Author of the JP Weiscarver Mystery Series
Memories of OKC bombing
Twenty-five years ago today – at 9:02 a.m. Central time, April 19, 1995 – at least 168 people were killed, more than 680 injured, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was reduced to half a shell, and 324 other buildings were destroyed or damaged by what remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States.
Everyone living in the country at the time who was aware of current events will remember some aspect of what happened.
I turned Friday afternoon, via Facebook messages, to journalist friends of mine, many of them former co-workers, and asked them to share any memories, stories and feelings they’ve harbored these past 25 years. I gave them short notice and asked them to dig inside an area of themselves where some may remain reluctant to tread. Following are the first four, along with some of my thoughts, and I will add additional posts if others contribute over the next few days.
Perhaps I should preface this with a journalism nerd warning. Reporters and editors, like many professionals, exist in a slightly different world. Here, where we’re essentially talking among ourselves, please forgive anything that may seem odd.
These are presented in the order I received them and are basically unedited. Marketta was a journalism student at the time of the bombing, as she explains, and had previously interned at The Denison (Texas) Herald, where I was working. Jim was a reporter at the same paper and had been there more than a year. You might notice he wrote “to” me, so it reads more personally. Dave was editor of The Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph. We’ve never worked together, but we and our wives became friends through professional conferences. Don had also been working in Denison for more than a year.
I was an intern for the Oklahoma Senate at the time, so I worked two days a week at the state capitol – Tuesdays and Thursdays. The bombing happened on a Wednesday, when I was sitting in my dorm an hour away studying for a sign language quiz.
One of my best friends called me and said there had been an explosion in Oklahoma City. And it’s huge, she said.
She was studying journalism, too. She didn’t use words she didn’t mean.
I spent the next couple of hours glued to the TV at the end of the hall and praying. I was terrified I’d see someone I knew. When I made it back to my dorm room, I had message after message from people wanting to know if I was in Oklahoma City, wanting to know if the government building they were talking about was my government building.
Other government buildings shut down out of fear that this was part of a larger scheme. The next day, another intern and I drove to the capitol to help at the media information office. We parked her car in an unusually empty parking lot and left our rings in the glove box. Instead of heels, we wore tennis shoes. Some of the ornate ceiling tiles had cracked and fallen from the nearby explosion, and from the fifth floor of the capitol, we could see a gaping hole in the Alfred P. Murrah Building.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It is a big, bold hashmark on my personal timeline. There was a time “before” and a time “after.” There’s a clear division between feeling secure and understanding that terrible things really can happen, even to good people.
Even today, when I see FBI jackets my mind flashes back to scenes at the hollowed out Murrah Building. When I read too much about the bombing or about Timothy McVeigh, I have nightmares. I look away when buildings are being torn down.
Before and after.
I was a reporter without a newspaper at the time, but since then I’ve written about it often because I want people to know that the bombing hurt us, but it didn’t destroy us.
People came from all over to help us. They searched for our survivors. They prayed with us while we grieved. They stood with us and listened to our stories. They showed us that we were not alone in our pain, and I will forever be grateful for that.
I’ll also never forget First United Methodist Church, which sits next door to the Murrah Building. Its beautiful stained-glass windows were shattered and its rooms were used as a makeshift morgue in the first hours after the bombing. But almost immediately, a sign appeared where its windows had been: “Our God reigns & we will remain.”
Vulnerable, yes. Defeated, no.
I was covering a Texoma Council of Governments meeting when the news hit. I hurried back to the office, as did everyone else. You had a five-minute meeting where you gave us each call assignments for local reaction. You extended the normal morning deadline an hour. Meanwhile, the television in the newsroom was on with the on-going news coverage. We made our calls. I’m not sure who, probably Don Munsch, got that the local Red Cross chapter was doing a blood drive that afternoon and sending the truck that night. We discussed if one of us would go with them, but opted not to send a reporter, figuring there were probably enough reporters there as it was. I remember Joe Cole later telling me it was the first time we’d used digital photography from a news scene in near real-time. He said an AP photog had been in the vicinity at the time of the blast, took photos, paid a nearby business $20 to send out his photos via their dial-up modem line (that was the dark ages), and we had one on the front page that afternoon.
As I recall, we were pretty focused, and there wasn’t a lot of panic or fear as much as adrenaline. I feel like we all had a sense of purpose to cover this event right, and help out however we, as a newspaper, could help.
Personally, I remember talking that night to my then-fiancée, and her cousin, Edye Smith, had lost two young boys in the attack. She would be featured many times after that in national news coverage. I never met her, but it was one of those “small world” “six degrees of separation” things.
I remember a year later, Cole and I wanted to go to an AP photography conference, and given the Herald’s limited travel budget, we didn’t think it would be possible. You, or Joe, or someone convinced probably (late publisher) Mark Palmer we could get a story out of it with the one-year anniversary piece, and we went.
I remember one year later there was still a fence around the giant hole in the ground, and flowers and teddy bears, some fresh and new, still adorned the make-shift memorial.
It was like something we’d trained for, and when you told us all to make local reaction calls, we all knew what to do, and went about it. It was somber. The ladies in the back were building pages but also watching the news. We reporters were on calls and typing furiously. And unlike many days, we didn’t stop and eat lunch once the days’ edition went out. We were already starting on Day 2 coverage, follow-ups, discussing whether to send a crew up to OKC.
Most of all, I remember a lot of adrenaline mixed with disbelief and sadness that we pushed down to get the copy out.
I had been back in Texas a year when the OKC bombing took place. The Tyler Morning Telegraph Sports Department was empty at that time of day, but for some reason the TV was on. The first images coming in were of the blasted building, followed shortly by shots of dazed and wounded survivors staggering out of the rubble.
I called my wife because we have so many ties to Oklahoma. My folks and my sister’s family live in Norman and I have cousins scattered all over. My wife’s reaction when she flipped on the network breaking news feed was, “I thought you said this was a federal building. Why are they carrying all those babies out?” When I told her about the daycare, the phone went silent.
My cousin worked in OKC and was interviewing a woman for a job when the blast shook his building. She lost a family member in the explosion. He stayed with her and shared her grief all day until she got the bad news. She never came back to finish the interview. My brother-in-law from Norman for many years would choke up whenever the name of little Baylee Almon was mentioned. She was the little girl in the fireman’s arms … an amazing photo we all hate to remember. We all have a memory like that.
I don’t have to tell you about the scrambling we did in the newsroom. Every editor did something similar. But one discussion stands out.
The Tyler paper had a long-standing policy that we didn’t run dead bodies and blood on the front page. It was basically a sensible policy aimed at not shocking our readers. But we knew the photo of the fireman coming out holding little Baylee Almon simply had to run. It told a story of senseless, horrific tragedy better than multiple photos of the gutted building. It violated our policy, but the newsroom argued that this time we needed to go with that dramatic image.
The publisher still argued for good reason that the blood on the child’s face was going to be too much for our readers. I asked if we could run it in black and white, he agreed and that’s how it ran. Weeks later, after the building was brought down totally, Marti and I took our girls to let them put something on the fence around the site. It was still a somber, sobering place. Rubble still filled the spaces along the sidewalks where so many other buildings had been shattered. I pulled a small strip of yellow plastic police tape from a pile of bricks and rubble and gave each girl a piece. They have it to this day.
On the morning of April 19, 1995, I was working at The Denison Herald, a daily newspaper in North Texas, just minutes from the Texas-Oklahoma state line. I recall walking by the AP photo machine that morning and seeing a picture that caught my eye. The staff photog said there had been an explosion in Oklahoma City.
The photo showed a building that had been decimated. Your first instinct is to think it was an accident – nothing man-made.
Flash forward 6 1/2 years later. I was getting ready to go to work at my newspaper job in Amarillo. As normal, I watched the “Today Show” that morning and recall the show broke in to give a report of an airplane that had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. “Why was that plane flying in that air space?” I remember thinking at the time. Another plane crashed in New York, this time in the adjacent WTC tower. “OK, this was no accident,” I thought.
Terrorists deliberately targeted New York and Washington. But why did the OKC bomber target Oklahoma City? I was talking about that subject with an Elk City, Okla., native Friday. We are in Rotary together and have gotten to know each other, and he called to give me the names of people we could interview for a story on the bombing anniversary. These were folks who live here now and were in OKC in the aftermath of the bombing.
On that April day in 1995, or shortly after it, I recall reporters in the newsroom tried to call OKC, but lines were jammed or down because of the heavy call volume. Like other people, I watched news coverage of the event. Our ABC affiliate in Dallas did a ton of reporting in OKC, I recall.
What I remember the most was the shock of the event. Who could do such a thing? The OKC bombing happened just before a spate of school shootings across the country – including the worst at the time, Columbine – and they each brought a sense of shock, sadness and fear. That fear being that these incidents could easily happen in any community.
At The Denison Herald, I interviewed a doctor who performed triage at the OKC bombing site. Years later, at the Amarillo Globe-News, I interviewed Bud Welch, a man whose daughter, Julie, was one of the 168 people killed at the Murrah Federal Building in OKC. I did the story on Welch about the time bomber Timothy McVeigh was to be put to death for his role in the bombing. Welch toured the country giving interviews and was opposed to the death penalty and opposed to McVeigh’s execution, which happened in 2001.
What has stood out in my mind all these years later about my interview is how Welch talked about his daughter, how he said had she and McVeigh met and gotten to know each other, they could have been friends. In those words, I thought he paid tribute to the kind of person she was. Julie was 23. She worked in the Murrah Building as a Spanish language interpreter for the Social Security Administration.
As the anniversary approaches, all I feel now is sadness for all those lives taken, all the people who never got a chance to continue to make a difference in the lives of others.
I can recite with some detail about when I heard, as a third-grader, of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon. When I got word and tuned in to watch the unfolding story of the 9/11 attacks.
But my memories of the Oklahoma City bombing are hardly specific at all. It’s more a blur of harnessed energy, of trying to maintain focus.
The Denison Herald was an afternoon newspaper. By the time of the bombing, I had probably been at work for three hours and the rest of the staff were all into that morning rush mode to get everything done by our noon deadline. That means we had to totally shift gears as word of the explosion came in.
I do not recall the five-minute meeting Jim Bennett mentions above, but I know it happened. The first thing to do is repurpose. I’m sure some stories planned for that day were dropped, maybe some important items were reduced to briefs.
I believe publisher Mark Palmer and I discussed whether to add two pages for more space. I’m really not sure, but I think I declined the offer because of the time constraints and the fact we actually had to start everything from scratch.
The sports department made adjustments. Either we moved ads to their pages to open up more space for news or we pulled one of their pages. Again, I don’t remember for sure. I do recall them getting their pages out early and helping news by answering phones and making calls.
Our lifestyles editor, Pat Welch (later Hamilton), had roots across the Red River in southern Oklahoma, which was also an area we covered. She got word that a group of children from one of the schools there was on a field trip to the capitol. Before we went to press, she was able to confirm they were not in the area at the time of the explosion and were all safe.
We got a report from the federal courthouse in Sherman, our county seat, about precautions they had taken.
The rest is vague, but I do remember an outpouring of emotion, care and help from all over. Oklahoma City went straight to the heart of the nation. I do remember, looking over the paper at the end of the day, taking pride in what our small news team did during that one high-pressured news cycle.