Paul Heath walks around the Oklahoma City National Memorial grounds, greeting visitors and making sure everyone has information about a self-guided tour.
Heath is a retired psychologist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. His office was on the fifth floor of the Murrah Building when the bomb exploded. The floor collapsed two feet in front of him.
“Here's what I actually thought, ‘God I don't want to die. I don't want to die today. If it's all right with you, I'll die later,’” Heath says. “That's exactly what I thought, and I was looking straight in the bomb pit.”
Heath survived the blast with minor injuries, mainly glass embedded into his skin. The spry 80 year old considers himself to be psychologically healthy, save for the occasional nightmare. But as a mental health professional, he knew the name of the game in the weeks and months following the tragedy: seek help if you need it.
“We saw a lot of survivors and a lot of the family members first,” Tassey says. “Now, here we are 20 years later and we're opening new cases for post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The new cases are mostly for first responders. There’s such a stigma associated with counseling that many police and firemen never bothered to get treatment, according to Tassey, who often sees PTSD numbers increase among first responders in the years following a disaster.
“They did their job and they did it well, and then they tried to get on with their life, and then all of the sudden it caught up to them,” Tassey says.
And some bombing survivors are struggling to this day. Dr. Phebe Tucker is a psychiatrist at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Medicine. She and her colleagues still counsel a number of people impacted by the tragedy.
“Over the years, I've heard many stories of, ‘I happened to be at a meeting on a different floor on the south side of the building, and my office was destroyed,’” Tucker says. “Many people, their desk was just on the edge of the abyss.”
Tucker just wrapped up a nearly 20-year-old follow up on mental health after the Oklahoma City bombing. Her team interviewed more than 100 survivors who were in the blast, 23 percent of whom had markers for PTSD.
“It sounds like, for some individuals, they're going to need longer-term care,” Tucker says.
“You can think, ‘Ok, that's one in five, or one in four,’" John Tassey says. “Depends on how you look at it, but that's pretty high.
“The thing you can make about that number is how consistent it is over time. If you look at war fighters, the prevalence of PTSD is like 15 to 20 percent; first responders responding to mass casualty incidents is like 15 to 20 percent.”
Because the Oklahoma City bombing was the largest terrorist attack in the nation until September 11, these numbers are some of the first coming from domestic terrorism survivors.
Tucker and Tassey say it’s important to determine what’s most effective for preventing PTSD. But once they figure that out, there’s another hill to climb.
“We have better treatments now than we did in 1995, so that's good. But we have to get people to be willing to participate in it because psychological treatment is uncomfortable,” Tassey says.
Back at the bombing memorial, Paul Heath stands next to an American elm that’s also a survivor, known as the survivor tree. It withstood the bomb’s blast.
Heath says he’s doing so well because of what he’s done since that day twenty years ago. For him, few things are more important than talking about what happened.
“To have been in the event and not be physically damaged that much was a real blessing because then it allowed me to be of much help to others,” he says.
Heath doesn’t think he has survivor’s guilt. But if he does, he says that’s what drove him to reach out and support others who lived through the bombing.
Editor's Note: It’s been 20 years since a bomb destroyed the Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds of others. KGOU and our partners with the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange are marking the anniversary of the historic event with a series of stories about the bombing and its aftermath.
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