Finding Empathy in the Face of Tragedy

May 19, 2017

Kathy Sanders (middle) tells students how she found forgiveness for Terry Nichols in the year's following 1995's Oklahoma City bombing.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

On the morning of April 19th, 1995, Kathy Sanders dropped off her grandchildren at the daycare center located in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Hours later her life would change forever.

“Twenty-two years ago, the morning of the bombing, I became a victim.  I didn’t have any choice.  When I began to pray for the men who killed my grandchildren, I don’t know what it did for [Timothy] McVeigh or [Terry] Nichols but it began to change my life.”

Kathy Sanders found forgiveness in an unexpected way.

“I went to Terry Nichols trial and I met his mother.  That was my first baby step in learning to forgive.  Once I met this woman and formed a friendship with her, Terry Nichols the bomber became my friend Joyce’s son, and I began to look at him differently. I had Josh Nichols who was Terry Nichols son come to my home.  He came for a night and he stayed four days.  He was twelve at the time of the bombing.  This was four years later; they had just executed McVeigh.  He was a very confused young man, he told me how the kids at school had nicknamed him bomber, how he’d randomly get beat up.  He hadn’t told a soul, and he dropped out of school.  On the last day of his visit, he asked me if I would take him to the Oklahoma City memorial.  How could I tell the kid no, not after what he had been through.  Terry Nichols not only exploded my life, he exploded his son’s life.  So I took him to the memorial.  When I stood at chairs numbered sixty and sixty-one that represented the lives of my young grandsons with my arm around the bombers son, I knew something special was happening in my life.”

Kathy’s son Daniel Coss was on site as a police officer in 1995.  He’s now a professor of law enforcement, homeland security, and emergency management at Berkeley College in New Jersey. 

“It’s critical when we teach the young kids today in college and we educate them to go out and be public safety professionals, law enforcement officers, that we teach them more than the book.  We teach them a servant heart, teach them compassion, flexibility, we let them understand how important what they’re doing at the scene is to the family, the victim twenty years from now.  I think that’s what sets us apart.  When our students graduate they are professional police officers, fire fighters, and medical professionals, but they also know when they have to bend the rules, flex the rules, or do something that is out of the ordinary.  At the bombing scene, I tried to hug my nephew and kiss him good bye and a law enforcement officer on the scene ridiculed me and screamed at me.  A little flexibility that day would have been something that was very powerful to me twenty-two years later, and I didn’t receive that."

Like thousands of other Oklahomans whose lives changed on April 19th 1995, Coss isn’t so ready to forgive like his mother.

“I don’t forgive them.  I don’t forget what happened.  I’m glad they’re in prison, glad they are being punished.  The law is taking care of that.  But who knows, she says it’s a process and I respect her.  Maybe someday before I leave this Earth I can forgive them like she forgave them.”