9:00 a.m. April 19: It’s a sunny Wednesday spring morning just like many others. Parents drop their children off at the daycare center on the second floor. Others stand in line at the credit union one floor above. More still are settling into their offices for the day’s work in the floors above. It is a beautiful spring day humming with life.
9:01 a.m. April 19: An explosion. Immediate chaos ensues as nine levels of the building pancake downward upon each other. Nearby fire and emergency personnel hear the blast and respond immediately along with civilian witnesses lending a helping hand.
9:01–that is a moment in time forever frozen for so many American, but especially for Oklahomans who lived through, witnessed, and helplessly observed the unfolding of events from afar of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.
The bombing of the Murrah Building was the largest act of domestic terrorism in United States history. The explosion of the fertilizer fueled truck bomb on the street in front of the building gouged a gaping nine story hole into the building killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 (800+ sought medical care–study on PTSD and aftereffects of bombing). The ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators quickly netted Timothy McVeigh, a disgruntled Persian Gulf war veteran (miraculously pulled over for no license plates when he was attempting to leave the state), and two accomplices, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier.
McVeigh was executed in June 2001–mere months before 9/11–after he abandoned all appeals or requests for clemency. His attempt to take military action to exact “justice” against a government he had come to hate in the aftermath of the ATF’s handling of Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, may have fueled his motivations for his actions, but prompted his desire for martyrdom as well. According to Associated Press reporter Catherine Tsai, McVeigh chose an excerpt from William Ernest Henley’s 19th-century poem ”Invictus,” for his final words:
”I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
While Nichols, according to MLive.com’s Gary Ridley, is serving a life sentence in “the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo. — a super-maximum security facility that houses the nation’s most-dangerous prisoners, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Sept. 11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui” for his 1997 convictions of “conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter.” Nichols was also convicted in the state of Oklahoma and sentenced to 161 consecutive life sentences there as well.
Fortier (who scouted the Murrah Building with McVeigh) gave evidence against McVeigh and Nichols in exchange for a shorter sentence and immunity for his wife (who helped McVeigh make a fake driver’s license). He served 12 years before being released into the Witness Protection Program.
While there are still questions about whether McVeigh and Nichols acted alone or with a group of others, the victims have been left with the arduous task of moving on with life–a task far more difficult than it appears. Aron Almon-Kok, mother of Baylee Almon–the child who became the symbol of the bombing through a Pulitzer Prize winning photo of her limp tiny body in the arms of a firefighter, and who would’ve turned 21 years-old yesterday–said in a recent interview, “People say ‘it’ll get easier’ or ‘you’ll find closure’. I don’t think it does, and I don’t think I will. I had to see Baylee dead every day. No one should ever have to see that. You learn to deal with it differently, but every year the milestones are worse. Sixteen was hard. Twenty-one is the worst. Everything I missed, everything I didn’t get to be part of. I’m trying not to think about it.”
A few of the children from the daycare center did survive the attack. These six kids, Joseph Webber, Christopher Nguyen, Brandon Denny, Rebecca Denny, P.J. Allen, and Nekia McCloud, are all in their early 20’s today–and they have struggled with debilitating injuries (like burns and brain damage) and emotional traumas to become the living faces of survival. In a recent New York Daily News article, one of the six said, ” The bombing doesn’t overcast our lives. It’s something that happened, and it’s sad and melancholy, but we are good now.” These six work to not let this event define them, and even though they acknowledge how hard and long their journey has been, they each have found goodness in their lives. (This earlier Seattle Times article details their struggles with their injuries and traumas when they were younger on the 10 year anniversary.)
And while the families of those who died relive the horror of that day every milestone, like today’s 20th anniversary, they are not reliving it alone. Many first responders from that day have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and their lives have forever been altered along with the victims. Project Heartland, a five year counseling service set up to help Oklahomans through the after effects of the bombing, helped 363 first responders and more than 8,800 individuals according to reporter Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune. Many of the families of Murrah victims and survivors have remained in contact with the first responders who worked so diligently to save as many as they could in the horrifying minutes, hours, and days after the bombing.
Remembering the lessons of this day, former governor Brad Henry signed House Bill 2750 in 2010 making the bombing an official part of Oklahoma and U.S. history curricula. He said, “Although the events of April 19, 1995 may be etched in our minds and in the minds of Oklahomans who remember that day, we have a generation of Oklahomans that has little to no memory of the events of that day,”…”It told this country that terrorism can strike anywhere. We owe it to the victims, the survivors and all of the people touched by this tragic event to remember April 19, 1995 and understand what it meant and still means to this state and this nation.”
We do indeed owe it to them to never forget the lessons learned from this fateful day.
Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management After Action Report on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building Bombing: http://www.ok.gov/OEM/documents/Bombing%20After%20Action%20Report.pdf