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Semper Fi: Marine at the OKC Federal Building Bombing
“Semper Fi In Oklahoma City”
HEADQUARTERS, U.S. MARINE CORPS, Washington, D.C. — In the American heartland a stunned nation stood paralyzed by the face of domestic terror. For rescuers who clawed at crumbled concrete, time lacked importance. The search for hope slipped quietly beyond reach as efforts there shifted to the recovery of bombing victims.
And dead children.
Buried beneath the surface of shock, rested hundreds of humbling stories of simple men, one unknown to the other, who bonded in a common, virtuous struggle spawned by an evil act.
April 19 was a very bad day for America.
For Marines, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building struck a painful nerve. The Corps mourned two lost Marines while four other were injured by the blast. When television first broadcast the images of the catastrophic explosion, one could hear the Corps gasp.
“It looks just like the embassy in Beirut!” was the common comment, referring to the April 18,1983, terrorist car-bomb detonation in Lebanon, a prologue to the disaster that would claim 245 Marine, soldier and sailor lives in the barracks that October.
It was difficult for Michael S. Curtain, a New York City police officer, to remember exactly what happened. The psychological trauma of the explosion, still felt by most of the rescuers, had to be set aside in order for them to tackle the ordeal of rescuing those who may have still been alive beneath the rubble.
For the first 40 hours there was no rest.
Sometime in the morning of April 21st, Curtain, almost spent of energy and only using adrenaline to keep moving and save lives, came upon a familiar sight.
Deliriously scrambling across and through the wreckage of the Federal building, Curtain saw a body covered by the rubble. He recognized the material of the trousers.
The trousers were deep blue with a broad red stripe–the Corps calls it a blood stripe.
It was a Marine.
Police Officer Curtain knew immediately. He, too, was a Marine. A Marine Reserve First Sergeant.
“It was like I was driven,” said Curtain, who had been a reservist for five years after serving on active duty for 14 years.
“Some how, I knew what I had to do,” he said.
After the first sergeant found the dress blue trousers, he cut away part of the fabric and saw that the man was Caucasian. He knew that it had to be Capt. Randolph L. Guzman, the Recruiting Station Executive Officer. The other Marine still unaccounted for was Sgt. Benjamin L. Davis, known to be of Asian heritage and darker-skinned.
“After I found the Captain, I started asking around to see who among the rescuers was a Marine,” Curtain said. ” I found three former Marines who were part of the rescue effort”.
Curtain found Manny Hernandez and Juan Garcia, both New York City policeman. But Curtain needed another man to complete the team.
Ray Bonner, a paramedic, stepped forward. 1stSgt. Curtain now had a fireteam.
Because of the inherent danger involved with the unstable structure, most of the recovery efforts were focused in other areas of the building at that time. However, Curtain approached the FEMA chain of command and told them he and a team of former Marines were taking a special interest in the recovery of Guzman’s remains.
Permission was granted to the Marines to accomplish this special mission, but they only had a four-hour window of time to work.
“It was something I had to do,” Hernandez, a Vietnam veteran who has been a police officer for 22 years. “I had a squad under me in ‘Nam and whenever we lost a Marine, he was never left. We have this tradition. We take care of our own.”
The excavation took five hours and, according to situation reports, involved a great deal of risk. The team was operating on the sub-ground level, with a lot of concrete and steel debris. There were apparently two major structural columns, one vertical and one horizontal, which were the primary obstacles to their recovery. However, removal was not possible because the beams were the only support for the heavy debris above and around the Marines.
“We had to use an electric jackhammer to chip the concrete away from the Captain,” Curtain said. During the effort, the columns dangerously shifted twice before they were able to get Guzman free.
Kneeling beside the Captain, former Cpl. Hernandez covered Guzman’s face with his hand.
“I closed his eyes,” Hernandez said. “For the glory of God and the glory of the Corps. It was just a little thing. We had to keep the tradition alive. The Captain deserved the honor and respect—like all Marines
After placing Guzman’s remains in a body bag, the word spread throughout downtown Oklahoma City the Marines were bringing out one of their own.
With the help of Dennis O’Connor, also a New York police officer; Peter Conlin, whose father served as a Marine in World War II; and Steve Smalls, a structural engineer from New York City, the Marines prepared to take Guzman home.
An unidentified Air Force Colonel, upon hearing of the Marines’ mission, found an American flag and sent it into the building.
“Before we lifted Guzman up and away from the rubble and carried him out, we draped the flag over him,” said Curtain. “When we came out of the building I couldn’t believe what I saw.”
“Everything had stopped,” he said. “You could have heard a pin drop.”
“Cranes had stopped. It was completely quiet. Rescuers stopped and looked; people had lined the street outside the building. Everyone was watching in silence as we brought our Marine out.”
“We were in a highly visible location … engines were turned off … people removed their cover … bowed their heads … covered their hearts. You could tell the veterans,” Curtain said. “They were the ones saluting with tears in their eyes.”
For Curtain, Garcia, Hernandez and Bonner, the scene filled them with pride, but was almost too much for them to emotionally handle.
“When we came out with the flag-draped Captain, I saw why I was a Marine once. It is because I know I wouldn’t expect anything else from any other Marine if it were me in that body bag,” Hernandez said. “It revalidated the esprit and brotherhood that I remember taught to me in boot camp years ago. It lifted me up.”
“It was overwhelming. We are a Band of Brothers,” he said.
Once Guzman’s remains were carried from the building, two long lines of rescue workers and bystanders formed, without any order or direction, that made a corridor leading to the recovery vehicles that were taking remains to the makeshift morgue.
“It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life,” said Curtain. “People had taken their hard hats off and were offering respect anyway they knew how.”
“It was symbolic of all the emotion that everyone was feeling, whether they were a Marine or not, we were all involved. The compassion for all the lost just seemed to surface all at once.”
Like the 1983 bombing in Beirut, when LCpl. Jeffery Nashton, after blindly feeling the four stars of Gen. Paul X. Kelly, scribbled “Semper Fi” on a piece of paper as he lay on life support in the hospital in Germany, the enduring ethos of the Corps is alive in Oklahoma City.
“It was just a simple thing. But it had to be done.” Hernandez said. “Once we saw the blood stripe on Capt. Guzman’s trousers, we knew it was a Marine — we had no choice.”
“It was simply Semper Fidelis.”
Division of Public Affairs, Headquarters,
U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C.