It was 9:02am, Wednesday April 19, 1995. Former US soldier turned extremist Timothy McVeigh had parked a rental truck with homemade chemical explosives outside Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
The subsequent explosion, chronicled in SBS VICELAND documentary series Seconds from Disaster was devastating, killing 168 people and injuring over 500. Sisters Daina Bradley, 20, and Falesha Bradley Joyner, 23, were left with a burden doubled - severe injuries and the grief of losing three family members.
A fateful day
The sisters were on the ground floor of the building at the Social Security office where they were getting a social security card for Bradley’s three-month-old son Gabreon Bruce. With them were Bradley’s three-year-old daughter Peachlyn Bradley, and the sisters’ mother Cheryl Bradley Hammons, 44.
According to Seconds from Disaster, the explosion disintegrated the nine-story building in just seven seconds. The next thing Bradley knew, her right leg was pinned under a mass of concrete at base of the bombsite.
“I had the whole floor slanted down and I was basically in a coffin," she told News 9 Oklahoma last year. “I realised I was trapped and that's when I started screaming for help and I could hear my sister on the side of me, I could hear her screaming for help.”
There was only one way Daina Bradley would have any chance of survival – her leg would have to be amputated.
“I said, ‘Do what you have to do, get me out of here’.”
Dr Andrew Sullivan, a senior orthopedic surgeon from Oklahoma University Hospital was brought in to the cramped space to perform the battlefield-like operation, in the extremely fragile conditions of the unstable ruins and hampered by an alert of another possible explosive at the site.
"She pleaded with us not to leave her. We had no other choice. We were told to get out,” Sullivan told The Los Angeles Times in the days following the bombing.
It was a false alarm. Sullivan returned and gave Bradley anesthetic, and using nylon rope as a tourniquet, he completed the amputation with scalpels and a pocket knife.
“I was awake and aware of them cutting my leg off,” Bradley said. And she was told by her rescuers that her screams were “so bad, it broke their heart.”
A sobering aftermath
Due to the precarious and miraculous nature of Daina Bradley’s rescue, she’d become something of a reluctant symbol of the tragedy. But Falesha Bradley Joyner also suffered horrific injuries, including the loss of her right ear due to extensive burns.
"My sister, she was in ICU and she had one side of her brain gone and she had staples all the way from her chest all the way down to her legs,” Daina Bradley said. “She had to learn how to walk and talk again, how to eat again.”
A long way back
Though Falesha Bradley Joyner had returned to the bombsite previously, Daina Bradley didn’t have the strength, visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum for the first time on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy in 2015. The sisters toured the memorial where 168 chairs made of bronze, granite and glass stand as a monument to the victims. In footage from a Today story at the time, they stop and smile as they arrive at the chair inscribed with their mother’s name.
“I like it because I’m with her, and we’re together and we’re doing it together now,” says Bradley Joyner, who admits she's still dealing with the physical and psychological scars. “I’m still trying to get my life back,” she said. “I cried a lot. One part of my pain was the burns.”
“I lost my best friend,” she adds. “My mother was everything to me.”
“I miss them,” Bradley said of her mum and children in an interview with Oklahoma’s News Channel 4. “I miss them all the time but I don’t think they want me to live my life being sad all the time.”
Life has been a struggle for both women since that terrible day. Bradley Joyner has fragments of glass, concrete and metal in her mouth that have destroyed her teeth and gums. But she finally received a prosthetic ear, 20 years after the blast.
Meanwhile, Bradley lost teeth from the blast, had shrapnel embedded in her skin, and was forced to endure a painful, out of date prosthetic until a plea from Today saw the charity Steps of Faith Foundation intervene to provide her with a new one.
Both women have struggled to make ends meet and suffer from PTSD.
“I remember everything. I constantly remember everything,” Bradley said on the 20th anniversary of the blast. “I have nightmares all the time.”
Indeed, what Falesha Bradley Joyner and Daina Bradley have faced would be enough to break anyone. Yet, their perseverance and positive attitude remains an inspiration.
“I'm here, I'm alive, I'm grateful," Daina Bradley said last year. "I’ve had my good days and I’ve had my bad days. I have had points where I just totally break down and curl up in a ball and just don't want to deal with anything and then I get that strength in me that says don't give up. That's what I live off of, I've got to or I'll never be happy."
“Hope gives people strength to believe that they can do beyond what other people tell them they can do, beyond what you thought that you could do.”
Seconds from Disaster airs Saturday from 4:35pm on SBS VICELAND. Watch "The Bomb in Oklahoma City" episode at SBS On Demand: