Beauty for Ashes: The Amy Downs Story

A deafening roar filled Amy Downs’ head. She felt herself being swooped up in the air and then falling. It was as if someone had picked her up and thrown her. As she fell, Amy could hear the sounds of people screaming and something that sound like gigantic fireworks going off. She cried out “Jesus help me!” and finally landed in pitch black darkness. Questions flooded her mind. What was that popping noise? Had she been shot? Was she dying or already dead? It was a horrifying state of confusion.

Amy didn’t realize that she’d become a victim of the Oklahoma City Bombing. The deafening noise was the dynamite that Timothy McVeigh had strapped to sixteen 55-gallon barrels of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil. McVeigh ignited the 7,000 pound truck bomb at the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Building. Amy’s office, the Federal Employees Credit Union (FECU), was one of several targets of McVeigh’s ire at the United States government.

April 19, 1995 began like any other day in Oklahoma. The majestic Alfred P. Murrah building was located in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City housing several of the most important governmental agencies. Amy worked on the third floor as a bank teller at the FECU–a modest living but not a bad gig for a 28 year-old without a college degree.

Amy loved her job primarily because going to work didn’t feel like “going to work.” The 33 FECU employees loved each other like a family. Amy had the deepest friendships with her boss, Vicky Texter, and her best friend, Sonja Sanders. Each week, Vicky ran her adult Sunday school lesson past Amy to “practice.” Amy later realized at Vicky’s funeral that Vicky wasn’t needing to “practice.” Vicky was trying to lead Amy spiritually. The evening before the Bombing, Sonja called Amy to tell her about Sunday’s service. Both Amy and Sonja had been living as if they didn’t really need God, but Sonja had accepted an altar call to rededicate her life to Christ. Amy knew that Sonja was sharing this because she wanted Amy to do the same. Amy told Sonja she was happy for her but didn’t engage that part of the conversation. She was about to close on a house that week and didn’t have time talk about God.

The service that Sonja had attended was an Easter service. Now, as Amy lay buried in a crater under ten feet of rubble, she wondered if she would experience her own resurrection. Her extremities were numb. Her mouth was full of dust and debris. During the six hours that Amy waited to be rescued, she thought about how her lifestyle had prevented her from the life she wanted. Her emotional issues led her to seek comfort in food, and at 5’3”, she weighed 355 lbs. Even if the first responders could find her, would they be able to rescue her?

The force of the bomb had wrapped a fiberglass curtain around Amy’s head. Hot and barely able to breathe, Amy bargained with God. “Lord, if you give me a second chance, I will never live my life the same.”

Eventually, help did come. Courageous firefighters ignored threats of more possible bombs and worked tirelessly to free Amy’s large frame from the dangerously unstable building. It turned out that Amy had been miraculously wedged between her desk chair and two concrete slabs that protected her back and head. She was one of the last living people to be rescued.

Once Amy’s body was released from the pressure, her numbness gave way to a rush of pain. She suffered from hundreds of glass cuts, nerve damage, internal bleeding, a deep shoulder cut and a leg wound that required surgery. While recovering, Amy learned that 18 of her co-workers including her two best friends, Vicky and Sonja, had died in the Bombing. It would be tough, but she kept her promise to God to live her life to the fullest.

After a gastic sleeve surgery, two years of working out and a diet change, Amy lost 200 lbs and completed the IRONMAN Triathlon. She attained an MBA from Southern Nazarene University and is the new CEO of the same credit union that once buried her.