Full text of 1995 Oklahoma City bombing survivor Amy Downs’ talk: How Hope Can Change Your Life at TEDxOklahomaCity conference. In this talk, Amy shows how to overcome the most difficult moments in life with a hopeful mindset.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Amy Downs – OKC Bombing Survivor, CEO, Ironman, and Motivational Speaker
An ancient Greek philosopher named Epictetus said the words:
“It is not what happens to you, but how you choose to react to it that matters.”– Epictetus
And the year 2020 has brought us a truckload of it. We have all faced so many challenges. And business leaders in particular have faced overwhelming challenges, trying not to lay off their employees, trying to keep their profit at least at breakeven. It’s been a difficult year.
But I do believe the message of that quote. It isn’t so much what happens but how we choose to respond or react to it that really matters.
And I believe in using a little magic to respond with the power of hope.
Okay. To unpack that for you, I need to first take you back to 1988 with me.
The 1980s were a decade of great music, and really big hair and I had the big hair. I had it going on, big perm… you know, the bangs that kind of reach out and grab you. Man, I had some awesome hair. And that is about the only thing I had going for me in 1988.
I had plunked out of college. I couldn’t pass the remedial math class. That’s the math class you take before you’re allowed to take the actual math class where you get credit hours. And I flunked it, not once but twice.
So I decided with my amazing math skills and all, that I would go to work as a teller at a financial institution. So I was working in 1995 for a credit union in the Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma city. I still had the amazing hair, even though it was 1995.
Now remember on the morning of April 19th, 1995 it was a beautiful spring morning. Everything seems normal about it. I remember seeing my friends that morning. I remember seeing my best work friend, Sonya; she had a bright yellow suit. She was getting ready to go to a supervisor meeting.
And back then they told us that we had to wear colors that were like a power suit or you know a pop of color to show you were confident. So she had picked out a bright yellow suit.
And then by the time she got to work, she said I think this power suit just makes me look like a big old yellow sunflower. And we all laughed and encouraged her, told her she looked great.
She went to her meeting. I went and sat down at my desk. My desk was on the third floor, front and center, just a few feet from the front glass windows.
One of my co-workers who was seven months pregnant walked in to talk to me. I turned to ask her what she needed, and I don’t know if the words came out or not, because that’s when it happened. That’s when a bomb went off.
I remember just hearing such an incredible roaring in my head and feeling this powerful rushing sensation, like I was falling and screaming all around me. And I remember hearing this woman screaming in my ear, and then realizing that was me, that was my voice. I didn’t even recognize the sound of my own voice.
I found out later I actually fell three floors. And I was upside down still in my chair buried under about 10 feet of rubble. My right hand was sticking out of the side of the rubble pile; the rest of me was completely covered.
I remember thinking that maybe I had died, because everything got quiet; I couldn’t feel anything. I had no bearing about where I was. I would try so hard to open my eyes really wide but everything was still black. It was really hard to breathe.
And then I heard a siren going off and I thought okay I must still be alive, I hear this siren. And I kept screaming: help me, help me, over and over. But nobody replied.
It was hard to breathe, and when I did breathe there was a smell that just burned my lungs. I just laid there and prayed.
It was about 45 minutes before I heard men’s voices, and they said they were looking for the daycare babies. And I thought daycare. I worked on the third floor of the building; the daycare was on the second floor.
But I started screaming my head off. I remember hearing this man yell: I hear you, I hear you child; how old are you?
I remember thinking I really wanted to say I’m two. You know I thought he wouldn’t come get me if I told him I was 28. And I said I’m sorry I’m 28.
And he said that’s okay, and he starts yelling, we have a live one; we have a live one. He says you have to keep talking to me. We’ve got to follow the sound of your voice.
So I’m like okay.
So my hand is sticking out the side of the rubble pile and I feel them hit my hand and I’m like it’s me; you’ve got me. And I feel hands grab mine and I’m thinking they’re getting ready to one two three pull me up and out.
And about the time they found my hand, I hear men’s voices yelling in the background. There’s another bomb; there’s another bomb. Everybody get out now. There’s another bomb; let’s go let’s go.
And I realized they couldn’t get me out. So they told me they said Amy, we just need to get some more equipment; we’re going to be right back. We need to get more equipment.
But I had heard and I knew, I told him my name and then they were gone.
And I was laying there, buried alive thinking to myself, I’m getting ready to die. And life started flashing before my eyes and I started thinking about how I had lived or rather how I had not lived my life.
And I was thinking I’m getting ready to die and I’ve never even lived. I was filled with so much regret. It was overwhelming. I prayed and I just… I begged God for a second chance and I was filled with so much sorrow.
And then I remember of all the things to do, I started to sing. And I began singing a song that we had sung in church years ago. And as I began to sing, it took my mind off of my situation. It was the only action that I could really take was my mind: how I thought to pray, to sing.
But when I did that, even though my situation did not change, I felt peace. And of course there was not a second bomb, because I’m standing here today.
And they came back and they started working to get me out. And it wasn’t as easy as one two three, let me pull you up. It took them over six hours. These men risked their lives to get me out. The building was very unstable what was remaining of it and they had to stop about every 20 minutes to decide if they needed to amputate to get everybody out quickly and safely.
But they kept saying well let’s give us 20 more minutes.
And finally, they said okay we’re going to count to three and pull; this is probably going to hurt. Of course, I didn’t care.
They counted three and they pulled and I came out from the rubble for the first time.
And I remember looking around and just thinking this is not real. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. It was like a war zone. It was like something I had seen in a movie.
They put me on the back of a gurney and they took me out of the back of what used to be the Federal Building. And I remember that beautiful spring morning had changed, and it was dark, it was gray, it was cold and it was starting to lightly rain.
But as I lay on that gurney and I looked up at that dark sky, I took my first breath of fresh air and I filled my lungs and I promised I would never live my life the same.
I didn’t know about my injuries. I didn’t know about my friends. I just knew if I had a second chance, I was going to take it.
I was in the hospital for eight days. During those eight days I would find out one by one, 18 of my coworkers, my friends, had died. 168 people were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.
I remember the last day in the hospital, I found out that they had found the body of my friend Sonya in her beautiful yellow suit.
And I remember as I laid there in the hospital bed looking out down below at the cars in the middle of the day, and they were driving with their headlights on, and for you young people you used to have to turn on the headlights, people had turned their lights on manually driving around Oklahoma City to show a symbol of hope.
And I remember seeing those lights and thinking somehow some way we will get through this.
The place where I worked, the credit union, we only had one location and it was in that building. And we didn’t pay any rent; it was free space. Our one location was destroyed. Over half of our staff gone. We existed basically to serve the people in that building.
Everything changed. The few of us that remained were traumatized but we were clear on what we wanted. And that was to survive; it was very important. It was personal.
We felt like if our credit union kept going, that it somehow meant the memories and the lives of those we lost also kept going. So we got really clear on what needed to happen.
And over the next few years we got really good at setting goals and action steps one after another, moving forward constantly. In Oklahoma we call that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
I remember a few years after the bombing, our CEO Lynette Leonard asked me a question that would change my life. She asked me, she said if you had a magic wand, what would you change, what would you make better, what would you do if you had a magic wand you could do whatever you wanted in our credit union what would you do?
And I was thinking, okay, is this a trick question? You know this is a CEO, like is this the trick? And she kept encouraging me no there’s no wrong answer, like do you have a magic wand, do whatever you want?
I thought about it and pretty soon I was rambling away about how we would grow and we would have a really great culture. We had some negativity going on. We had managers that didn’t speak to each other. It was kind of a hot mess. So that was a pretty big stretch.
I’ll never forget what she said though. She said, okay, given your current situation and your current limitations, what are the smallest steps that you can take to make that dream come true?
I remember walking away thinking okay, what just happened? Like how did this thing now become my responsibility to what? But I was actually excited and the reason that I was excited was because she gave me hope.
The authors and researchers of a book called Hope Rising: How the Science of HOPE Can Change Your Life, Casey Gwinn and Chan Hellman, make this statement:
“Hope is the belief that your future can be better and brighter, and that you actually play a role in making it better.”
They go on to say, hope is basically having a goal, having the steps, the pathway to get to that goal, and agency over that.
That’s what she gave me. Her magic wand question gave me the clarity to know what I wanted and then with your current situation and current limitations what’s that path? This not only transformed our organization as we kept doing that but I started applying the magic wand exercise to my own life.
And there was something I wanted and it was to go back and get that degree and it was very intimidating. My grade point average was a 0.50, like nothing in front of the decimal point; it was that bad.
And I remember those action steps I wrote. This first one was call the college, get the transcript, find out what school will even take you. Like it was a big daunting thing.
But when I graduated with that leadership degree, my confidence was through the roof. And I took that power of hope and I kept going and I got my Masters in Business Administration.
I changed so many things. I went from being a teller to a CEO.
I was a 355-pound couch potato, and I started riding a bicycle and getting active and losing weight. And when I turned 50, I became an IRONMAN. And what that means is that means that I did a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, finished up with a 26.2 marathon, all within 17 hours.
And I crossed that finish line and Mike Reilly, the voice of IRONMAN said you are an IRONMAN, I came in dead last. But I don’t care; I’m an IRONMAN. Are you?
And I tell you these things not to brag… well the IRONMAN part is bragging… but I want you to see and to understand, that if my credit union can literally survive being blown apart, if I can make the changes in my life that I’ve made, using this simple framework, you can too.
There is always action that you can take. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can. Even when I was buried alive and facing death, there was something I could do. I believe that you can make it through whatever challenge comes your way with that simple exercise of just asking yourself if I had a magic wand, what would I do, not what somebody else would do but what would you do given your current situation, your current limitations, what can you do to reach that picture?
And I believe the best way to react and respond in this life is to respond with the power of hope.