

As you can imagine, the grieving process has been slower than my physical healing.  At the time, and even today, I actually consider myself lucky to have been wounded, as my physical healing provided me something to focus on other than Dad’s death.   It has been 20 years since this tragic crime, and in that time my body has completely recovered from its injuries. My heart and soul, however, remain forever scarred by this event, by the personal loss that it inflicted on me and my family, and on our American family.

On April 23, 1995, President Clinton spoke at a memorial prayer service in Oklahoma City, called “A Time of Healing.”  During his eulogy he quoted from a letter sent to him in the wake of the bombing. It was from a young widow and mother of three whose own husband was killed when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. She wrote,

“The anger you feel is valid, but you must not allow yourselves to be consumed by it. The hurt you feel must not be allowed to turn into hate, but instead into the search for justice. The loss you feel must not paralyze your own lives. Instead, you must try to pay tribute to your loved ones by continuing to do all the things they left undone, thus ensuring they did not die in vain.”

These words characterize the journey I have been on these past 20 years.  Not a day goes by that I do not think of my father or the day that I lost him to terrorism.  That day will always be an important part of my life.  But it does not define me.  I think that is a large part of why I am still committed to HUD and federal service.

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