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Day Care Disaster ‘Beyond Comprehension’

April 27, 1995 GMT

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ At 7 a.m., children began arriving at the America’s Kids day care center, their parents kissing them goodbye before heading off to work.

Twenty-one children were dropped off April 19. When owner Melva Noakes telephoned at 8:50 a.m., four babies _ all less than a year old _ had been tucked into cribs next to a window.

The older kids were finishing breakfast in their classrooms. Honeynut Cheerios, peaches and milk were most in demand. Other kids had eggs, toast and jelly.

Then, at 9:02 a.m., 4,800 pounds of explosives detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Blast waves slammed into the day care center on the second floor. The top seven floors collapsed onto the center in a smoking heap.

Four of the babies, the ones in the cribs with the see-through headboards, were still missing today. Eleven are dead and six are hospitalized; three other children in other parts of the building also were killed in the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history.

``It’s been an awful experience on everyone,″ Ms. Noakes said Wednesday evening outside the rubble of a center she took over just four weeks ago.

Earlier Wednesday, she attended the funeral of Dana Cooper, the day care center’s director, and her two-year-old son, Anthony Christopher. Mother and son were buried in the same casket.

Funerals also were held for the Coverdale brothers, 5-year-old Aaron and 2-year-old Elijah, and Wanda Howell, who had worked in the center for three weeks caring for the 3, 4 and 5-year-olds.

``It’s beyond my comprehension that somebody could deliberately blow up a day care center,″ said Kathy Cronemiller, who owned the center when it was known as Uncle Sam’s Kid Farm. ``If they did know, they’re heartless _ the most evil, horrible people in the world.″

The one suspect arrested so far, Timothy McVeigh, has been described as having strong anti-government views.

The center opened in August 1988 so employees in the federal building could keep their children nearby while they worked.

The General Services Administration spent $48,000 to install fences and sod on an outdoor plaza so children would have a play area. There were security features like an intercom to the playground and doors that could only be opened from the inside.

The main problems encountered in the last seven years have been diaper rashes, scrapes and cuts. Nobody in their darkest dreams could have imagined what happened April 19.

``When you hold a child in your arm and you give it medicine and you change its diaper, and the next day you find that it’s gone _ you know I have been in this business for so many years _ and it’s my life, I love them,″ Ms. Noakes said, her voice choked and halting.

``It’s a calling from God to work with kids, but I never anticipated anything like this,″ she said. ``I have lost words. Their little bowls were in the street. I thought, `Why can’t the children be there if their bowls are?‴

Ms. Noakes, who has two teen-age sons and has raised 166 foster kids with her husband, was not in the building when it was demolished. She was working at another center she owns, but had planned to be at America’s Kids to serve lunch.

The recovery work at the building has been painstaking. Workers have dragged out telltale signs of an unspeakable disaster _ a mangled tricycle, a broken record album titled ``Alphabet Soup″ by Melody House, coloring books and pictures drawn by innocent hands.

Assistant Fire Chief John Hansen held up a toy fire truck at one of his media briefings to express his feelings about the search for survivors.

``A broken toy is maybe a sign of broken hearts,″ Hansen said.

Evidence of those broken hearts was seen at the First Baptist Church of Nicoma Park, where Mrs. Cooper and her son were eulogized.

Mrs. Cooper had worked in day care since she was a sophomore in high school. She was caring for kids up to the day she gave birth to her son in 1992 and was back from maternity leave in six weeks, taking Christopher to day care with her.

``Child care was her life. She simply loved kids,″ said the Rev. Mark Estep, who presided at the funeral.

When a wailing child interrupted his eulogy, Estep told the mother: ``Let that baby cry. It sounds like music today.″