Twenty years later: Bombing survivor recalls wounds that cut deeply

Cary Aspinwall Tulsa World

It took more than five years for all of Germaine Johnston’s wounds to fully surface.

Months for the slivers of glass to work their way out of her skull, where they pelted her as she sat at her desk on the seventh floor in the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City the morning of April 19, 1995.

Years of counseling to cope with the loss of so many of her friends and co-workers in the federal Housing and Urban Development office. The HUD workers occupied two floors in the federal building, and of the 85 employees there that day, 35 died.

But it wasn’t until after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City that her post-traumatic stress disorder truly flared up, causing asthma attacks, stomach problems, nightmares and flashbacks.

She started having ocular migraines so severe that she lost the sight in one eye.

“I thought I was OK until 9/11,” she said. “I just was retraumatized by all that.”

Sky above, shards below

Johnston remembers sitting at her desk, hearing all the noise, and simply being confused by what was happening.

As soon as all the noise stopped, she looked up and could see the sky where the two floors above her had just vanished.

Two feet behind her, the floor was gone. Her desk was located beside a large column that likely protected her.

The blast wedged her into her desk, piling debris behind her. She was in shock and scared to move, but someone came along and pulled her out of the chair. They made their way down the stairs, debris slicing their ankles and feet.

But she was alive and, unlike so many, able to walk out on her own.

The next day, she went back to work. She was a manager, she had employees who were missing and families who needed help.

Buried deep

“I didn’t deal with it fully when it happened,” Johnston said. “I put some of it off. And when 9/11 happened, I just imploded.”

That’s when the flashbacks started. People have different coping mechanisms, doctors told her, and somehow she had buried all her trauma deep.

The week after 9/11 ended up being worse for her than April 19, she said.

The migraines started, and the damage was so severe, it destroyed one of her retinas, blinding her in that eye. She went on medical leave from her job at HUD, and soon took early retirement.

She didn’t want to leave her job; she was depressed for a year after that and slept all the time, Johnston said.

She needed to find something to do, so she became a volunteer tax counselor for AARP and learned to teach people how to play bridge. Now she directs games, teaches and plays competitive duplicate bridge.

Every year, Johnston walks the 5k race in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and this year, she spoke to her grandson’s history class about surviving the bombing.

She’s planning on taking her grandchildren, all born after the bombing, to the memorial and museum later this year. They’re older now, she said, and they need to know what happened in Oklahoma City, what Grandma survived.

The hardest part for her was losing so many friends at one time. She’ll be in a restaurant and see someone who resembles one of the people she worked with, and it stings all over again when she realizes it can’t be them.

“I made a decision in the first couple of years that I was not going to let it be the defining moment of my life,” she said. “But there’s just no way around it. It just becomes part of your life.”

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