This is America. Things like this just don't happen here. - Mechelle Rush, Oklahoma City office worker, April 19, 1995
By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist
Published April 17, 2005
How childlike that remark sounds now.
Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah federal building. That's where 168 people died, more than 500 were injured and this country's sense of security began to crumble.
At the time, the bombing was the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. In a twist of fate, the devastation also put Oklahoma City - a heartland cowboy town many Americans would be hard-pressed to find on a map - on CNN, TV news and the front pages of newspapers and news magazines.
"MORNING OF TERROR" was the April 20 headline of the Daily Oklahoman.
Few realized then that it would serve as a warm-up act to, and later be overshadowed by, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The vital difference is that Oklahoma City is a Middle America town struck by a Middle American bomber. It is far from the country's economic and political hubs that later became such tempting targets for al-Qaida terrorists. In the immediate wake of the 1995 Oklahoma blast, before anyone had heard the name Timothy McVeigh, authorities first reacted by blaming "Islamic fundamentalists."
When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, I was traveling as a business writer for the St. Petersburg Times to Fort Worth, Texas. My original assignment, rather inconsequential in hindsight, was to cover the annual shareholders meeting of Florida Progress Corp., the former St. Petersburg-based power company, and return home.
Instead, my editor called and told me and reporter Amy Ellis, also covering the shareholders meeting, to head at once to Oklahoma City. On a blustery spring morning, we rented a car in Fort Worth - none would be available where we were going - and drove the 201 miles north on I-35 through rolling green hills until an eerie plume of black smoke led us to downtown Oklahoma City. We met up with fellow reporter Ceci Connolly, who had flown in from Washington.
The three of us would spend the better part of the next week there covering the aftermath of the bombing. Ten years later, I am the only one of the three Times reporters first on the scene still writing for this newspaper.
In 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial ended in acquittal. Hurricane Opal did about $2-billion in damage along the Panhandle coast. The San Francisco 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl. Baseball legend Mickey Mantle died. And Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia signed a treaty to end three and a half years of war.
In Oklahoma City, the youngest kids to survive the 1995 blast (they were all tucked in the Murrah building's day care center at the time) are now approaching their teen years. In 2000, five years to the day after the bombing, President Clinton dedicated "as sacred ground" the new Oklahoma City National Memorial. Located on the site where the Murrah building stood, the memorial consists of 149 full-size chairs of granite and glass for the adults, and 19 small chairs for the children who perished.
On June 11, 2001, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh died by lethal injection without uttering a word beforehand. It was the first federal execution in 38 years. McVeigh was incensed by the federal government assault of April 19, 1993 - exactly two years before the Oklahoma City blast - on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.
On Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorists used hijacked commercial planes to strike both World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon outside Washington. A fourth hijacked plane presumed to be heading to a target in Washington crashed in a field outside Shanksville, Pa.
Today in Oklahoma City, remembrances will be held at churches throughout the city. Memorials, reunions and celebrations of life will continue throughout this week.
None of that, of course, was on our minds heading up I-35 10 years ago. We arrived in a chaotic Oklahoma City on April 20, 1995.
The truck bomb - 4,800 pounds of explosives - detonated by McVeigh came close to destroying the entire Murrah building. Nine floors of rebar-reinforced concrete had pancaked into a world of rubbled mountains and treacherous valleys. Klieg lights illuminated the site all night as searchers cautiously hunted for survivors. A temporary morgue arose and, later, several refrigerated trucks for bodies arrived in the parking lot of the adjacent First Methodist Church.
Mid-April in Oklahoma City is "springtime" for hardy Okies. To Florida reporters unprepared for cold weather, it was a week of wind, clouds, rain and even occasional hail. Wind chill dropped nightly temperatures into the 20s, adding further urgency to finding victims exposed to the elements. I drove to a Wal-Mart in nearby Mustang, Okla., to buy some jeans and rain gear for the Times reporting crew.
Vehicles were banned in the city's downtown near the blast site. Everybody walked atop the relentless crunch of shattered glass from nearby buildings. Churches quickly became the go-to sites for shelters, information about victims, family reunions, family counseling and lots of prayers.
Early on, lines of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in blue "ATF" jackets combed downtown streets, parking lots and roofs looking for evidence. Local police officers, with spurs and leather saddlebags, patrolled the perimeter of the blast area on horseback.
At the time, city leaders were keen to prevent Oklahoma City from being identified in the nation's memory as that poor target of heartland terrorism.
"We need to pick up and move on, recognizing it will take time for everyone to come to terms with this disaster," Andy Burke, then a city chamber of commerce executive, told me after the bombing.
Burke now heads the Greensboro Economic Development Partnership in North Carolina. He has returned several times to Oklahoma City. He marvels at the resilience of the city's spirit and rebound of its economy. He credits the local can-do attitude and the stability of the city's business and political leaders.
Oklahoma City enjoyed an almost perverse benefit from the worldwide attention focused on the 1995 bombing. The city, like the rest of Oklahoma, suffered from a lack of identity and confidence found in abundance to the south in such cities as Dallas and Phoenix. Still, the city never wanted to be branded as a victimized city, and never exploited its global attention.
"It's not the publicity you wanted," Burke recalls. "But people who did not know where the city was before, well, they knew where it was then."
To the world, the Oklahoma City tragedy was a particularly American wake-up call, a signal that the United States was now joining that club of countries long accustomed to the violence of surprise, larger-scale assaults on its citizens.
That theme would reverberate dramatically again after 9/11. It would prompt an immense, expensive, controversial and ongoing overhaul of the federal government intended to better assure U.S. security.
The grade is still out on that project.
Appropriately, I think it was Oklahoma sage Will Rogers who once said, "Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for."