Ed Hrivnak’s memories of responding to the Oklahoma City bombing stayed boxed up for 20 years.
He left them there among the thank-you cards from children, the search and rescue patches and the photographs he brought home from the April 19, 1995, attack that killed 168 people.
Today, Hrivnak’s an assistant chief with Central Pierce Fire & Rescue. Back then he was a 26-year-old nursing student sent to Oklahoma City with 60 members of the Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue Task Force.
Even after two decades, Hrivnak hasn’t spoken at length about the horrors he saw. Friends and family members didn’t comprehend what he went through, and stigma kept him from talking to fellow rescue workers.
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This weekend he will return to Oklahoma City for the 20th anniversary of the bombing and talk with anyone he can about one of the nation’s worst acts of domestic terrorism.
He’s also bringing his mementos and will donate them to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
“This has all been in a box in my garage for 20 years,” said Hrivnak, who is attending with four other first responders who helped on the ground after the bombing. “I don’t think the five of us have ever been in a room to talk about it, but we’re finally going to be talking about it this weekend.”
Hrivnak’s duties with the Puget Sound task force was to handle logistics — moving equipment and checking it out — and to help search crews for the rest of his 12-hour shifts.
Scott Nicholson, now a captain at Tacoma Fire, also went with the task force and is returning this weekend.
Both men said the 1995 mission was the hardest they’ve dealt with, possibly because they were young and inexperienced.
The task force was formed in 1991, and although its members deployed to Hurricane Brian in Guam and the Northridge Earthquake, the Oklahoma City bombing was the first time the team was immersed in the action.
“I don’t think we really realized what we’d been training for,” Nicholson said. “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We were quite naive at the time preparing for the major natural disasters.”
He remembers walking by the day care at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building where only six of 21 children survived and seeing the looks on the rescuers’ faces.
He recalls finding an arm in the rubble within the first five minutes. The families of victims sat with them in the cafeteria and showed them photos of their lost loved ones.
Nicholson and Hrivnak were touched by the care the Oklahomans showed them at the convention center where they stayed for a week.
Children drew new posters to hang on the walls each day. Thank-you cards and trinkets were left on their pillows each night. Their laundry was folded, their cots were made and their meals were cooked.
Hrivnak took home several thank-you cards and a pink poster where four children drew a globe with a Band-Aid on it. Above the picture they used crayons to print, “Heal the world.”
“Most kids live in their own world,” Hrivnak said. “I was drawn to this because these kids realized this was impacting the whole world. Nothing like this had happened before.”
While in Oklahoma City this weekend, he hopes to enlist the historians and archivist to help him find the children who drew the poster.
Many of the task force members have returned to the bombing site before.
Nicholson went back for the first and 10th anniversaries. This year, he’s bringing his 8-year-old son. Hrivnak returned in 2001 with his wife to walk the grounds and check out the memorial.
“It was really emotional because I was the only person there that was a rescuer,” he said. “They’re seeing the grass and the trees and the memorial and I’m not seeing any of that. I’m seeing shell-shocked birds, concrete dust in the air. I’m smelling death.
“It was a massive flashback.”