For Survivors Of Tragedy, Is It Best To Stay Or Move Elsewhere?
Richard Williams just walked out of a meeting in the Murrah Federal Building on the morning of April 19, 1995. He was talking with a colleague when the blast went off. It’s the last thing he remembers.
“I was dug out by an Oklahoma City policeman, taken to the university hospital where they treated me with triage and subsequently follow-up surgeries and physical therapy and all those kind of things for years,” Williams said.
Williams worked in the General Services Administration as an assistant building manager. He knew the building forwards and backwards, and he knew just about everybody who worked there.
“That was my building,” Williams said. “Those were my my tenants and I had to get out and make sure that if there was anything that I could do to help that I could possibly do it.”
As soon as he was physically able, he threw himself into work, helping in any way he could. He became heavily involved in planning the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.
“It was very cathartic because it gave me purpose,” Williams said.
Staying or leaving
Jumping right back into a tragedy, doesn’t work for everybody.
Dr. Phebe Tucker, a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, co-authored a recent paper to see if if survivors of the bombing have better long-term outcomes if they remain in the community of the disaster, or if they relocate.
“There's a lot of studies that have been done but for the most part people who stay within the disaster community really tend to do a little bit better,” Dr. Tucker said.
She and her team looked for symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety among survivors. She hypothesized that those who stay in the community would do better.
“The disaster community has a support network set up, there may be formal disaster assistance and services. There are people who have been through the similar thing so there is community support. Families are generally close by so so we might think that that would be better for the person to have that support,” Dr. Tucker said.
Her research didn’t turn out any statistically significant differences, even though numerically, those who left actually did better than those who stayed.
“That was surprising to us because we really thought that the survivors who stayed in their familiar communities would do better. It wasn't the case,” Dr. Tucker said.
Other researchers have looked at how relocation affects survivors following natural disasters. Dr. Louis Najarian, a clinical psychiatry professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York, has been following the mental health of survivors of the 1989 Armenian earthquake for years. Early studies, conducted a couple years after the quake, found survivors who stayed in the community were doing better than those who left. But outcomes changed with time. Dr. Najarian says after twenty years, the survivors who were doing the best were those who left and never came back.
“These people who had left five to ten years later, and they just relocated and established in other cities,” Dr. Najarian said.
Dr. Najarian says there are different coping mechanism for surviving a natural disaster as compared to an act of terrorism. He says survivors can’t get back at nature for creating an earthquake.
“When it’s like 9-11 or the Oklahoma bomber -- it’s a person. You can be angry at an individual. In some ways, that makes the treatment harder,” Dr. Najarian said.
It was great to just be a student in an environment again where no one knew me
Jason Williamson survived the Oklahoma City bombing in the Federal Employees Credit Union on the Murrah building’s third floor. He was back at work in a temporary credit union location just two days later.
“I went back to work but nothing was normal, right. We were in a different space. Eighteen of my co-workers had been killed and a few others were missing due to injuries,” Williamson said.
Customers were dealing with their own emotions. Many had lost family and friends of their own.
“We were being consoled by a lot of people coming in. We were having to console in turn a lot of distraught people who were coming in and it was just not a normal work environment at all. It wasn't the therapeutic experience I was hoping for,” Williamson said.
After a few months, Williamson left the credit union. He was a graduate student at the time, and he spent a semester abroad, in Austria. It was just what he needed.
“It was great to just be a student in an environment again where no one knew me, in a different culture, different language and to be to be separated from it,” Williamson said.
In Europe, with an ocean between him and Oklahoma, Williamson didn’t have to see the constant reminders of the tragedy.
“Occasionally random Austrians would ask me, ‘Oh, Oklahoma. Isn't that where wasn't there this bombing there last year?’ And I would usually just play it off just by saying, ‘Yes that's where I'm from,’ and answer the questions as briefly as possible and then move on. And I wouldn't mention my my part in it.”
Both Richard Williams and Jason Williamson say they were never diagnosed with PTSD. Williamson, whose study abroad experience helped him heal, is now a German professor at the University of Oklahoma. And Williams, who stayed in Oklahoma City and helped plan the memorial, moved away. He followed his son to Texas to watch his grandchildren grow up.
For Williams, one of the most difficult things about moving was being away from the memorial.
“To walk away from what we had accomplished since the day after the bombing so to speak, up until 2005 when we moved, it is very difficult,” Williams said.
He says he doesn’t fault survivors who don’t participate in anniversaries like the ones held every April 19, and those who don’t want the constant reminders of the tragedy. Healing, he says, is different for everybody.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story identified the credit union on the third floor of the Murrah Federal Building as the Tinker Federal Credit Union. If was, in fact, the Federal Employees Credit Union. We apologize for the error.
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