‘Dad was killed’: Twenty five years of despair, hope and rebuilding a family

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Jay Curry ZACH LUCERO/For The Frontier

All three televisions in the house were turned on, including the small black and white in the kitchen. Each tuned to one of three local stations beaming images reminiscent of a war zone with burning cars, clothes-tattered victims and an unfamiliar chaos in what hours earlier had been a sleepy middle American downtown. 

Jay Curry, 14 years old at the time, scrutinized the television screen, desperate for a glimpse of his father, a confirmation that he had survived and would soon be coming home to their idyllic country house on 25 acres in east Norman.  

“Look for Steve,” relatives said. 

Jay remembered his dad had been wearing gray pants and a black shirt when he saw him preparing his lunch that morning before beginning his 26 mile commute to downtown Oklahoma City. 

At the time, his father’s ensemble was of little importance; instead Jay thought about whether to apologize about an argument from the night before. It had been his fault, but the apology was never offered. Instead, Jay went back to sleep before the start of another school day, figuring he would talk to his dad later that evening and finally put away the humidifier that had been the subject of the meaningless argument.  

But now the teenager was studying each person shown on television, hoping that his father, Steve Curry, would appear and what had become modern America’s largest terrorist attack would spare his family. 

Just an hour earlier his older sister had picked him up from school, frantic over the news that a bomb had destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building where their father worked on the first floor as a building mechanical inspector for the General Services Administration.

As his sister drove them home, Jay passed the small elementary school where their dad was a board member and had keys to the gymnasium, giving them both access for late night hoop shooting sessions. Decked out in thigh-revealing bike shorts and gym socks pulled to just below his knees, Steve would retrieve his son’s rebounds, maybe offering a life lesson about the importance of school or navigating the world of girls as he passed the ball back. 

Jay and his sister pulled up to their beige brick house nestled between a rolling hill and thick tree line that separated the nearest neighbor 500 yards away. The driveway was already filled with the cars of relatives and friends who had arrived to comfort their mother and help collect any information about Steve’s whereabouts.  

A glimmer of hope was born when one of Steve’s coworkers called to say they thought he was seen being placed into the back of an El Camino and taken to St. Anthony’s, the nearest hospital that was the destination for cars, vans and pickup trucks that had become makeshift ambulances. 

A few of Jay’s relatives went to the hospital to look for his dad but confirming his admittance was impossible amidst the chaos. Injured victims were coming in from every entrance and the hospital’s cafeteria staff took on the role of keeping relatives from overwhelming the facility. 

As the sun set the televisions in the Curry house remained on as reporters who had been kept blocks away from the blast site were interviewing disoriented first responders who had spent the entire day searching for survivors. 

“They can’t find anyone else who is alive,” a nurse said. 

“Everywhere you dig you find a body,” said a firefighter. 

At 3 a.m. Thursday morning, nearly 18 hours after a Ryder truck filled with diesel fuel, fertilizer and other chemicals detonated in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring another 650, Jay heard the phone ring from the kitchen. Jay’s aunt answered the phone and passed it to his mother. It was Steve’s dentist calling for permission to release his records to the medical examiner so they could confirm his death. 

“That was when you knew,” Jay said. “Dad was gone.”

The Oklahoma City National Memorial BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

‘experience becomes history’

Twenty five years later, the bombing remains a central part of Oklahoma’s identity for those who lived through it, yet largely unknown to the majority of residents who were not alive or were living elsewhere on April 19, 1995. 

The bombing memorial and museum attracts nearly 350,000 people each year, yet its presence is easy to overlook for those in nearby restaurants and trendy coffee shops, or someone riding past in an electric streetcar.

Each year the city pauses to remember, including with a marathon that snakes though the city’s core. Special attention has been placed on milestone years; five, ten, 20 and now 25. 

But this year’s anniversary comes amid a global pandemic with residents asked to remain in their homes and most establishments closed, including the bombing museum. 

Before the coronavirus swept across the globe and killed scores of people — including more than 100 in Oklahoma — the 25th anniversary was coming into focus as many of the city’s cultural institutions took steps to remember the victims. The Oklahoma City Thunder unveiled special gold and black jerseys commemorating the anniversary, including a Survivor Tree patch along the waistband of the shorts. 

Both the Oklahoma Ballet and Oklahoma City Philharmonic built performances around remembering the bombing. 

The Oklahoma City National Memorial remains the most visible tribute. A reflecting pool, 168 empty chairs and two gates bookmarking the minute of the blast has become a tranquil oasis in the middle of a downtown that has reinvented itself since the attack. 

Today’s crisis of the coronavirus pandemic will inevitably steal attention away from the anniversary and has forced this year’s remembrance ceremony to be a prerecorded video tribute, rather than an in-person gathering. 

“While this is a very tough decision we are in a very tough time as a country … so this is our part to stop the spread and be smart about how many people can congregate on the site,” said Kari Watkins, director of the memorial.

The loss of attention on this year’s anniversary comes at a time when each milestone year is another transition from a raw wound to a historical event. 

“As you move past year 25 the experience becomes history,” said David Holt, Oklahoma City’s mayor. 

But for the 168 families and circle of friends, thousands of coworkers and church acquaintances, the wound can still feel fresh even after a quarter century. 

“When I look in the mirror I see my dad,” said Jay, now 39. 

“In a way each anniversary is having to relive it again, which is hard. But then I think about how the 25th anniversary may be the last big milestone year until, what, 50 years? That’s tough to think about, too.”

Jay and Megan Curry sit with their two children, Lillie and Steven, on the front porch of their Norman home. ZACH LUCERO/For The Frontier

‘bruised and battered’

In the years after his dad was killed, Jay felt aimless, without ambition and uninterested in his future.

He quit his school basketball team and stopped fishing.

Jay felt like many of his teachers were unaware of the pain he still felt and his school work suffered. 

“All my drive was just kind of taken away,” Jay said. “I would go out in the driveway and try to play by myself and it wasn’t the same because he wasn’t there rebounding the ball.”

Jay and his sister regularly slept with their mom in her bed, a family without its main provider now clinging to each other as the world seemed to move on without them. 

The Curry family remained close, an unwavering support system of uncles, aunts and cousins that got Jay through his high school years. 

With college paid for through a fund for children who lost parents in the bombing, Jay attended two institutions before ending up at the University of Oklahoma. The malaise continued until Jay reconnected with a former high school classmate and discovered a previously unknown dream of his father. 

Megan Agent attended high school with Jay at Norman North, although neither had been close at the time.  

Megan’s father, Lawrence, was a sturdy man who ran three miles a day, worked as an accountant at OU, had his own cleaning business on the side and coached her softball team.

Jay Curry smiles at his eight-year old son Steven Lawrence, named after Jay’s and Megan’s father. ZACH LUCERO/For The Frontier

Diagnosed with ALS at the start of Megan’s senior year, a few months later Lawrence was unable to speak and required a feeding tube. 

On May 12, 1998, Lawrence died, ending nine months of suffering and a long goodbye. 

Megan fled the state, looking for a fresh start, but she found herself back in her hometown attending the University of Oklahoma where Jay had now landed. 

The two struck up a relationship that felt like a jumpstart to their broken lives. Jay’s grades improved and Megan began to feel more grounded. The two spent hours talking about the loss of their fathers, moments that became therapeutic.

Jay and Megan were married in 2005.

“We were pretty bruised and battered people,” Jay said. “But when I met her it was like ‘let’s fix this, let’s stop being victims and take care of ourselves and take care of the people around us.’”

Twenty two years later, Megan’s loss, much like Jay’s, still feels fresh. But unlike Jay, Megan’s loss doesn’t receive the same annual attention.

“I went through hell and she went through hell, but you are doing a story on me, you are doing a story on my dad,” Jay said during a recent interview. 

“Why am I special? She went through as much hurt as I did.”

Jay understands the significance of his tragedy, the global attention that was paid to the bombing and the region’s need to pause each year to remember when Oklahoma went from an ignored prairie outpost to an internationally known site of terror. 

“Every year I get 30 to 50 text messages from people on April 19, but on May 12 she will get maybe one text from her best friend from high school,” Jay said. 

But Megan harbors her own guilt that Jay’s loss is widely observed each year and an intimate family experience is opened to the world. 

“He has to relive it every year and it doesn’t get to be his own thing because the whole state is recognizing it,” Megan said.  “It’s like all eyes are on him. Anyone who knows him on that day they are kind of weird around him.”

The relationship with Megan centered Jay as he found someone who seemed to understand his pain, even when words failed him to describe the loneliness he felt. 

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Another turning point came a few years earlier with the discovery of his father’s notebook. Inside Steve had written out a goal he had to return to school and become a teacher, a dream Jay had never heard before.  

“He always had a passion for young people … and I think he saw a calling there,” Jay said about his father. “It was inspiring to see that and that kind of touched off my heart where I was like, ‘Hey, do I want to do something like that?’”

Jay was interested in sports broadcasting and had worked for the Norman school district producing videos. He began working towards a degree in education and began teaching media in 2007. 

His classroom at Norman High school is referred to as the video resource center, a wing of the school that includes a studio, control room and editing bays connected by a long hallway.

Jay will lecture in a classroom, but mostly bounces around the facility as students work on projects. 

He will poke his head into an editing bay to remind his students to get back to work on a video due in a couple of days or push a group of senior boys to refocus on shooting a sports show. 

Jay wears an exhausted smile, and while his students will try his patience, they more often respond with respect to a teacher who has worked to make his classroom a safe space. 

Karic Gray, left, is a senior in Jay Curry’s, right, class at Norman High School. BEN FELDER/the Frontier

“One of the first things he said at the beginning of the year was that he lost his dad in the bombing and when he came back (to school) the teachers dropped work on his desk and didn’t really feel for him,” said Karic Gray, a senior in Jay’s class. “He said if stuff is going on I want you to let me know. He really cares about all his students, and that’s kind of the first thing he said to us.”  

When a girl showed up late to class because her mother had forgotten about her that morning, she opened up to Jay. 

Another girl recently began missing his class to speak with the school counselor, believing Jay would be okay with her seeking out therapy during a traumatic time in her life. 

“She told me she thought I would understand because I remember being a teenager and going through hell,” Jay said. “You can’t do school if you are worried about a parent who has cancer or mom lost her job and she is a single parent.”

The man who once avoided the attention of losing a parent in the bombing now views it as an opportunity to connect with his students, offering the empathy he wished for his younger self.  

“There are times when I think why am I doing this?” Jay said about his career as an educator. “But I go back to the fact that even though this kid is frustrating me there is a reason God put me here and I think back to that day where I saw (my dad) wanted to go back and become a teacher.”

Jay also feels a duty to teach his students about the attack that occurred several years before they were born. 

Before school buildings were closed because of the pandemic, Jay had planned to show his class a video chronicling the day of the bombing. 

“It is going to be hard as hell,” Jay said about showing the video in class. “But I want them to see what that day was like. 

“If you don’t see that video of people running because they thought there was going to be a second bomb, of people covered in blood and shaking because they didn’t know what they had just gone through, I don’t think you really realize what people went through.” 

The kids Jay hasn’t been as eager to show those images to are his own.

His daughter Lillie, 11, and his eight-year old son Steven Lawrence, named after Jay’s and Megan’s fathers, have heard bits and pieces about how their grandfather died.  

There are stories from their dad and the striking resemblance between Steve and Jay when family photo albums are out. 

Lillie participates in a running club at her school that runs in the kid’s marathon each year. Her teacher tells the class that Lillie’s grandfather was killed in the bombing and they find his chair next to the reflecting pool at the memorial after the run. 

“It makes me feel a little weird but I feel good that they remember him,” Lillie said. 

On Monday, Jay decided it was time to introduce his children to the horror he experienced. He planned to sit them in front of the television for a special program on the Oklahoma city bombing. 

“No phones, no Nintendo Switch, I want them to see it and be able to ask me questions,” Jay said. “It’s a little intimidating.”

Jay Curry, his wife, Megan, and two children look though a family photo album. ZACH LUCERO/For The Frontier

At 9:02 a.m.

On Nov. 5 of last year, the Thunder organization asked the relatives of each bombing victim to participate in a pregame on-court ceremony to hold a commemorative jersey made for the 25th anniversary. 

Jay held the charcoal grey jersey with the name Curry and the number 95. 

Before the game, in the tunnel of the arena, Jay found Richard Williams, Steve’s boss at the time of the bombing. 

Williams told Jay more about what his father did at work and the way he never viewed Steve as a subordinate, but instead a friend. 

Williams and Steve shared a love for basketball and competed against one another each year with March Madness brackets. 

“One of the best guys I ever knew,” Williams said about Steve. “I had tremendous respect for him and his family.”

At 9:02 a.m. on the day of the blast, Williams had just finished a meeting and was standing in his office about 20 feet from Steve. Their office suit was on the northwest corner of the building, facing the street where the truck was parked. 

Williams woke up in the hospital after a police officer dug him out of the rubble. 

His right hand was crushed, his ear had been severed and he required 150 stitches and more than 20 staples from shrapnel that had lodged in his body. Over the years shards of glass emerged from his skin. 

Months after the bombing, Williams and his wife visited the Curry family in Norman. 

“I just wanted to see the family to let them know how much I thought of Steve,” Williams said. “It’s not fair.”

Jay and Williams remain in touch, a connection for Jay to one of the last men to see his father alive. 

Jay never saw his father’s body and admits a part of him wonders if Steve hit his head, got amnesia and is still wandering around the city. 

“I know that’s not true but there was always the little sliver of hope,” Jay said.

Jay Curry tosses a football with his two children and wife at their Norman home. ZACH LUCERO/For The Frontier

‘eats at my soul’

Jay was at a clinic for a routine exam when his doctor asked about the health of his father, a common question in an effort to learn about potential genetic landmines that lay ahead. 

When Jay said his father had died at age 44, the doctor immediately looked up from his chart wanting to know more about the cause of death. Jay reassured him that Steve had not died because of cancer or a heart attack, but instead was killed in the 1995 bombing. 

Killed

That word echoed in his mind. For the first time since he lost his father, Jay began to process the fact that Steve Curry was murdered. 

“He did not die, he didn’t have a heart attack, he didn’t die in a car wreck,” Jay said. “Dad was killed by a person and that person was put to death and there is another man who is still in prison who killed my dad.”

Jay thought back to Easter Sunday three days before the bombing, when the Curry family was hiding eggs and enjoying the spring sun, men were plotting to kill his dad, who at the time was relaxing in a chair on the back deck with a large glass of ice tea. 

When Jay and Steve were playing basketball in the driveway on a late March evening, men were plotting to kill his father. 

While Steve was driving north on Interstate 35 to work on the morning of April 19, 1995, another man was driving south in a truck with a plan to kill him. 

Jay’s mind will sometimes spin into a place of anger and confusion when he thinks about his children never knowing their grandfather because another man sought revenge for something his dad had nothing to do with. 

“I hate that we live in a world, and it’s only gotten worse I think, where we are so divided that we see something happen and we want vengeance, we want to hurt other people,” Jay said. “That eats at my soul.”

A year before the bombing, Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted and executed for carrying out the attack, was reported to have visited the federal building, walking through the first floor where Steve worked, deciding it would be his target. 

“Did my dad see Timothy McVeigh at any point? Did he run into the man who murdered him?,” Jay asks himself, haunted by the image of McVeigh walking through the building’s lobby just feet from Steve’s office. 

“The wheels start turning and that’s the kind of stuff I think about sometimes, and that’s when I go and hug my kids.” 

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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