Finding A New Normal
For Amy Downs, spring time hasn't bloomed the same way in 21 years.
“It’s always a little emotional for me. I’d like to say it gets easier and that it’s changed, but it hasn’t,” Downs, 49, said. “It’s difficult … and it’s not that you forget about it … your heart starts feeling heavy; it’s there.” Photo by James Pratt
OKLAHOMA CITY – For Amy Downs, spring time hasn’t bloomed the same way in 21 years. “It’s always a little emotional for me. I’d like to say it gets easier and that it’s changed, but it hasn’t,” Downs, 49, said. “It’s difficult and it’s not that you forget about it your heart starts feeling heavy; it’s there.”
Downs, an OG&E customer from Yukon, Okla., is a survivor of the April 19, 1995, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City. At the time, she was a 28-year-old teller at Federal Employees Credit Union on the third floor. She spent 6-and-a-half hours buried alive and lost 18 coworkers that spring. Each year a Remembrance Ceremony is held to honor the victims, the survivors, and the rescuers.
“I’ve had friends ask me, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if they didn’t do it anymore?’ And the problem is; it was such a traumatic event, so traumatic, whether there was a ceremony or not, you’re going to struggle,” she said. “If nobody said anything and if nobody acknowledged it, that’s going to bother you because it’s so huge, but then by acknowledging it and having a Remembrance Ceremony, it’s also difficult. Either way is difficult. If you ignore it or if you face it, it’s still there. It is something you have to deal with every year. At least when you go to the ceremony and you see other survivors and family members, you know you’re not alone.”
When the bomb detonated at 9:02 a.m., Downs plummeted three floors and landed with her body doubled over, upside down and lodged in-between a crevasse of concrete slabs. A couple of FBI agents and a police team initially found her, but were told to evacuate because of a bomb threat. So, for the next 45 minutes, Downs thought about her life and waited in the darkness to die.
“I’m thinking about all these things I had never done. It put everything into perspective for me in the blink of an eye. It was about relationships. My relationship with God, my relationship with my family and my friends, and it didn’t have anything to do with money or status or how I looked,” Downs said. “I’m going to die and I’ve never been a mother … that was the first time I ever had a pain of, ‘I’ve never been a mom.’” There was not a second bomb, and around 10:30 a.m. a team from the Oklahoma City Fire Department’s Station 8, noticed a hand protruding from the wreckage. It was Downs. It took time and precision to peel away the debris, but they finally counted to three and pulled her out.
“I was so relieved,” Downs said. “That word doesn’t even do it justice, but relief was the overwhelming emotion. Then came unbelief as I looked around, because I couldn’t believe my own eyes."
Downs spent eight days in the hospital with cuts all over her body. Her right leg was blown open, but the bone was still intact. She has physically healed, but a huge indentation remains on her leg.
While trapped, Downs also thought about how complacent her life became and how she gained a lot of weight. She was around 355 pounds, and she realized how her weight prevented her from “really living life,” but yet change didn’t begin until 2008.
“It took a few years. It was very dark and depressing and it was one of those things that when I got out of the building, and I took that first breath of fresh air, I promised God, I’m going to change my life,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure what my injuries were; I wasn’t sure how bad off I was at that point. I kept going back to that for a couple of years, but I couldn’t get any traction to do anything because I was grieving and I was hurt. There were a few years that were really awful.”
Years later she was subpoenaed to testify in the penalty phase of Timothy McVeigh’s trial in Denver and was present the day his guilty verdict was read.
“That actually ended up being a pretty significant healing step for me. It was kind of like a chapter was closing,” she said. “He had such a cold, almost proud look about what he had done, and that was very difficult. Very difficult. So I focused and looked at my fellow survivors and family members.” Once Downs began to focus on her health, she continually challenged herself. She started riding a bicycle and when she heard about a “t-shirt ride,” a.k.a. the Redbud Classic, she was all in.
“You ride your bike, you get your t-shirt, you get a medal, and you get pancakes. What is not to love about that?” Downs laughed. “So I signed up and did this 10 mile bike ride. To me, 10 miles is like, I am Lance Armstrong. I got my medal and I got my pancakes and I was hooked.”
The following year she would ride her bicycle across Oklahoma, in an annual, organized bike ride called Oklahoma Freewheel. She has ridden it several times now, and has ridden across Louisiana once. In fact, her love of cycling steered her right into love. She met her second husband, Terry Head, riding bikes. They had a bicycle wedding near the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, and their honeymoon was a bicycle trek across Wisconsin.
She also started running. As a bombing survivor, Downs handed out medals to participants of the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. She witnessed people of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels crossing the finish line. Soon, she talked some of her co-workers into running in honor of the friends they lost in the bombing. Downs said, after their first training run, her legs felt like Jell-O, and after running 10 seconds, she needed two minutes to recover. To date, she has run the full marathon once and the half-marathon four times. This year she ran the half marathon. “Life if short. Run a marathon,” she said. “Who cares if you come in last; who cares? Do it. So many times we hold ourselves back because we’re not perfect, or not fast or whatever.” Since the bombing, Downs has lost 200 pounds. She often looks at a picture of herself before the weight loss. She said keeping the weight off, “is a struggle you’ll have the rest of your life, It’s not a one and done … it’s part of your life.” She’s up for the challenge however, and is not only a participant of Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett’s “This City is Going on a Diet” initiative, but she’s also featured in his movie “Oklahoma City: The Boom, the Bust and the Bomb.”
“Amy plays a fairly substantial role in the movie,” Chief of Staff to the Mayor, Steve Hill, said. “She moved here from Louisiana, then she winds up in that horrible act of domestic terrorism.” Hill said ever since the bombing, Downs has been an actively engaged member of the community. Ironically, her concern for the community is how they met. He received a demanding, yet humorous email from Downs that basically stated, “If the mayor is serious about us getting healthy, he needs to fix this bridge where I ride my bike,” he said.
Hill liked the tone of the email and Downs eventually became a spokesperson for the healthy lifestyle initiative. He also notes that Downs was the first person to say thank you when the bridge was fixed. “We all love Amy around here,” Hill said. “When people think of Oklahoma City and its residents, she embodies all the qualities you’d like them to think of; she’s tough, she’s spirited, she’s energetic, and she’s friendly.” Downs and four other bombing survivors continue to work for the Federal Employees Credit Union, now named Allegiance Credit Union. After the bombing, credit unions throughout the state helped them to reopen 48 hours later, and that cooperative spirit continues to amaze Downs. She remembers making phone calls in the hospital, then working from home, because they lost so many employees and members needed access to their money.
Her best friend died in the bombing, leaving behind two young daughters, one of whom now works for the credit union. Not long ago, Downs was visiting with a customer who used to joke around with her and the best friend she lost. The customer told Downs he has a new teller he likes to joke with, and Downs realized he was talking about her best friend’s daughter. When she told him who the young teller was, his face went white and tears ran down his face, she said. He was speechless. “He had no idea this was the daughter of the teller he loved, who was lost in the bombing,” Downs said. “The people, our members, are very close to us. We get to know our members. Out of the 168 people who were killed, 125 were members of our credit union. So on top of losing our 18 that were in our office, there were tons of people we lost.”
Downs is now the senior vice president, chief operations officer at the credit union. After the bombing, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and she also became a mom. Her son Austin was born in 1999. She said, whenever she gets depressed, she turns things around by helping other people. “I was buried in the rubble literally, but every single one of us, in our individual lives, becomes buried at times,” Downs said. “There’s a lot of people who have dark parts in their story. Their health has been altered, they’ve lost a loved one and they still have that hole.”
The biggest advice she received was to hold on to her faith, family and friends. She said you have to reach out to people, “because it’s more than you can handle.” What also helped Downs was seeing other people who’ve survived horrible events, illnesses, and war. The words she hung onto were, “There will be a new normal.”
“What you’re wanting is for your life to be normal again. I mean it’s shattered,” she said. “There will be a new normal; I kept hearing that over and over again. I kept holding on to that, and they were exactly right. My life was never normal again, but there was a new normal that surfaced.” Her new normal includes a stronger faith and a positive attitude that won’t let anything hold her back.
“One day I’ll ride my bike across America,” Downs said.