McVeigh Looms Smaller in Memories of Bombing

New York Times/January 12, 2001
By Rick Bragg

Oklahoma City - Now that Timothy J. McVeigh says he is ready to die, Tina Tomlin no longer has to see him dead for her to live.

Today, a deadline for Mr. McVeigh to change his mind and pursue further appeals came and went, allowing the process that will lead to his execution, perhaps as soon as May, to begin.

Like most people here, Mrs. Tomlin still believes that Mr. McVeigh should die for the bombing that killed her husband, Rick, and 167 other people. She says she will always wonder about the mindless cruelty of a man who, on April 19, 1995, parked a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and she will always wonder how he could just walk away from the explosion that killed and maimed babies, old people, working mothers and civil servants - all perfect strangers.

In the first five years after the bombing, Mrs. Tomlin said she lived trapped between her grief over the death of a husband she had built her world around and her hatred of a man who stared unblinking and apparently unimpressed by the suffering he had caused.

Then, she said, she realized that Mr. McVeigh was still striking at her from his prison cell in Terre Haute, Ind., still wounding her and others here every day he went on living. "It was enough time," she said. So, about a year ago, she turned her back on him. "I would still like to be one of the people who see it," she said of his execution, because then she would know that he would never hurt anyone again. Like so many others here, she has learned to hold on to the grief but has ended her fruitless efforts to get inside a killer's mind.

"I still think he's playing with us," Mrs. Tomlin said. By seeming to accept his own death, she said, Mr. McVeigh may be trying to cheat his victims out of some level of satisfaction they would have had if he had been led down the corridor to his execution still wanting to live. And, she pointed out, Mr. McVeigh left himself one last chance to live. He has reserved the right to seek clemency from the president.

At a hearing on Dec. 28, Judge Richard P. Matsch of Federal District Court in Denver accepted Mr. McVeigh's request to end his appeals and have the Bureau of Prisons set a date for him to die by lethal injection.

Mr. McVeigh had until 7 p.m. today to change his mind, and he did not. It is up to the United States Bureau of Prisons to set a date for Mr. McVeigh's execution. Federal officials have said his execution could be carried out sometime in May.

As the deadline neared, Mrs. Tomlin, 48, thought about the work she needed done on her new house in the Yukon community here, thought that the texture of the walls was too rough for wallpaper. She thought it would be nice to add a garage door.

"I didn't have a man in my life to check and make sure that it was all done right the first time," she said, thinking of her dead husband. She said she thought about Mr. McVeigh only when asked to. "I wonder," she said of his apparent decision to die, "if he is just trying to make us feel guilty."

Mrs. Tomlin's husband, a middle-age civil servant, had come home from work one day not long before that fateful April 19 and joked with her that he had been promoted to an office with a window, that he was somebody now. Then, a short time later, in an instant, he was dead.

The bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in United States history: 168 dead and almost 500 injured, some dismembered or otherwise crippled for life. The Federal Building's day care center, just steps from where the bomb was detonated, was blasted to dust, killing infants and toddlers. Many people, like Mrs. Tomlin, quit their jobs and went into therapy to try to cope with their losses. Some imprisoned themselves in their homes.

Mrs. Tomlin still has not returned to her job in a photography studio. And in almost six years, never a explanation from Mr. McVeigh, or a sign of remorse. Nothing. "If I thought that one day he would tell us the truth about why he did this," Mrs. Tomlin said, she could live with the thought of a life sentence. "But we know now that he will never tell the truth."

He may believe, she said, that he is somehow cheating the people here by accepting his own death. But in the years since the blast, he has dwindled in the consciousness of most people like her. "He just doesn't want to live the rest of his life in prison," Mrs. Tomlin said. The people here, she said, have just outlasted him.

The grief he caused has been so long a part of their lives that it has almost become a comfort. Mrs. Tomlin and her husband had lived outside Oklahoma City in a green, flat, windswept town with pasture fences and even farmland. For five years she lived alone there and even left the telephone listing to read "Rick and Tina." "It was lonely," she said.

Like many other houses here, her home was a shrine. A large portrait of Mr. Tomlin hung over the fireplace. The watch he wore the day of bombing, now all twisted, sat in a glass box. "I decided that, after five years, it was O.K. to move in closer to town," Mrs. Tomlin said, closer to one of the Tomlins' two grown sons, Jeremy.

At first, she tried to start afresh, without the daily reminders of her husband, but that was wrong, she said. She rehung the portrait, and kept the watch and her memories close at hand. The telephone listing, although Mr. Tomlin never set foot in this new house, is "Rick and Tina."

She does not know when her therapy will be complete, when she will work again, when she will be able to live outside the covering of sadness that saved her from her anger. "It'll never be over," she said. "Every day of my life for the rest of my life, I'll think about it, and miss him," she said of her husband. "I will be by myself," she said, with utter conviction, "for a very long time." But Mr. McVeigh is no longer a constant visitor to her thoughts.

As the deadline passed, her son Jeremy stopped by her house. Like his mother, he said he no longer thinks about Mr. McVeigh very often. "He's not an everyday occurrence anymore," Jeremy Tomlin said. His father still is. Around the city, there seemed to be little talk of Mr. McVeigh. Some people turned on their television to get the news. Mrs. Tomlin did not turn hers on all day.

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