The Last Life Saved

updated 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DRIVING AWAY FROM OKLAHOMA City late Thursday night, April 20, Rick Nelson thought he could put the bombing behind him. The 38-year-old general surgeon was on his way home to Muskogee, Okla., 130 miles away, after spending two days aiding victims of the explosion. But even a night's sleep at the home Nelson shares with his 77-year-old mother, Tessie, couldn't banish the image of Brandy Ligons, 15—the last person pulled alive from the federal building. Thinking of Brandy the next day, "he broke down some and cried a little," Tessie says. Saturday, Nelson headed back to Oklahoma City.

Nelson had been in the middle of a gallbladder operation in Muskogee when news of the disaster reached him. It took only 3 hours for him and six other medical volunteers to drive to Oklahoma City—but once there, he saw he was too late. "Everybody was dead," says Nelson. He stayed to help anyway, longing for a single sign of life in the wreckage. "I kept thinking," he recalls, "how all we were going through would be worth it if we could just get one person out who was trapped."

Then, says Nelson, came a moment he will never forget: "Someone came out yelling, 'We've got a live one!' " Deep in the basement, Bronte, a Rottweiler rescue dog, had sniffed out Brandy Ligons's foot. (In fact, in his excitement, the dog had nipped it.) The teenager, who had been visiting the Social Security office before the blast, was entombed in a deadly maze of ragged metal framework, pipes and concrete rubble. "It was like pick-up sticks," says Nelson, who joined a team of firemen trying to extricate her. "If you moved one piece the wrong way, the whole thing could come crashing down." The first glimmer of hope in the almost 3-hour ordeal came when Ligons could reach out her hand; Nelson grasped it and held on.

Nelson knew they were in a race against time, especially toward the end. "For the last 20 minutes." he says, "she was fading in and out and getting shocky." Nelson administered oxygen and made sure that once out of the debris, Ligons was stable on a backboard for the trip to Children's Hospital, where her spleen was removed and she was treated for pulmonary contusions.

To Nelson's delight, Ligons remembers much of their conversation and is intent on holding the doctor to his promise of dinner once she's out of the hospital. He is more than happy to oblige. "That girl's a miracle," he says. "I think God has special plans for her."

Back home, Nelson has started a trust fund for Ligons's future education. He also visits her regularly in Oklahoma City. "I feel such a sense of sorrow about all this," says Nelson of the victims he couldn't help. "The fact that we got Brandy out is what I hang on to."

GAIL WESCOTT in Oklahoma City

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