A Time for Healing

updated 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THE END, THEY WERE BURIED AS they had lived—together: 3-year-old Chase Smith, who could count and already knew the alphabet, and his brother, Colton, a year younger, who always seemed to have chocolate smeared on his face. Inseparable in life, they would now lie side by side, clasping hands in the same, small white coffin, snuggled forever with their treasured toys, a Barney doll and Oscar the Grouch.

The boys had shared a room in the cozy brick house where they lived with their divorced mother, Edye, and her parents on a shady street in Oklahoma City. And they had played together in the America's Kids daycare center in the downtown Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building—where Edye, 23, an IRS secretary who worked five blocks away, would sometimes stroll by on her lunch hour just to sneak a peek at them through the window. "I never let them see me—they would cry if I did," she says, adding, "I really liked the security at the center. You couldn't walk right in—you had to use a buzzer."

The irony is excruciating. For on April 19, Chase and Colton Smith died there—together—in an explosion of nearly unimaginable force, among the victims of the worst terrorist attack against civilians in U.S. history.

As the nation reeled, 12,000 mourners, led by President Clinton and the Rev. Billy Graham, filled the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds four days later for a special service. The worshipers wept as Graham mentioned the Smith family.

Later that afternoon, the President and his wife, Hillary, embraced Edye Smith and her family at a reception. "He was crying—he was very gentle and very sad," recalls Smith, cradling a matted photograph of her lost boys that the Clintons had signed, with hopes for God's blessings. "Hillary told me that if I ever needed anything to let them know."

But there is nothing, of course—no medicine for this kind of hurt. On the boys' last morning, they were dressed by their grandmother Kathy Graham-Wilburn, 41, with whom they were especially close. "We had been teasing Chase," Kathy recalls. "I told him that I decided I wanted two little girls, so I was going to buy them some dresses and call them Shirley and Susie. 'Don't call me Shirley!' he told me." As the boys left, her husband, Glenn Wilburn, 44, called out behind Chase, "Bye, bye, Shirley."

Gathering all the outraged dignity a 3-year-old could muster, the little boy told his step-grandfather, "I'm not Shirley!"

"That's the last words we ever heard," Wilburn says. Smith and her mother—who also works with the IRS—were on the job at 9 a.m. when they heard the enormous blast. "When I walked out the front door it was like the end of the world," Kathy says quietly "I said, 'Edye, the babies!' and she said, 'Oh, my God!' " And with that, mother and daughter tore down the street through a storm of smoke and falling glass shards. "Oh, my babies!" Edye gasped, stumbling forward. "Oh, my babies!"

More than two dozen bloodied children were being evacuated from another daycare center, at the YMCA across the street from the ravaged Murrah building. Smith and her mother were told to wait at nearby Children's Hospital of Oklahoma for word of the missing boys.

Several miles away, Yukon, Okla., police officer Daniel Coss, 25, Smith's brother, was attending college classes at a satellite branch of Oklahoma State University when he heard the explosion. A friend told him the Murrah building had been bombed. "I knew my sister's kids were in the federal building," he says. "Then I saw my sister on television, crying."

Coss rushed to the scene in a squad car, dressed in full police gear. "I knew I could get in there with that," he says. Told at first that his nephews might be at the Children's Hospital, Coss waited there with Smith and their mother. But an hour without word was too much for Coss. He went to a temporary morgue set up by rescue workers near the explosion site and from there to the open plaza behind the bombed building itself.

"Laying off to one side was a white male John Doe wrapped in a blanket," Coss says, at his mother's home, using police lingo and a Dragnet delivery like a shield against the emotion about to overwhelm him. Tears form in his eyes as his sister lays a comforting hand on his knee and he says, haltingly, "It was Colton."

It was mid-afternoon when Coss first broke the news of Colton's death to his mother, who was waiting in the halls of Children's Hospital while Edye prayed inside the chapel. When she heard the grim news, Edye collapsed in grief. "We didn't know about Chase yet," Kathy says. "For a little bit we thought he might still be alive." But then Coss checked with the medical examiner's office, where an employee produced the photograph of a dead blond toddler. "It was like a mug shot," he says, now weeping openly. "I saw that it was Chase." He looks down at the picture of his nephews, autographed by the Clintons just hours earlier, and gently turns it facedown, unable to bear the haunting sight of the boys' faces, grinning and safe, as they had been just days before.

On April 25 they were laid to rest. Edye was supported in her sorrow by ex-husband Tony Smith, the boys' father. Her own father, the Rev. Richard Coss, an evangelical minister, eulogized his grandsons before about 1,000 mourners, many of whom sobbed as a soloist sang the Barney theme song.

While the nation ponders the meaning of the horror in Oklahoma City, Edye and Daniel grapple with questions more practical and more heart-wrenching—like what to say to Caitlin, Coss's 23-month-old daughter, who adored her favorite playmates, Chase and Colton. "They called her Cake-Cake," Edye says of the boys. "Caitlin saw their pictures in the newspaper and started saying their names. She wanted to come play with them," Coss adds. "But I don't know how we are going to tell her that she can't anymore. She's too young to understand 'dead.' "

No one does, really. For now, Edye Smith clings desperately to her keepsakes—like the nose prints the boys would make for fun when they squashed their faces on the bathroom mirror. For days after they died, she refused to wash them away. "No, that belongs to the children," she said. Scraps of life, now priceless. "I have them," Edye says, fighting back tears, "and I'm going to keep them."

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