Bombing scars leave new perspective for Purifoy
When Dennis Purifoy came to, he called for help.
“I couldn’t figure out why no one was coming to help me,” he recalled.
Moments earlier, Purifoy was sitting at a computer screen. The last thing he remembered was a flash across the screen. Now, he was sprawled on the floor with a 5 x 5-foot ceiling tile covering him.
“I thought my computer had blown up,” he said. “It was pitch dark, and for a minute, I thought I was blind.”
It was shortly after 9 a.m. on April 19, 1995, and what Purifoy didn’t realize is most of his coworkers were also covered in debris, injured or even dead.
When a coworker finally came and helped free Purifoy from the ceiling tile, he realized that more than his computer had blown up.
“I knew it was some kind of explosion,” said Purifoy. “A few weeks before, we had evacuated the building because of a gas leak somewhere downtown. A lot of people thought there had been a gas explosion.”
Purifoy worked in the Social Security office of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where 16 employees and 24 customers in the office died on that cloudy Spring day.
The Social Security office was located on the first floor of the building, and Purifoy said the experience there was different from those working on floors above.
“A good part of the front of the building was blown away, and there was all this light coming into the building, but on the first floor, the rubble piles from the collapse of the building were so big, we were in total darkness.”
Purifoy said he suffered only minor injuries—bumps and bruises and had to have a couple of stitches on one ear. He was back at work even before the SSA offices reopened at Shepherd Mall just a month later, even though he said he was not at full effectiveness.
Purifoy said his wife got aggravated with him when people asked him how he was doing in the days after the bombing.
“I said I was doing OK, but she said I wasn’t,” Purifoy revealed.
Purifoy, who grew up in Oklahoma City, Putnam City and is now a member of Church of the Good Shepherd in Yukon, said immediately after the bombing, he was not concerned with who did it, because he had too many other problems at the top of his list. But as things began to unfold, he kept up with the trials and even attended some of them.
“Since the bombing, I’ve had an ongoing interest in the far right wing militia groups that I don’t think most people have,” Purifoy admitted. “I’ve been more aware of these type of groups that Timothy McVeigh was associated with, and how they are still out there.”
He referred to a group recently arrested in Michigan—the Hutaree—who call themselves Christian militia, and who were planning to kill law enforcement officers.
“The book, The Turner Diaries, was found in one of their homes,” Purifoy said. “That was one of McVeigh’s favorite books.
“Fortunately, after the bombing, most people stepped back and said, wait a minute, we may not agree with everything the government does or may think they haven’t been treated right, but realized people killed in the bombing, who were working for the federal government, were there doing their best job for the American people. I think that awareness has faded somewhat.”
Purifoy noted that there have been numerous times in the past 15 years that these types of militia groups have been arrested.
“I’m not paranoid, but my antenna is out there, and I catch things like that which get lost in the haze of so much news we are bombarded with every day,” he said.
Purifoy said after the bombing that most people think their days are going to be the same every day, but “we aren’t guaranteed that. I realize, whether it be at the hands of a nut or a traffic accident, our lives could end at any time.”
Purifoy pointed out that any time anyone goes through a near-death experience, they try to value every moment of life thereafter.
“Most people have a theoretical idea that they could die anytime, but seeing it up close and personal like that gives you a deeper gut feeling,” he said.
Purifoy, who now works at the Moore Social Security office, said he encourages those who haven’t been to the Oklahoma City National Memorial to go, especially if they want to get a better understanding of what happened.
“It is not a fun visit, but it is certainly educational and can be inspiring,” he said. “One thing the memorial tries to do is show the hope that can come out of a tragedy like this.”
Purifoy said he has spoken to school children over the years, and tries to get them to see that although this was a terrible thing that happened, and we don’t ever want to minimize that and the impact it had on so many families, good things have come from it.
“The people who did it were arrested and tried in courts, so justice prevailed,” he noted. “A lot of people went in to help at the scene, so I talk about rescuers, fire and police, and give kids an idea they might think of that as a career. The people who worked in the building helped people out. Sometimes, we think our immediate reaction in a time like that would be a survival mode to try and survive ourselves. But what I saw and heard over and over again is that people didn’t just head for the nearest exit. They were helping each other out of the building.”
Time is a great healer, observed Purifoy.
“It’s been a long healing process,” he said. “And I’m enjoying the little things in life we take for granted.
Purifoy, who attended the 15th anniversary memorial observance, said it was the first time he had been on the plaza since the bombing and it was nice to be back.
“It was a completely different feeling,” he said. ‘This was really, really nice. I had a little bit of trepidation, but I got through it. When I stepped onto the plaza, it was a whole different feeling because this is the first time since 1995.’’