Semper Fi in Oklahoma City

CWO Robert C. Jenks
April 28, 1995

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."
"We were in a highly visible location ... engines were turned off ... people removed their covers ... bowed their heads ... covered their hearts. You could tell the veterans," Curtin said. "They were the ones saluting with tears in their eyes."

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
U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C. 20380-1775


Sgt. Major Mike Curtin
USMC (Retired)

Marine related deaths in Oklahoma City

Sgt. Benjamin L. Davis
Davis, 29, was a Marine posted at the Murrah building. Described as “a good kid” by a fellow Marine. “He was always motivated.”

Capt. Randy Guzman
Guzman, 28, was found seated behind his desk at the Marine Corps recruiting station. He and a friend had played basketball at the Tinker Air Force Base gym just an hour before the bombing. He was an infantry commander in Desert Storm

John C. Moss III
Moss, 50, was a civilian employee in the Army recruiting office where he served as chief of public affairs. He served in Vietnam as a Marine. He had been a civilian employee for the Army the past 16 years after a brief stint as a high school English teacher. They’ve named a street for him in his home town.

Michelle Reeder
Reeder, 33, died in the explosion with her mother, Carolyn A. Kreymborg, who also worked in the building. An administrative assistant with the Federal Highway Administration, she was married to a Marine, Patrick Reeder, and was working to put him through college.

* * *

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,
Director, NYC USMC PAO, November 2001)

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.

As we picked up the Sergeant Major, I thought back to only hours ago when my U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs Office in Midtown-Manhattan received the call that we stood ready for since September 11. In fact, I received four calls in about three minutes from numerous Emergency Services Unit men -- better known as "E-MEN" throughout the famed New York City Police Department. The messages were all the same, "Dave, get down here - we found the Sergeant Major."


We proceeded down off of a small plateau on the North side of the dig, which probably would have put us in sub-level five (five stories underground) of Tower One. My mind wandered to Sergeant Major's wife Helga, a former Marine, and his three daughters Jennifer, 15; Heather, 14; and Erika, 12. The native of Rocky Point, N.Y. had become a folk hero in the NYPD as he ran his Truck like a platoon - a platoon of Marines. "TRUCK-2" is located on 125th Street in Harlem and upon entering one might think they have entered a company office at Camp Lejeune or a barracks at Camp Schwab as proud men go about their business with Marine Corps haircuts and squared-away uniforms - Sgt. Maj. Curtin had obviously been here.

Leveling out at about sub-level seven in a pool of soupy-mud heading south toward the exit-ramp, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw the Ground Zero flag that I grabbed out of our office on the way downtown. It had been signed by the victim's families months prior and we were able to get it to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit on the USS Bataan who then took it ashore to fly it in the face of terrorism over the Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan. Who gave it to us? E-Men that Curtin knew. Curtin had loved the American Flag, his family had told me, and it was fitting that he lay next to me covered in the flag that he raised in Kuwait City a decade ago. That flag had been waiting for him in a box in the ESU Headquarters that I noticed on occasion marked "THIS FLAG IS FOR SGT. MIKE CURTIN ONLY!!!!!!!!" And of course to make it complete - the Marine Corps colors were also present and were carried by two of his TRUCK-2 E-MEN.

As we started up the bridge, the voice of what had to be a former Marine rang out throughout the 16-acre complex - "present arms!" The exit-ramp was lined with hundreds of proud members of the NYPD, ESU, PAPD, FDNY and Steel Workers with the night lit up by thousands of flashing emergency-vehicle lights. As we pushed forward keeping step with former Marine and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, I thought of the famous story that made the Sergeant Major a Marine Corps folk hero. It was not the story of his rescue efforts at the first Trade Tower's bombing in 1993, but rather the story of him spotting the red stripe of Capt. Randolph L. Guzman's, USMC, dress-blue trousers in the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing. He located a group of former Marines and then took approximately seven hours to pull him out as he said, "we never leave our brothers behind." He managed to free the "Skipper" who was probably watching this procession waiting to thank Mike one day. They carried him out draped in an American flag with his dress blue trousers sticking out with his shined shoes pointing toward heaven's gates. All was quiet. No talking. No machinery. Only the sound of a million thoughts - much like I could hear at this very moment heading out of the hole.

As we approached the top, I noticed that an ESU Truck was waiting for him - his truck...TRUCK-2. We hoisted the Sergeant Major up high - hands reaching with fingertips out stretched - and I wondered if anyone shared my thoughts at that very moment. It was reminiscent of the out stretched fingers of another famous group of Marines years ago on a small island in the South Pacific. Finally, with one last adjustment needed to secure the stretcher, a body was needed to jump up and climb to the top. Who scrambled to the top of the huge truck? Who else - Helga, his wife. In front of hundreds of tough cops - she made the last adjustment to take care of her husband much like I imagine he did for her for many years. That simple act was breath-taking - an act that the Sergeant Major represented for years - selflessly helping other people and NOT wanting to be recognized for it.

We then headed North on the FDR. The motorcade was long and bright as we approached the 0100 hour. All traffic was stopped and civilians stood outside their halted cars lining the roads with hands over hearts and hats off. Motorcycle cops at every intersection had salutes at the ready. At the morgue, my Gunny and I folded the flag under the watch of many eyes. Suddenly, TRUCK-2 members and other E-MEN stepped forward to aid us. We presented the colors to Helga and then took care of the Sergeant Major.

My ride home was long - covered in mud that I never wanted to wash off. I hoped and prayed that we did the Curtin family proud as well as our nation. I think the Sergeant Major would have been proud. I also thought that although my Marines and I have seen the pile shrink on a daily basis - it is still there. It will always be there. The billions of tears that have fallen on this earth will never be washed away and we cannot forget. The mangled iron, smell and feeling is still lurking in that hole and I feel it everyday - you just cannot see, hear or smell it on the television.

I shed a tear coming out of "the pit" that night as I held my head high. I also felt like there were a band of brothers waiting at the top all dressed in our Corps' uniforms from day's gone bye. Then it really hit home that the bridge was symbolic - it was a long steep trek up seven stories, but Sergeant Major Curtin made it out of that hell-hole led by his wife, carried by the entire Corps, and the rest of his country that he loved so much - REMEMBER THE TOWERS.

During a recent visit to OKC, I took the opportunity to visit the Murrah memorial.

Chairs represent those who died.
Their names are engraved on the glass bases that are lit at night.

Standing in front of the chairs of those two fallen Marines
was one of the most moving moments of my life.

They stand alone in their row - still on duty.

To paraphrase Sgt. Major Curtin - it's what makes Marines different.