Her 15-month-old daughter died in the bombing but she lived on
By Bobby Ross Jr. | For The Oklahoman
MOORE, Okla. — I only met Deniece Bell once.
Yet over the years, I often wondered what happened to her.
At the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, I decided to find out.
In April 1995, I was a young reporter for The Oklahoman, working overtime with my newsroom colleagues to tell the biggest story of our lives.
Bell was a 28-year-old single mother, mourning the death of her 15-month-old daughter, Danielle Nicole Bell — one of 15 children and three adults killed in the second-floor America’s Kids Day Care.
In all, 168 people — including 19 children — lost their lives in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I wrote about many of those who died.
No single victim profile stuck with me, though, like the one about a blue-eyed, light-brown-haired baby named Danielle, who held a teddy bear in a treasured family photo and was born in 1993 — the same year as my oldest son, Brady.
After the bombing, I left a message on Deniece Bell’s home phone, expressing a desire to talk about her daughter. She called me back days later, thanking me for waiting until she was ready. She expressed frustration at certain national media outlets, which had harassed her and even shown up at Danielle’s funeral.
More than a week after the bombing, I visited Bell at her home. For a quarter-century, I never talked to her again. And she never did another newspaper interview. She preferred to rebuild her life in obscurity.
But in advance of this year’s anniversary, I emailed Mary Eckstein, director of media for the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, to see if she might help me contact Bell.
“I reached out to Deniece Bell-Pitner, Danielle’s mom,” Eckstein replied a few days later. “She remembered you (it pays to be the nice guy!) and she’s willing to talk with you.”
‘She was always smiling’
“Child’s Ready Smile, Affection Remembered,” said the headline atop my original story about Danielle, which appeared on Page 20 of The Oklahoman on April 28, 1995.
A U.S. magistrate ordering Timothy McVeigh — who was later convicted and executed in the bombing — to stand trial was the lead story on the front page that Friday.
Other Page 1 news included the official death toll rising to 107 as search-and-rescue workers kept digging through the rubble and a report that damage from the explosion could top $1 billion.
My story began with the scene of mother and daughter arriving at the federal building about 8:30 a.m. that tragic Wednesday — a half-hour before everything changed.
When Deniece lifted a sleeping Danielle out of her car seat, the baby opened her eyes and leaned into her mother’s chest. As her mother explained, Danielle liked to show affection that way.
Once inside the America’s Kids Day Care, Deniece kissed Danielle on the forehead, handed her a cup of milk and hurried off to her job with a defense contract auditing agency two buildings away.
Danielle didn’t like to be away from her mother, but she didn’t mind spending Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the federal day care.
Before new management had taken over three weeks earlier, “I used to have to chase her to get her to come home with me,” Deniece said in that 1995 interview. “But she was just getting used to the new.”
Deniece remembered that on the first day Danielle encountered the unfamiliar faces in charge, she was reluctant to let her mother leave.
But Colton Wade Smith, 2, who would later die along with Danielle and his 3-year-old brother, Chase Dalton Smith, softly placed his hand on Danielle’s back and promised her, “It’s OK.”
“I’ll just never forget that,” Deniece said. “I just remember seeing all those kids every day, especially Colton and Chase.”
As a result of Colton’s comforting hand, Danielle didn’t cry that day. She also shed no tears when her mother said goodbye the morning of the bombing.
“That’s what everybody remembers that ever saw her,” Deniece said. “She was always smiling.”
Learning to lean on God
The last time I saw Deniece Bell — now Deniece Bell-Pitner — she had buried her daughter the day before, and she was angry.
Angry at the authorities who had made her wait four days before confirming the worst. Angry at the national media she believed had invaded her privacy. And angry, most of all, at the tragedy she wished could somehow have been avoided.
But 25 years later, when I arrived at her family’s home in Moore, south of Oklahoma City, she greeted me with a relaxed smile. This meeting occurred a few weeks before the COVID-19 global pandemic forced social distancing.
I’m not sure the best way to ask: Hey, what’s been up with you since 1995?
So we just started where we left off, and the conversation seemed to flow naturally.
The first big turning point: Bell-Pitner, now 53, met her future husband, Lonnie Pitner, a train engineer with Union Pacific Corp., in December 1995. They exchanged wedding vows in August 1996. The marriage came with three stepchildren.
For three years after the bombing, Bell-Pitner saw a grief counselor every week.
She had an associate’s degree from Rose State College in Midwest City, but as a result of the counseling sessions, she decided to resume her studies.
“So I went back to school, and I think that kept me sane,” said Bell-Pitner, who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
Four days before her UCO graduation, she gave birth to her son, Brayden, an Oklahoma City Community College student who will turn 20 on April 22.
“Teachers were saying, ‘Please don’t have that baby in this class,’” she recalled with a laugh.
Three-and-a-half years later, daughter Dylann, now a 16-year-old varsity pom squad member at Moore High School, came along.
Dr. Lawrence Kincheloe, the gynecologist who delivered all three of Bell-Pitner’s babies, knew her history and kept checking with her to make sure everything was OK.
Dr. Donna Johnson, the family’s longtime pediatrician, did the same.
“The only time I had a rough time was when they turned 15 months old,” Bell-Pitner said of Brayden and Dylann. “Then I was really overprotective. But I don’t think I was over the top with them their whole lives.”
She did refuse to send either child to day care.
“Not after that,” she said, not needing to explain what she meant. She worked from home for years preparing taxes and later developed a photography business that gave her flexibility with her schedule.
After the bombing, she directed some of her anger at God, she said. But as she worked to rebuild her life, she leaned on her strong Christian faith.
“God didn’t do any of this,” said Bell-Pitner, who attends the Westmoore Community Church. “So I was mad and angry, and I hated him, but I (eventually) realized, ‘He’s the only way I’m going to get through this.’”
Forever the smiling toddler
A large portrait of Danielle Bell hangs prominently inside her mother’s residence.
The brother and sister she never met feel like they know her from the stories Bell-Pitner has told.
“I think she would have been a cool sister,” Brayden said. “I think she would have been the one you could go to and talk to, and she’d be real sympathetic and stuff.”
At an Oklahoma City Thunder game in November, the team honored the 168 victims of the bombing. Generally a private person who avoids the spotlight, Bell-Pitner wasn’t sure about going.
But Dylann wanted to attend, so she and her mother headed to Chesapeake Energy Arena and accepted a “Bell/95” jersey in Danielle’s memory.
“It’s not like a cool experience, but it’s something worth being involved in — to remember and show that you were a part of it,” Dylann said of the family’s discussions about participating. “It wasn’t necessarily the fact that her daughter died in it ... but that she got over it.
“Some people would let it break them,” the teen added, talking about her mother. “She didn’t.”
Most years, on the night before the April 19 bombing anniversary, Bell-Pitner and her family take a teddy bear, a stuffed bunny or a bouquet of flowers and place it in Danielle’s chair at the outdoor memorial.
Given concerns over the coronavirus, they may not be able to do that this year.
In any case, Bell-Pitner will take time to reflect and remember her firstborn child.
“She would have been 26, and that’s weird to me,” the mother said. “I feel like it was not that far away.
“I see her in my kids, especially my son. He looks a lot like her,” she added. “I never think of her as grown. She’s not to me. So pretty much, I just think the same kind of happy thoughts when I think about her.”
In Bell-Pitner’s mind, Danielle will always be the smiling baby that she dropped off that seemingly ordinary Wednesday morning.
Life came to a screeching halt that spring day in 1995.
But then it moved on.
“The world doesn’t stop. The world keeps going,” she told me before I said goodbye again. “You stop for a while, but then you have to start walking again. You just have to do that. You have to live.”
Bobby Ross Jr. worked for The Oklahoman from 1993 to 2002. He serves as editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle, an international newspaper for Churches of Christ based in Oklahoma City.