A week on, Oklahoma stops to mourn its dead

FPrecisely one week after an enormous bomb turned their home in the American heartland into a war zone, the exhausted people of Oklahoma City stood still yesterday and offered up a prayer for the men, women and children lost in the blast. As the moment approached, 9.02am, scores of workers filed silently out of their offices in the city's downtown area, and walked towards the site of the federal building where rescue workers spent their eighth day digging for scores of bodies, buried beneath a mountain of rubble.

Secretaries, construction workers, managers, shop assistants and others gathered together in a line on a street corner outside the courthouse, not far from the blast, and held hands in the sun. Cars stopped, headlights shining in honour of the victims, as traffic lights winked unnoticed.

Soldiers and policemen around the sealed-off bomb site stood with their helmets off and heads bowed, hollow-faced from days and sleepless nights. For several minutes, a hush fell over the city, its first moment of true tranquillity since the bombers struck. When it ended, and Oklahoma City slowly began to hum with activity again, a policeman crumpled into the arms of one of his colleagues, overcome by grief and anger. As he stood up, he hurled his helmet on to the road.

The scale of this tragedy is not just the probable loss of more than 200 lives, it is also the utter bewilderment of a small heartland city which three weeks before the disaster hired a New York publicity firm to put it on the map. Yesterday it must have seemed that even the elements were conspiring against Oklahoma City. Winds of more than 30mph nagged at the tangled facade of the federal building, slowing the long dig into the rubble where 105 people are believed to be buried. Rescuers inched towards the America's Kids day- care centre and the wreckage of the social security office, where many of the missing are thought to lie.

Their task is getting ever more difficult; the diggers must now contend with the smell of decaying bodies, and the risk of disease. They are decontaminated after finishing their work, which has already yielded 95 corpses. There have also been tensions between investigators, searching for clues, no matter how tiny, and rescuers desperate to find the dead.

A new theory has emerged.Somewhere in the debris may lie the body of one of the people who inflicted this devastation, damaging 199 buildings, eight of which have now collapsed. Federal sources told Reuters news agency that there was an "active theory" that "John Doe 2", an unnamed suspect whom they are hunting nation-wide, was blown up in the explosion. This suggests that although the bomb was massive, an estimated 4,800lb, the bombers may not have expected their mixture of fertiliser and oil to be so powerful.

The answer to that question may, or may not, lie with Timothy McVeigh, the 27-year-old former Army sergeant and Gulf war veteran who faces federal bombing charges, and is to appear in court today at a nearby air base for a preliminary hearing. But whether he will ever answer questions is unclear; he continues to maintain he is a prisoner of war, intoning only his name, rank and serial number.

Despite this, federal law enforcement agencies, who have embarked on one of the biggest criminal investigations in the nation's history, claim a growing pile of evidence, which reportedly includes traces of explosives on Mr McVeigh's clothing.

There is, for instance, no shortage of clues to the extremist views held by Mr McVeigh and his two friends, Terry and James Nichols, who have been charged with engaging in a bomb-building conspiracy with him on a farm in Michigan - although not with the Oklahoma City bombing itself. The Union-Sun & Journal in Lockport, New York, published details of letters which Mr McVeigh allegedly sent three years ago to its editor, complaining that the country was in serious decline. "Is a civil war imminent?" he wrote, "Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that! But it might."

Nor was he the only outspoken correspondent in his family. FBI agents have been questioning his sister, Jennifer, who wrote to the paper condemning the agency's raid on the Branch Davidian fortress in Waco, Texas, an incident that bred fury among America's anti-federalist militias. Investigators have a warrant to search for explosives at a home in Florida, where she may have spent a recent holiday from college.

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