In honor of the 25th anniversary of the bombing, I wanted to share the memories and perspectives of two first responders who spent the days and weeks after the explosion in the rubble in the earliest efforts to help Oklahoma City rebuild. I visited with Tonya Eastridge and her husband, Kyle, about their experience and how they feel the bombing has changed the city, and their family.
Name: Kyle Eastridge
Title on April 19th, 1995: Detective, OKCPD "Crimes Against Persons" Assault Unit
Detective Kyle Eastridge joined the Oklahoma City Police Department in 1985. Coming from a family of law enforcement, he has now served in some capacity for over 35 years.
On April 19th, 1995, Eastridge was at the Police Department, blocks away from the Federal Building. "When the bomb exploded, it felt as though an airplane had crashed into the building." Detectives raced to the roof of the building, where they could see the plumes of smoke rising from the bomb site. They immediately headed to the origin of the smoke, still unaware of what had happened. Injured people were fleeing the area. Buildings nearby had windows broken out. The detectives began securing an area to begin triage.
Shortly after the initial blast, the worry of a second bomb sparked when an ATF "dummy" unit was found in the building. Panic ensued, and the detectives helped evacuate the hundreds of people fleeing to the North. For three weeks, Kyle was assigned to the makeshift morgue on site. Bodies and limbs recovered in the rubble needed identification before the Medical Examiner's Office could make notifications to family. At first, victims were identified by wallets or employee badges. As rescuers made their way further into the rubble, some victims had to be identified by clothing, tattoos, jewelry, or even DNA.
After the first week, efforts shifted into a "recovery only" mode, as authorities believed that anyone who had survived the initial blast would have certainly perished from flooding and the elements.
Name: Tonya Eastridge
Title on April 19th, 1995: Springlake I.M.P.A.C.T. Unit, Street Narcotics
Like her husband, Tonya Eastridge was also nearby the bombing site at 9:02 am and felt the impact. She was in her police vehicle traveling on 36th Street between Oklahoma and Lincoln when the explosion shook her car. Upon reaching her unit and finding out what happened, Tonya went immediately to the scene to aid other officers in securing the area and transporting those injured in the earliest intervention.
A member of the Oklahoma City Police Department since September 1987, Tonya had seen chaos, fear, and confusion in victims. One of her priorities was to secure the crime scene area and help victims get to safety. Over the next days, she would work at the makeshift command center as officers and other government officials arrived at the bomb site.
Other cities realized that they were unprepared if something like this were to happen and sent representatives to observe and assist. She was responsible for helping victims returning to retrieve their cars from the scene and answering questions from those still in shock from their experience. "They wanted to talk. They just wanted a way of coping with the situation."
At the time, the couple had a two-and-a-half-year-old son. When asked about the immediate impact on the family, each recalled the same memory. After so much coverage over the first week, they were traveling downtown with their young son, and he pointed at the broken windows. He asked if that was "the place where all of the people fell down." At that point, they realized how conscious he was of the news. "We told him yeah, that's where it happened," said Kyle. "We had no idea that he understood what was going on."
I asked both if they thought it was helpful or harmful for both to be enduring the same work trauma at once.
Kyle felt that it brought them closer together, knowing that Tonya understood the emotional toll it took, even for a detective who had witnessed painful situations. "We have a different kind of relationship than most because we have both seen so much. I proposed marriage at the scene of a robbery, so yeah, our relationship is unusual."
Tonya said it hit her in the middle. On the one hand, she felt pained that what he saw in the morgue was more graphic than the command center. Knowing how he was feeling watching the victims, some children carried in was something she couldn't take away. At the same time, that shared understanding of grief still helps. "You hug each other, and even though words are not being said, you know that they are there for you."
Finally, I asked both how they feel that the bombing has affected Oklahoma City over the past 25 years.
Kyle wants the community to remember. "People start to forget with all of the horrible things going on, and people move on. You've got to remember that there are still people in the community suffering."
Tonya feels that Oklahoma City grew together as a result, and that impact still lasts today. "How this city came together moved me, and how people from other places poured out support. It's almost like the whole world was here for us. The world is majorly out of control with some stuff, but when you come to this city, that traumatic experience helped us grow."
Both Kyle and Tonya are retired from full-time work with the police department but maintain related careers.
Originally published in Historic District Lifestyle