HE HAD EXPECTED SOME emotion. Perhaps he would cry. But when the decision he had awaited for 25 months came last week, Paul Heath had no more tears. “It did not move me,” he said, “other than to say I’m glad we finally got the verdict and glad the jury has spoken for me.”
On April 19, 1995, Heath, 61, a psychologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was at his desk on the fifth floor of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when a Ryder rental truck exploded outside, killing 168 people and injuring some 500 in the worst case of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. When a Denver jury last week found Timothy McVeigh, 29, guilty on all 11 federal counts against him, it brought the first signs of closure for Heath and scores of others who lived through the blast or lost loved ones. “I don’t expect to get over it,” says Heath, who heads a support group for survivors. “But I want to learn to live with it in a way that it doesn’t interfere with my everyday reality.”
Heath remembers too clearly the last moments before that reality was unalterably shattered. At 9:01 a.m., he had just completed a routine business meeting when he heard three distinct noises. “One was the starter dynamite,” he says, “then there was another that sounded like a huge electrical short, and then the third sound was the building coming apart.”
Though he had suffered a heart attack just a month earlier, Heath, buried chest high in debris but escaping major injury, dug himself out and hurried to help two colleagues—the first holding one eye in his hand, the second with an inch-long glass shard embedded in his head—escape the flaming ruins. Then, in vain, Heath looked for fellow members of the building’s safety committee. “I was the only one who had gotten out that I could find,” he says. “That was a very helpless feeling.”
Miraculously, all 11 employees of his office survived, but with the others on leave, Heath worked alone—and tirelessly—over the next six weeks to relocate the office. “He didn’t have it in him to be able to slowdown,” says his wife, Willetta, 61. Heath also helped establish the survivors’ association, doing whatever he could to help with recovery. “My job as a victim,” says Heath, who lost some of his hearing in the explosion, “is to be a successful survivor, to be a helper of others and to be a responsible citizen.”
That included making the survivors part of the legal process. Once the trial was moved to Denver, Heath helped lead the successful battle to force Judge Richard Matsch to provide closed-circuit TV coverage of the trial for blast victims and their families back in Oklahoma City. He also followed the trial closely, flying to Denver six times and often arriving by 6 a.m. to get a seat in the courtroom. It wasn’t always easy. “You do relive some of the traumatic feelings you have,” he says. Yet he saw it as his duty.
“I think he will always have some compelling feeling of needing to help other people, because there are those who have not healed,” says Willetta, an elementary school media specialist who was his high school sweetheart when both were growing up in Oklahoma City. After a brief career as a history teacher and counselor, Heath, now the father of two grown children, earned a doctorate in psychology and has worked for the federal government for 30 years.
Though his coronary ailments persist—including two heart attacks since the bombing—he continues to work, both for the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a volunteer. “I have just felt so thankful since that day that I have him with me each day to enjoy,” says Willetta. In his wallet, Heath carries a souvenir from a memorial for the bombing victims, a purple ribbon with the words Your Memories Bring Joy. Says Heath: “I think that epitomizes my own idea of how you get over it.”
Still, he bears the burden of surviving a calamity that cost so many lives. “You absolutely feel guilty if you live through a situation where others have died,” he says. “[But] I finally got this statement in my head: ‘I know who blew up the building, and it wasn’t me.’ ”
With the verdict in, the rest of the world knows too.
VICKIE BANE in Denver