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Nurse Struggles To Cope With Images of Dead Child

April 28, 1995

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The image is embedded in his mind like a grotesque snapshot: a small boy, crumpled and covered with dust, a coloring-book page fluttering alongside his body.

Through the dull beam of a pen light, he looks peaceful, as though sleeping in the comfort of his mother’s arms. Instead, he lies amid a twisted maze of concrete and metal, stuffed animals and toys.

A small whimper sends a shudder through his tiny body. Then nothing.

It is the picture that haunts Tony Lippe, an Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department nurse and one of the first rescue workers to enter the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed.

It is the picture of 2-year-old Colton Smith, whom Lippe came upon just seconds after he crawled into the crater. The sight was startling, for Lippe had never been in the building and didn’t know it contained a day-care center.

``I didn’t have any idea until we started finding toys after toys after toys,″ he said. Then, he saw Colton.

``I was like, what was he doing here? Was he in here visiting? I felt a sharp pain in my chest, my stomach knotted up. I just held back tears because we didn’t have time to do that in that situation.

``He looked like he was just literally thrown from where he was down to this point. He just didn’t appear to be cut up or burned or anything, and that’s what we expected to find.″

Lippe began CPR, but his efforts were futile. With one final whimper, Colton was gone.

``It was like a final breath,″ Lippe, 27, recalled Thursday. ``I say whimper, but it was more like a wheeze. One solid breath, and that was it.

``That kind of put me in a shock, and I just sat there and held him.″

The false threat of a second bomb sent rescue workers scrambling from the building, but Lippe remained inside, holding Colton, whom he had wrapped in a blanket.

A highway patrolman saw them and when Lippe wouldn’t leave, he carried him out with Colton still in his arms. Once outside, Lippe set Colton down in front of the building.

``Still to this day, if I did it again, I think I’d stay in the building,″ Lippe says.

Lippe worked for 20 hours the day of the bombing and another 60 hours over the next few days. All the while, Colton’s face was engraved in his mind.

He acknowledges he can’t cope with the images.

When he has been able to sleep, he’s haunted by nightmares. Feelings of guilt have made him sick. He is seeing a therapist with the hope that if he can’t erase the memories, he can at least learn to deal with them.

``I kept seeing the little boy’s face and seeing my son and started questioning myself. How would I have handled that if it were my own child?

``If we could have found somebody alive out of that building, it would have helped. I think the main thing was everybody was dead,″ he says. ``It was just guilt _ like, God, we should have gone here and gotten in where somebody might have been alive.″

Lippe didn’t know the name of the child he tried so desperately to save until Monday night. He was watching the evening news when he recognized Colton in a home video, playing with his brother, Chase, 3, who also was killed in the bombing.

The next day, Lippe attended the children’s funeral. At the grave site, he stepped forward and told his story.

``I said, `My name’s Tony. I’m a nurse, and I was there that morning. I was the one that got to Colton first.‴

Lippe has kept in touch with Colton’s parents and will continue to do so, for Colton is now a part of him, too. Meeting them and attending the boys’ funeral has helped him deal with his grief.

``Just the fact that I know the boy’s name, I’ve seen pictures more than just the pictures of that day. I’ve seen him alive.″

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