Memories of 20 Years Ago: The Aftermath of the Murrah Building Terrorist Attack Part 1
I want to share with you some of my experiences of working at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. A little over twenty years ago on April 19, 1995, the largest terrorist attack on American soil at that time was perpetrated by a conspiracy of ultra right-wing extremists against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and those unlucky enough to be there at the time of the bomb blast. In the wake of this attack, many emergency aid workers and federal investigators from various federal agencies were dispatched in the aftermath of the explosion to assist in the investigation, recovery, and cleanup duties. One of the agencies that responded and assisted in this effort was the U.S. Marshals Service. The role of the U.S. Marshals Service was to maintain perimeter security as the investigation and recovery efforts went on around the clock for over a month. After the USMS E/VA management team committed to supplying a deputy to staff this security assignment, I had the privilege of being tapped to respond to Oklahoma City.
I have vivid recall of running down the long corridor of the airport terminal with a canvas bag laden with gear. The commercial jet was waiting for me and as I boarded the jet and awkwardly shuffled down the aisle, I realized that there were many other FEMA firefighters aboard the plane who were traveling to OK City as well from the Norfolk, VA area where I worked at the time. Upon arriving at OK City, I remember being picked up by a young deputy marshal (Jerry P.) who delivered me to the blast site. I remember the journey going into the blast site and that blocks away from the site, evidence of the blast was visible in shattered glass on high rise buildings. As we drove closer to the site, the devastation was more apparent with more shattered glass and structural damage to buildings.
My breath was taken away when I turned the corner of N.W. 5th Street where the Murrah Building once stood erect and I observed the destruction. I muttered words uncontrollably under my breath as I took the whole scene in. I had never seen anything like this in my life. I looked where the site of the building was located and large pieces of concrete lay atop of each other resembling a large stack of pancakes. These pancakes were lying in a large pit and were surrounded or partially enveloped by large piles of light colored debris. The concrete pancakes and the debris arose out of a pit that had been created by the blast. Going into the piles of debris and concrete pancakes/debris were little conveyor belts that were being used by the fire fighters and others to aid in removing the debris. Teams of fire fighters and dogs were covering the “pile” like ants in hopes of locating a survivor under the wreckage. Powerful spotlights lit up the surreal scene even as the aroma of diesel fuel permeated the night air. To this day, whenever I smell diesel fuel I think of the Murrah building. After several days the missions of these teams turned from trying to find survivors to locating the victims amidst the rubble. Above the debris of the “pile” loomed the skeleton of the building that was actually swaying back and forth in the sustained OK City gusts that are commonplace there.
My first night of duty, I was posted outside of the Murrah Building around the back where the day care center was located. I noticed a mangled swing set and pages from children’s coloring books that haunted me that first night. That Oklahoma wind that I mentioned earlier didn’t give me the warmest reception either. Seeing on the weather report that the temperature was in the 50s out in OK as I prepared to fly out, I thought that a lightweight jacket would be all that I needed. But experiencing the cold of those 30 MPH plus winds with no sunlight convinced me to seek out heavier gear as I froze that first night (teeth chattering)!
Along with all of the fire fighters were heavy construction equipment, engineers who were contracted by FEMA to assist in the structural aspect of things, and an alphabet soup of different agencies who had agents conducting their various investigations (FBI, DEA, ATF, etc.). It was impressive to see how this team worked together in accomplishing their important mission. One of the first things that the engineers and construction crews did was to place high-tension wires on different parts of the remaining skeleton of the building so that the building would not collapse. In addition to these high-tension wires, they also supported the remaining structure by constructing an interior framework made out of steel poles to insure that the building would not fall in on itself. Even as the fire fighters/rescue workers burrowed into the rubble to find the deceased victims, they would construct braces as they tunneled so the rubble would not fall in on them. The teams would get indications from the work dogs and then use this information and other evidence for the path they would take to burrow in their quest to find more victims.
My particular assignment was as the midnight shift team leader at the main gate. Our duties were to control access in and out of the scene. I was joined by several Oklahoma City Police officers by the names of Patrick S. and Rusty (I do not remember Rusty’s last name) and a younger deputy marshal by the name of Eric W. who was from the Northwest. This was a great team of people to work with who not only had a great sense of humor but also were very professional. Lee H. was the USMS midnight shift supervisor for the entire site and he was great to work with at first but then Kris M. became the shift leader after Lee left. Because Kris was a local deputy who normally worked just blocks from the Murrah Building, he was rather somber at first but then warmed up to our group after several nights. He apologized to us for not being overly friendly but he stated that he was really affected by the bomb blast and had friends that perished in the attack.
As we performed our check point duties we noticed that a lot of the fire fighters and investigators had very serious demeanors (understandably). So, we made it part of our duties to try and cheer these people up by “harassing” them when they came through the main gate entrance which included going overboard in our checks of their persons (those that we knew well and knew had the proper credentials to enter the site). Of course, they laughed at our “over the top” checks and they went back and forth with us “harassing” us as well. We found out that our endeavors in this way became very successful and soon most of the time when these groups of fire fighters and investigators came through, they left the checkpoint smiling and laughing. There was a lot of good-natured “smack talk” going on and other antics that seemed to lighten the mood that I will not go into now. However from time to time, we would get a report that the recovery teams would come upon a “pocket” of victims and things would turn serious real fast. The entire site would become quiet and the teams of fire fighters would come in with gurneys in a solemn procession. They would quietly load the victims on gurneys and then proceed to the temporary morgue that was located nearby. I was very impressed with how the fire fighters handled themselves in this regard affording the victims the utmost in dignity. I know the family members of the victims would have really appreciated the way in which these recovery teams handled the bodies of the victims! After the procession ended, then it would take a while for everyone within the inner perimeter to recover from the trauma of the body recoveries. But, then we would return to our “harassing” ways and soon we all would be poking fun at each other even as we performed our duties. This was a healthy way of letting off steam and dealing with the stress.
Other things that I remember from my days at the Murrah Building site in OK City are:
A prominent media figure with the initials G. R. tried to sneak into the inner perimeter of the recovery zone by masquerading as a fire fighter (I immediately lost respect for this national reporter)
A man impersonating a deputy marshal took advantage of the confusion at the beginning of the emergency response to insert himself into the security detail; his fraudulent activity was discovered by a deputy marshal (Chuck M.) and he was subsequently charged with impersonating a deputy marshal
Every morning Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma would come through the main gate checkpoint. After greeting him every morning, he would always ask me if I knew where the fire chief was and I would always tell him “No” as the chief did not normally come to the scene on the midnight shift; this ritual repeated itself most every morning
Another high placed official for the State of Oklahoma arrived at the site one night along with recording artist Graham Nash who had held a fund raiser benefit for the recovery effort; I escorted them to the “pile” so that they could get a look at the devastation. Both of them gasped at what they saw and Nash exclaimed, “How could anyone do such a thing?” I responded that it makes you believe there really is an evil power that can influence people in this world. The official, obviously a Christian, stated her opinion that the evil power was Satan who possessed McVeigh to do what he did
The site seemed to attract mentally unstable persons so we had to constantly guard against these persons trying to gain access to the site
The tremendous outpouring of the general public and aid organizations who made sure that the rescue teams had all the food to sustain them and materials to perform their duties; they actually opened a convention center where volunteer vendors would offer food, clothing, haircuts, and other services for free to the recovery workers
This was the first time that I felt that the public really appreciated me as a law enforcement officer; the people of Oklahoma were very kind and welcoming and I will always remember them for their hospitality
I will always have a profound respect for the FEMA crews that were assembled to work the scene; they were professional in how they conducted themselves and accomplished their duties with dignity; this same respect also applies to the law enforcement agencies who worked the scene; to the various agencies who were there working together; especially the Oklahoma City Police Department and the local U.S. Marshals Service deputies.
Read Part 2 to see how these memories relate to the truthfulness of the New Testament.