Semper Fi in Oklahoma City
CWO Robert C. Jenks
HEADQUARTERS, U.S. MARINE CORPS, Washington, D.C. -- Time still seems suspended across the Heartland as a stunned nation stands paralyzed by the face of domestic terror. For rescuers in Oklahoma City who continue to claw at crumbled concrete, the time lacks importance. The search for hope has slipped quietly beyond reach as efforts there shift now to the recovery of bombing victim remains.
And dead children.
Buried beneath the surface of shock, rest hundreds of humbling stories of simple men, one unknown to the other, who bond 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 strikes a painful nerve. The Corps mourns two lost Marines while nursing four others 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. This was only a prologue for the disaster that would claim 245 Marine, soldier and sailor lives in the barracks that October.
It's difficult for Michael S. Curtin, a New York City police officer, to remember exactly what happened.
He and several hundred others activated under the Federal Emergency Management Agency Task Force 1, which organized police, firemen, and emergency medical service specialists for the tragedy, were near physical and emotional exhaustion. The psychological trauma of the explosion, still to be 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 the morning of April 21, Curtin, 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, Curtin saw a body covered by the rubble. He recognized the material of the trousers.
The trousers were deep blue with a broad red strip --, the Corps calls it a blood stripe.
It was a Marine.
Police Officer Curtin knew immediately. He, too, is a Marine. A Marine reserve first sergeant.
"It was like I was driven," said Curtin, who has been a reservist for five years after serving on active duty for 14 years.
"Somehow, 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 white. He knew then that it had to be Capt. Randolph L. Guzman, the recruiting station executive officer. The other Marine who was still unaccounted for was Sgt. Benjamin L. Davis, and Davis was known to have been of Asian heritage and had darker skin. "When I found the captain, I started asking around to see who among the rescuers was a Marine," Curtin said. "I found three former Marines who were part of the rescue effort."
Curtin found Manny Hernandez and Juan Garcia, both New York City policemen. But Curtin needed another man to complete the team.
Ray Bonner, a paramedic, stepped forward. 1stSgt. Curtin now had a fire team.
Because of the inherent danger involved with the unstable structure, most recovery efforts were focused in other areas of the building at that time.
However, Curtin 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," Curtin said. During this 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," said Hernandez. "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 Curtin. "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."
For Curtin, 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 was taking remains to the makeshift morgue. "It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life," said Curtin. "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
Marine related deaths in Oklahoma City
Sgt. Benjamin L. Davis
Capt. Randy Guzman
John C. Moss III
* * *
Sgt. Major Curtin returned to New York after the Oklahoma tragedy. He died saving lives in the World Trade Center attack and collapse. Following is from www.corpsstories.com web site:
“We Never Leave our Brothers Behind”
(Written by Maj. David Anderson,
GROUND ZERO, NEW YORK -- Pain shot through my back in the late night hours of 6 March 2002 from the weight of the stretcher, but Marines always complete the mission. With Sgt. Maj. Michael S. Curtin, 45, USMCR (RET) NYPD, in my left hand and his wife and daughter only feet in front of me, sense of duty led the way as it has for many men better than I for hundreds of years.
During a recent visit to OKC, I took the opportunity to visit the Murrah memorial.
Chairs represent those who died.
Standing in front of the chairs of those two fallen Marines
They stand alone in their row - still on duty.
To paraphrase Sgt. Major Curtin - it's what makes Marines different.