A Deaf Volunteer Firefighter Remembers the Oklahoma City Bombing
Mary Pat: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! I wanted to reach out to you because on April 19, 2015, we remembered those that experienced the Oklahoma City Bombing firsthand. When I found out there was a Deaf volunteer firefighter, I got so excited because I am pretty sure you experienced it on a whole different level than others.
Ken Brown III: On that day, April 19, 1995 -- the experience was very rich for me and of course, very sad and heartbroken - I was only 20 years old. I was with Newalla Fire Department for 1 1/2 years before this happened.
I was an intern at Oklahoma State Rehabilitation Services, Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which is about 2.5 miles away, as the crow flies, from the bombing site. After the explosion, one of my colleague told me that she thought she heard a thunder. We went outside and saw black smoke billowing out from center of downtown. She guessed it was a natural gas explosion. However, my gut feeling said it was different, because the blackness of the smoke is so dense. Another colleague brought in television from another room and turned it on, we were tuned into a live video from the news helicopters filming the scene -- we were able to see how destructive the explosion was.
At around 9:12AM, I received a text on my one-way text pager from my fire department's dispatch center, which was managed by the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office. The message reads: "RESPOND TO 5TH & BROADWAY" That's it. I told my colleagues that I needed to go so I left. It took me less than 5 minutes to get there. I remember vividly driving on I-35 northbound in emergency mode with Oklahoma Highway Patrol cars behind me heading in the same direction. When I parked my vehicle at 5th and Broadway, the first thing when I got out of the car, there were so many people scattered around. Lots of debris was lying everywhere. I remember seeing a rear axle lying near where I parked.
I decided to go to the YMCA building which was at the northeast corner from the Federal building because there were many kids with adults needed help. I helped several people getting up and walk away from the scene, carrying kids to the safe place and some to the ambulances. I honestly don't remember the details because it was so hectic doing the best as I can to help.
However, I do remember clearly that when people started to run away from the scene telling everyone to get out -- because they thought they saw the 2nd un-exploded bomb device... After months of investigation, it was discovered that it was a shoulder missile. It was stored in the DEA evidence storage room... The DEA office was in the Federal building, along with US Secret Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and Social Security Administration regional office. That was very scary experience for me. I remember saw a nurse ran and fell down, I rushed to her and helped her getting up and ran around the building shielding from possible explosion. I asked her if she's okay. She was okay.
As the law enforcement team decided to widen the perimeter to protect the evidence and safety, the emergency medical service (EMS) found a warehouse at the corner of 6th and Oklahoma Ave (I think) -- they used that building as triage site which allows them to determine which patients needs to be transported in the ambulance to the area hospitals. I stayed there helping them until around 1PM when things started to slow down. When I left to get my car, I was stuck for a while because my car was in the "secure" area since it was parked so close to the scene. After I was able to get my car and got out of downtown. When I got to my parent's home in Choctaw, OK -- it didn't hit me until I passed a house with many cars parked in front of their home which is not normal sight. I started crying so hard and it was a very exhausting day for me.
I am very grateful to be there to help as much as I can. Thank goodness for the technology at that time, allowing me to receive the actual text message to respond. They were testing the text paging technology because of me being a deaf firefighter/EMT with Newalla Fire Department. Before, they only had radio to get dispatched which does not work for me. The text paging technology was proven to be very successful and beneficial to all other fellow firefighters/EMTs. I want to honor Getty Williams, Fire Chief, who just retired from the Newalla Fire Department few months ago for letting me be part of his great team. If it were not for him, I would not be a volunteer firefighter/EMT. Thank you, Chief Getty Williams!
How do you feel about being a responder?
Being a responder in all different situations? I personally do enjoy being able to be there and help as much as I can. Every call is different and often unexpected which requires lots of skill in observing and rational thinking. That kind of challenge is what I enjoy the most when compared to being in an office from 8AM to 5PM doing the same thing everyday. I've been to many calls, some are great with a good outcome and some are not so great, just like any other Firefighter/EMT folks experience.
Obviously being a volunteer firefighter requires training, what got you interested in volunteering?
I was a student at Oklahoma State University, majoring in both Police Science and Fire Science program. I was interested in becoming either Arson Investigator or Traffic Accident Investigator (accident reconstruction). I had an idea of whenever/whoever hired me first, I would prioritize my major, either in police science or fire science and finish it. Another reason why I was interested in volunteering, my father is a retired US Navy and I wanted to join the Navy, but of course, I was denied for an obvious reason -- deafness. Being a volunteer Firefighter/EMT is another great way to serve the country, I believe.
Do you feel like you were treated any differently than the other firefighters or did they put you being deaf aside and focus on your ability?
No, that is somewhat I find very interesting! When we're in "crisis" or "emergency" mode, they did not bother to "question" my ability just because I'm deaf. We were a team working together, we have the same goal to accomplish at the end. However, after things settle down, they would either "freeze" or surprised to learn that I'm really deaf which I find kinda funny. I made new friends and taught them some sign languages. They realized that sign languages do have great benefits, especially when standing near the fire engine running loud.
What kind of changes did you make after the OKC bombing? Did it impact your desire to volunteer any further?
After I took the physical exam with the Oklahoma City Fire Department for a paid position as firefighter, they were impressed with my ability, however they had to deny my application because of the state law requiring hearing to qualify pension plan. I even willing to lose the pension to bypass the hearing requirement, but they wouldn't budge. So, I changed my career path to focus on law enforcement. I ended up being with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and finished my Police Science major with minor in Fire Science.
Again, I want to thank you so much for your time and sharing your experience with me. Thank you so much for your service on that faithful day.