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Timothy McVeigh's deadly act turned two doctors into reluctant heroes

David Tuggle, left, and Andrew Sullivan stand in front of a bronze  statue at the Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City. The two doctors amputated  the leg of Daina Bradley, a woman who was pinned under the rubble at the  Murrah Building.
David Tuggle, left, and Andrew Sullivan stand in front of a bronze statue at the Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City. The two doctors amputated the leg of Daina Bradley, a woman who was pinned under the rubble at the Murrah Building. File photo

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on May 16, 2001.

Their names are David Tuggle and Andy Sullivan. Six years ago they cut off a woman's leg.

They did it in a broken building with broken concrete dangling over their heads.

Reporters wrote that they were heroes.

The word made them cringe.

The other day, yet another reporter and photographer came to ask them about heroism and executions and Timothy McVeigh.

Where can we take your picture? we asked.

Andy looked at the floor.

David rolled his eyes.

Then he brightened, like a boy who'd found a snake to drop down somebody's shirt.

"Andy," he said. "Let's take them to the Anatomical Donor Memorial."

Andy bit his lip and grinned.

David led everyone to the lobby of the Basic Sciences Education Building in the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

There, he and Andy posed for the camera in front of the bronze statue of a naked man.

They smiled. Heroes.

The word still makes them cringe.

And never more so than today, the day they were hoping would be the last day Tim McVeigh would be a big story.

They've grown very tired of talking about him, about themselves. For the victims, they said, they want this story to end.

-- -- --

On April 19, 1995, a few hours after McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, David, then 41, crawled down into the basement with firefighters, peered into a tiny cave of shattered concrete and introduced himself to Daina Bradley.

David was a surgeon looking for trapped people who needed their limbs cut off to survive, and he was already risking his life.

Above him, what was left of the Murrah Building stood shattered; rescuers thought it might fall in at any moment.

David called Andy on his cell phone and told him they'd found a woman trapped, her right leg crushed under a beam weighing tons.

Amputation was her only hope.

Andy, then 51, gathered an amputation kit at Children's Hospital: knife blades, anesthetics and tranquilizers, a rope for a tourniquet.

It occurred to him that he might die. So he stripped off his wedding ring and wallet and left them at the hospital.

When he got to David and Daina, he found her in a 3-foot-wide cave.

All around him, darkness, except for a portable light bulb. Dust, boulders, reinforcement bars, the smell of smoke and gasoline and broken concrete, the roar of generators, shouting.

He crawled in. Daina's skin was covered with white-gray dust.

The more he saw, the more his heart sank. Daina was lying in broken concrete in 6 inches of cold basement water, her skin clammy.

For the next agonizing hour or so, he talked to her. He and David had to run away once, when a new bomb threat cleared the building. She screamed at them: "Don't leave me!"

They came back 45 minutes later. Andy told Daina they'd have to cut. She said no. He said if they didn't cut, they'd have to leave her there.

She changed her mind.

The cramped space would require Andy to cut using his left hand, though he is right-handed. And no way could he cut through her thick lower leg bone, he thought. He would not be able to get enough space or leverage.

Instead he'd have to cut through the ligaments in the joint of her knee. She might bleed to death.

"I don't know if I can do this," he told David.

"You've got to," David replied.

Daina was blunt.

"Get me out of here!"

David crawled into the hole with a needle and shot a dose of tranquilizer into the vein in the left side of Daina's neck.

It was a grim decision, to use a tranquilizer rather than an anesthetic that would have put her to sleep. But she was so badly injured and so chilled that they feared anesthetic would kill her.

The low dose of tranquilizer would later give her amnesia - she would recall no pain. But she would feel it.

Andy crawled back into the hole. At 5 feet 7 inches, he fit in the hole better than David, who is a couple of inches taller.

Andy said a prayer: If he died in here, he said, he wanted his wife and their boys to know why he died and that he loved them.

Daina braced herself for the knife. Nearby, a firefighter had stripped off his gloves and was standing with his bare hands on the beam that pinned Daina's leg.

If he felt the beam vibrate or move, the firefighter said, his orders were to get them out of there - to pull them out by force if necessary.

David stared at him.

Andy took the knife to the knee. Making a first cut, he said later, is like diving into cold water; it is full commitment.

He cut.

Daina screamed.

She kept screaming, all the way through. She shook and shook and shook her free left leg.

Andy cut and cut. He grew tired. He kept cutting. It took time.

He had to hold her left leg down to cut off her right one. Moving around, wrestling with her, he cut his hands, neck and body on the concrete.

He crawled out two or three times, thinking he'd cut through, but when they tried to pull her out of the cave with a harness and rope, they realized she was still attached to her leg.

She bled profusely.

He broke some of the knife blades, dulled the others. In the tiny space, the blades stabbed into the concrete as he cut. He'd brought four disposable scalpels and a long-bladed knife. He dulled or broke them all.

All he had left was a new pocketknife he'd brought to cut the rope. He fished it out of his back pocket and cut all the way through.

It took perhaps 10 minutes, he said later. It seemed like a lifetime.

He rolled out of the hole, completely spent. David crawled in and tied off Daina's artery and vein. She was slipping away, dying from shock.

Rescuers crowded in. A dozen people pulled together and dragged her from the hole.

They carried her quickly to the place where David had told an ambulance to wait. Someone had sent the ambulance away. David was furious.

Daina stopped breathing. David intubated her, stuck a pipe down her windpipe. Where is the ambulance? When the ambulance came back, they took her to University Hospital, Andy and David in the ambulance with her. There, doctors brought her back to the living.

Her two small children died in the blast. So did her mother.

This is why, Andy said.

This is why they cringe over the word.

Heroes.

A word to gag on.

People died, Andy said. People lost legs, lost children, lost mothers.

One hundred sixty-eight people died, David said. Hundreds of firefighters and police officers and others risked their lives for hours and days of sheer terror, all "because of the sick, abnormal, twisted ideas of a man who justified it all with some of the most stupid reasons for mass murder that anyone ever thought up."

-- -- --

Afterward, David and Andy told their wives what they'd done. Judy Tuggle stared at her husband, amazed. Sue Sullivan did all right until the next morning, Andy said.

That's when she saw him on NBC's "Today" show talking about what happened.

He'd gone down early to the wrecked building to tape the interview. He was back home sitting beside Sue when it aired.

She saw him outside the Murrah Building, where all that concrete still dangled in the air. She lost it. She broke down and sobbed.

Andy and David gave many more interviews, with Newsweek, Larry King, others.

After the stories broke, David remembers his mother beaming at him.

"Oh, David!" she said.

Friends called or wrote from all over the world. So did strangers.

During a joint gathering of Holocaust and Murrah bombing survivors, Jewish people referred to Andy as a "Righteous Gentile," the same phrase Holocaust survivors have used when talking of non-Jewish saviors such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.

Eventually the doctors were handed an international award by the president of the United States. Bill Clinton was gracious and engaging.

David said that trip to the Oval Office finally brought home to his kids what their dad had done, or at least what a fuss everybody else was making about it.

Andy's sons kept him grounded. Jake, now 30. Ty, now 26.

One day Andy listened to his voice mail and heard yet another worshipful voice laying on praise. The voice claimed to have known from schooldays that Andy was a good soul, someone for whom God had a plan.

Andy was suckered; he'd heard so much of this.

The voice changed.

"Hi, Dad," the voice said. "This is Jake."

-- -- --

As McVeigh's execution approached, the reporters returned, asking the same old question they had asked before at the bombing anniversaries and at memorial gatherings.

What do you think of McVeigh? What about execution?

Andy and David don't like answering.

Both men treat children - Andy as the chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, David as chief of pediatric surgery at Children's Hospital.

They'd much rather talk about their work or how they like to ride motorcycles.

But when reporters ask, they try to give useful answers.

There was a time when Andy wanted McVeigh dead.

From the hour when he first went to the Murrah Building, Andy saw body parts lying in the street, shattered concrete. Wounded people everywhere.

He heard about the nurse who became a rescuer, then a victim, killed by falling concrete. It could have been him, he thought.

For a long time, Andy suffered. He relived the fear, Daina's screams, as he testified at the punishment phase hearings for McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols.

And afterward, he pondered: What should we do with these men?

At first, he wanted McVeigh dead.

But then he discovered Albert Camus, the French philosopher who studied capital punishment:

"Let us call it by the name which, for lack of any other nobility, will at least give the nobility of truth, and let us recognize it for what it is essentially: a revenge."

Andy decided McVeigh should live.

He has read and heard a bit about what McVeigh has said recently, how he has no sympathy for the victims.

And that settled it for Andy.

He says McVeigh wants to become a martyr and that we should avoid giving him what he wants.

He thinks McVeigh "has discovered a fate worse than death."

"I think he's learned in the last six years what it will be like to sit in prison for the rest of his life and think about what he did," Andy said.

"So that's what I think we ought to have him do. Sit there. With the rest of us ignoring him as much as possible."

Tuggle doesn't agree with his friend about McVeigh's fate.

In an ideal world, David said, we'd shut McVeigh in a cell and ignore him.

But in our country, we allow the press to interview the nuts, those who shot President Reagan and Sen. Robert Kennedy. Charles Manson is still giving interviews 32 years after his victims died.

David doesn't want to watch McVeigh go. He just wants him gone.

He doesn't want to give McVeigh another thought.

Does execution deter crime? David doesn't know.

What he does know is that after an execution, Mr. McVeigh would no longer be granting interviews to the press.

"He's told us all I want to hear," David said.

He was hoping for an end today, for McVeigh, for himself, for victims like Daina, with whom the doctors lost touch long ago.

When McVeigh does die, he said, the rest should be silence.

He and Andy would be happy if they never talked about the bombing again.

The only thing left for the living, he said, is to comfort the families and honor the dead.

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