Vintage: 25th anniversary of Oklahoma City Bombing
On 19 April 1995, the United States experienced what was, to that point, the most deadly act of terror ever perpetrated on American soil, when a right-wing extremist detonated a truck bomb next to the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It's been 25 years since 168 people, including 19 children, lost their lives when thousands of pounds of fertiliser, fuel and other chemicals exploded and ripped a gaping hole in the building's facade. Ambulances, police and fire fighters, the Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol and the American Red Cross, were on the scene within minutes. Within the first hour, 50 people were rescued from the Murrah Federal Building. On Sunday, 19 April 2020, the city's mayor, David Holt, marked the anniversary by saying the way Oklahoma City responded to that tragedy can inform how the nation responds to the coronavirus pandemic. “COVID-19, 9/11, the bombing, these are all similarly shared experiences along this journey we call life,” Holt said in a commemorative video that aired on local stations. “In the wake of such events, what matters is that we take lessons from them and emerge wiser and more prepared to face similar challenges ahead.”
The bombing, carried out by Timothy McVeigh, began with dehumanisation, Holt said. “The journey to such an act begins with thoughts. Those thoughts become words, and like a virus, those words are heard by others,” he continued. “Soon, one carrier becomes many and an ecosystem is created where ideas once considered absurd are treated with credibility.”
Perpetrated by Americans Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the bombing happened at 9h02am and killed at least 168 people, injured more than 680 others and destroyed one-third of the building. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 other buildings within a 16-block radius, shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings and destroyed or burned 86 cars, causing an estimated $652 million worth of damage. Local, state, federal and worldwide agencies engaged in extensive rescue efforts in the wake of the bombing and substantial donations were received from across the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) activated 11 of its Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, consisting of 665 rescue workers who assisted in rescue and recovery operations. Until the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United States, and remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in the country's history.
Within 90 minutes of the explosion, McVeigh was stopped by Oklahoma Highway Patrolman Charlie Hanger for driving without a license plate and arrested for illegal weapons possession. Forensic evidence quickly linked McVeigh and Nichols to the attack; Nichols was arrested and within days, both were charged. Michael and Lori Fortier were later identified as accomplices. McVeigh, a veteran of the Gulf War and a US militia movement sympathiser, had detonated a Ryder rental truck full of explosives parked in front of the building. His co-conspirator, Nichols, had assisted with the bomb's preparation. Motivated by his dislike for the US federal government and unhappy about its handling of the Ruby Ridge incident in 1992 and the Waco siege in 1993, McVeigh timed his attack to coincide with the second anniversary of the deadly fire that ended the siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
The official investigation, known as “OKBOMB”, saw FBI agents conduct 28 000 interviews, amass 3,5 short tons (3 200kg) of evidence and collect nearly one billion pieces of information. The bombers were tried and convicted in 1997. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on 11 June 2001 at the US federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana and Nichols was sentenced to life in prison in 2004. Michael and Lori Fortier testified against McVeigh and Nichols; Michael was sentenced to 12 years in prison for failing to warn the United States government and Lori received immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony.
As a result of the bombing, the US Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which tightened the standards for habeas corpus in the United States, as well as legislation designed to increase the protection around federal buildings to deter future terrorist attacks. On 19 April 2000, the Oklahoma City National Memorial was dedicated on the site of the Murrah Federal Building, commemorating the victims of the bombing. Remembrance services are held every year on 19 April, at the time of the explosion.
At 9h03am, the first of over 1 800 9-1-1 calls related to the bombing was received by Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA). By that time, EMSA ambulances, police and fire fighters had heard the blast and were already headed to the scene. Nearby civilians, who had also witnessed or heard the blast, arrived to assist the victims and emergency workers. Within 23 minutes of the bombing, the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) was set up, consisting of representatives from the state departments of public safety, human services, military, health and education. Assisting the SEOC were agencies including the National Weather Service, the Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol and the American Red Cross. Immediate assistance also came from 465 members of the Oklahoma National Guard, who arrived within the hour to provide security and from members of the Department of Civil Emergency Management. Terrance Yeakey and Jim Ramsey, from the Oklahoma City Police Department, were among the first officers to arrive at the site.
The EMS command post was set up almost immediately following the attack and oversaw triage, treatment, transportation and decontamination. A simple plan/objective was established: treatment and transportation of the injured was to be done as quickly as possible, supplies and personnel to handle a large number of patients was needed immediately, the dead needed to be moved to a temporary morgue until they could be transferred to the coroner's office and measures for a long-term medical operation needed to be established. The triage centre was set up near the Murrah Building and all the wounded were directed there. Two hundred and ten patients were transported from the primary triage centre to nearby hospitals within the first couple hours following the bombing.
Within the first hour, 50 people were rescued from the Murrah Federal Building. Victims were sent to every hospital in the area. The day of the bombing, 153 people were treated at St Anthony Hospital, eight blocks from the blast, over 70 people were treated at Presbyterian Hospital, 41 people were treated at University Hospital and 18 people were treated at Children's Hospital. Temporary silences were observed at the blast site so that sensitive listening devices capable of detecting human heartbeats could be used to locate survivors. In some cases, limbs had to be amputated without anaesthetics (avoided because of the potential to induce coma) in order to free those trapped under rubble. The scene had to be periodically evacuated as the police received tips claiming that other bombs had been planted in the building.
At 10h28am, rescuers found what they believed to be a second bomb. Some rescue workers refused to leave until police ordered the mandatory evacuation of a four-block area around the site. The device was determined to be a three-foot (,9m) long TOW missile used in the training of federal agents and bomb-sniffing dogs; although actually inert, it had been marked “live” in order to mislead arms traffickers in a planned law enforcement sting. On examination the missile was determined to be inert and relief efforts resumed 45 minutes later. The last survivor, a 15-year-old girl found under the base of the collapsed building, was rescued at around 19h00.
In the days following the blast, over 12 000 people participated in relief and rescue operations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) activated 11 of its Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, bringing in 665 rescue workers. One nurse was killed in the rescue attempt after she was hit on the head by debris and 26 other rescuers were hospitalised because of various injuries. Twenty-four K-9 units and out-of-state dogs were brought in to search for survivors and bodies in the building debris. In an effort to recover additional bodies, 100 to 350 short tons (91 to 318 tons) of rubble were removed from the site each day from 24 to 29 April 1995.
Rescue and recovery efforts were concluded at 00h05am on 5 May 1995, by which time the bodies of all but three of the victims had been recovered. For safety reasons, the building was initially slated to be demolished shortly afterward. McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, filed a motion to delay the demolition until the defence team could examine the site in preparation for the trial. At 7h02am on 23 May 1995, more than a month after the bombing, the Murrah Federal building was demolished. The EMS Command Centre remained active and was staffed 24 hours a day until the demolition of the Federal Murrah Building. The final three bodies to be recovered were those of two credit union employees and a customer. For several days after the building's demolition, trucks hauled away 800 short tons (730 tons) of debris a day from the site. Some of the debris was used as evidence in the conspirators' trials, incorporated into memorials, donated to local schools, or sold to raise funds for relief efforts.
Within 48 hours of the attack and with the assistance of the General Services Administration (GSA), the targeted federal offices were able to resume operations in other parts of the city. According to Mark Potok, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, his organisation tracked another 60 domestic smaller-scale terrorism plots from 1995 to 2005. Several of the plots were uncovered and prevented while others caused various infrastructure damage, deaths or other destruction. Potok revealed that in 1996 there were approximately 858 domestic militias and other anti-government groups but the number had dropped to 152 by 2004. Shortly after the bombing, the FBI hired an additional 500 agents to investigate potential domestic terrorist attacks.
The fire fighter in the iconic photo
The tiniest victims were in a daycare centre in the Murrah Building. Nineteen children died that day, including Baylee Almon, a one-year-old who had her birthday just the day before. In a photo that became the most symbolic image of the attack, Oklahoma City fire fighter Chris Fields is seen cradling limp, bloodied Baylee, who's covered in soot. Fields is now approaching his 30th year as a fire fighter and said that he took on a big brother role to Baylee's mother after the bombing. “I was the last one to hold her baby,” he said, his voice breaking. “It's still emotional to talk about it.” Speaking about the photo, he said, “I’ve heard people say that it kind of wraps everything up into one picture and I guess that makes sense. You know, you look at it and you can see everything, the rescue effort, the innocence that was lost. It’s all wrapped up in one image. I know I’ll never be able to forget her.”
Source: National Public Radio, CBS News and Wikipedia