Twenty years have passed since a truck bomb blast claimed the life of Jay Sawyer’s mother, and reduced the Alfred P. Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City into a smoldering mountain of rubble and ash.
Twenty years since the confusion of that day, April 19, 1995. The phone tag with his older sister, Michelle. The calls that went straight to voicemail on his mother’s cell phone. The long drive in a borrowed minivan across the pancake-flat Missouri and Oklahoma landscapes.
And then the call they received in Joplin, Mo., just before the Oklahoma state line. The call that confirmed what the Sawyers were already beginning to dread: their mother, Belleville native Dolores Stratton, 51, had indeed been killed, along with 167 other people, in the worst case of homegrown terrorism in American history.
Seated in the living room of his house outside Waterloo, with the 20th anniversary of the worst day of his life a few days away, Jay Sawyer said he’s quit thinking about the bomb blast and the manner of his mother’s death.
“I think about her all the time. But I think about her in a positive way,” Sawyer said. “I don’t like to live in the past and negative things like that. I know my mom wouldn’t want me to.”
Dolores Stratton, who was divorced from Sawyer’s father when he was a small child, is buried in a cemetery in Oklahoma City. She had moved there with her husband, an Air Force computer technician stationed at nearby Tinker Air Force Base.
During the 1997 trial of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of building and detonating the truck bomb, a co-worker recalled that Stratton, who worked in the U.S. Army recruiting office, had just gone to the fourth-floor snack bar for a bagel and cup of tea when the building exploded. Her desk remained in the room, but Stratton vanished in a cloud of smoke, according to the testimony.
Sawyer said he and his family used to visit the cemetery, but then he stopped going. The visits became too painful, the city symbolizing too much hurt and heartbreak.
“It got to the point I didn’t want to go down there,” Sawyer said. “It wasn’t good memories. After a couple years I was just like, ‘I can’t go back down there.’ I don’t want to keep reliving this every single year.”
In the years since, during hard times after her death, Sawyer would see something on TV or hear a song on the radio that reminded him of her.
“And it would be like, all right, she’s still watching over me,” he said. “And everything’s going to be OK.”
He rarely brings up the bomb blast when talk turns to his mother. When he does talk about her to family and friends, “It’s about, ‘She traveled here, and she went and did this.’ I think about her every day. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t.”
The 20-year anniversary Sunday of the Oklahoma City bombing will turn that city, once again, into a media epicenter. There will be talk of home-grown terrorism and the right-wing militia movement that spawned McVeigh and his accomplices. There will be remembrances and vigils, and tears shed about the loss of so many innocent lives, including 19 toddlers killed in the Murrah building’s daycare center.
Sawyer acknowledged that during the first year after his mother’s death, he read a lot about the blast and the conspiracy that led to it. He thought about the many questions that still endure to this day, including whether McVeigh, an Army veteran of the Gulf War, was truly the bomb plot mastermind and if any of his accomplices are still at large.
But today, after the passage of so many years, Sawyer wants the world to remember one thing about his mother: She was a good woman with a big heart, a single mom who made sure her son and daughter had everything they needed.
“I’ve distanced myself from it now,” he said. “I would rather celebrate the manner in which she lived rather than the manner in which she died.”
Sawyer, 45, brightened as he stepped back in time, to his childhood in Belleville in the years after his parents’ divorce.
“She was a great mom. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother,” he said. “My parents were divorced. And we didn’t have a lot of money, but she always made sure we had what we needed. And we had a hot meal and a clean home and clean clothes. She worked real hard for everything we had. She was Catholic and she was Irish. And she really believed in her heritage.”
Dolores Stratton liked to cook and she liked to take her kids on vacation, even if money was tight.
“It was usually Branson (Mo.) or someplace like that,” he said. “She always made sure we got time away.”
But she was no pushover.
“My mom was the one that ruled the roost,” Sawyer said. “She kept us in line and kept us on track. If you got in trouble, she was the one you didn’t want to have to go to. I don’t remember getting any spankings, but I remember getting grounded quite a bit growing up.”
Sawyer, a Waterloo police sergeant, is divorced, the father of a son, 22, and a daughter, 17.
Sawyer would like to talk to his mom about what it’s like to raise kids of his own, or going through the travails of teaching his teen daughter to drive. But he can’t, of course.
“The things I miss the most are like being able to pick the phone up and go, ‘I need somebody to talk to,’” he said. “You need your mom. I don’t have those opportunities.”
The retrospectives this weekend about Oklahoma City will include discussions of one central question: Can it happen again?
Tod Burke, a professor of Criminal Justice at Radford University, in Radford, Va., thinks the answer is yes.
“The right-wing militia types are still out there,” Burke said.
The good news is that U.S. law enforcement agencies, because of the missed clues and inter-agency rivalries that allowed both the Oklahoma City and 9/11 terror plots to occur, are working more closely together than ever, Burke said.
“We have better communication and we have better surveillance, better intelligence,” he said.
Since 1995, the rise of the Internet, particularly social media, has created a double-edged sword. Close monitoring of social media makes it easier for law enforcement to spot extremist rhetoric before it becomes violent. But social media also makes it easier for extremist groups to recruit new members, according to Burke.
Another big change since 1995 has been the willingness of regular citizens to get involved and report suspicious activity, he said.
“It’s the community members, the average citizen saying, ‘you know, there’s something not right about my neighbor next door,’” Burke said. “Or, ‘I’ve noticed this posting on Facebook that really worries me,’ and then they tend to report it. So it’s not always law enforcement doing the monitoring. It’s the citizens doing the monitoring.”
Six years after the bombing that killed his mother, Sawyer made one more trip back to Oklahoma City.
It was June of 2001. He and other family members of the bombing victims huddled into a room to watch the execution of McVeigh on closed-circuit television. A camera showed in real time McVeigh’s death by lethal injection in the federal death chamber at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
“I think everybody was hoping he would say something, have some kind of remorse,” Sawyer recalled of McVeigh. “But he didn’t say anything.”
Not that McVeigh’s words, even if they were an apology, would have made much difference.
“Theres’ really nothing he could’ve said that could’ve changed how I feel about him or the situation,” Sawyer said.
As for whether McVeigh’s execution made a difference for him, whether it brought him any sense of closure, Sawyer takes a moment to think back to that day.
“No, not really,” he said.
Sawyer fondly recalled his last meeting with his mother, whom he hadn’t seen for several years. It was just before the bombing. She had come back to Belleville for her mother’s funeral.
“And so I got to see her about three weeks before this happened,”he said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
One of Sawyer’s most treasured reminders of his mom sits on the mantle above the living room fireplace. It is a small hand-held brass bell. He and other family members of the bombing victims received it on the one-year anniversary of the bombing.
Inscribed on the bell are the words, “We’re your neighbors. We’re all on the road together.”
Twenty years is a long time in anyone’s life. If there is a lesson from his mother’s death, it coalesces around one fundamental truth: how your life can change in an instant.
“One minute everything’s wonderful, it’s a beautiful sunny day, similar to how today is,” Saywer said. “And then in an instant, everything changes. And it’s taught me to treasure life, and to live it and do the things you want to do.”