Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Oklahoma City Bombing - 10 years later

Murrah Federal Building Bombing

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, burying dozens of people in its rubble. That was ten years ago and was at that time the worst terrorist act ever committed in the United States. One hundred sixty-eight people lost their lives and it is estimated that several hundred thousand people in the close knit Oklahoma community knew someone who was killed or injured in the bombing.

The following is a timeline tracing my experience with this event and my coming to grips with the fact that I was supposed to be in the building that morning. I haven't talked about it this much before, as I never wanted to belittle the tragic outcome of the victims, their families or others who may have been injured and managed to get out of the building safely that day.

Social Security Bureaucracy

I had been working and living in Oklahoma City for several months by April of 1995. The project I was working on was just wrapping up and it was becoming apparent that my involvement was still required for months to come. So I convinced my wife that we needed to move to Oklahoma City from Calgary that spring. The Human Resources (HR) manager of my employer prompted me to get my Social Security Number (SSN) at the beginning of April or “I would not be getting paid in May!”

So I went to the Murrah Federal Building one afternoon in the second week of April. I filed out the forms I thought I needed to apply for a SSN under my Trade NAFTA (TN) Visa and proceeded to wait in line. After about an hour, I realized the agents weren't going to go through the several people in front of me much more quickly than the two or three they had completed since I queued up. I could see the coworker who agreed to chauffeur me fidgeting in her truck parked outside the building. So I decided to leave and come back another day...

Tuesday April 18th, 1995

It was the usual day at work with non stop meetings and reviews with coworkers on the product that we were trying to deliver in May.

Towards the end of the day, I received a call from the HR manager in the Houston office : “Steve, I didn't receive your fax with your SSN for our payroll records!” I tried to explain the pressure with the deadlines we were under for May 1st and the impossible wait at the Social Security office, but I finally gave in to her pleading to go queue up again. I promised I would be there tomorrow morning – early, after the Social Security office opened so I wouldn't have to wait for hours and the application for my SSN would get completed.

9:00am Wednesday, April 19th, 1995

I was in the CFO's office of the company that I was outsourced to for my computer design/programming skills. The CFO was the major stakeholder or client that specified the billing system. He called me the previous evening and requested that we meet “first thing tomorrow morning with the other team leads." Of course, his urgency trumped my HR manager's request and I was sure we would get the SSN thing worked out soon enough.

Half awake, I leaned back in my chair - against the large window that overlooked the vast parking lot, expansive grass plains and far off in the distance, Oklahoma City's downtown buildings.

The window I was leaning against moved slightly with a *whump*! I quickly sat up in my chair and gave the window a scowl. We glanced at each other with a “wtf was that?” look and then quickly decided that it must have been the construction on the floor above us.

After the meeting ended, somebody poked their head in with the news - “something has exploded downtown!” We stared out the window and noticed a large black, almost mushroom cloud (more like a thundercloud) hanging over the downtown area. A few more rumours circulated and the CFO started up his tiny tv that he kept in his office to watch the news when he worked late.

Nobody had a TV crew downtown yet, but reports were coming in : "that a building has exploded and there is a lot of chaos with a lot of injuries – no confirmed deaths, yet."

We were a little shocked, but unsure of what has happened. Perhaps a gas leak ? A coworker made a joke about my failed trip to the Social Security office and that I might be the unabomber. I snapped at him that I didn't think that was funny and he shouldn't repeat that, even in jest. I realized later that he didn't know the scope of the explosion (none of us did at that time) and he was really just trying to lighten the mood.

We went back to work and I mentioned the news reports to a couple more people. I was told that a few coworkers rushed off as their spouses “work downtown in the federal building!”

Noon Wednesday, April 19th, 1995

My roommate and I decided to stop by the apartment on the way to lunch. We had a large screen TV that the company (well, the CFO – it is who you know sometimes) provided for us to use on weekend stays away from home. The news was on every channel, and not just local. They were showing the view(s) from a helicopter - many shots of destruction and the news anchor claimed they have mixed reports, "but it appears to have been a large terrorist bomb that was detonated outside the building. The Murrah Federal Building has almost completely collapsed and they are searching hard for survivors trapped in the rubble."

The Murrah building was a very distinct building. It had a wall of glass on the front (north side) and a very large entrance with columns that went to the top of the building. I probably will never forget the chill that most people describe as 'spine chilling' as I realized that was the building I was in a week ago!

We watched for as long was we could – before we had to return to work. I tried to phone Calgary (home) a couple more times. "All the lines are busy" claimed the automated operator's voice...

3:00 p.m. Wednesday April 19th, 1995

The HR manager from Houston “finally got through” to my work phone. She claimed that she was trying franticly to reach me at the office, my apartment, my boss's cell phone & pager – anybody that knew where I was! The last time we talked, I promised her that I would be in that building “first thing when they opened.” She told me that my boss claimed that : "Steve never gets up before 9am, there's no way he would have been there when it happened." That was almost funny, considering the circumstances (and that it came from a phb).

It didn't really sink into my brain at that point still that I was supposed to be there. I don't remember mentioning it to anybody (except my roommate).

5:00 p.m. Wednesday April 19th, 1995

After many tries, I finally got through to Edmonton on the phone – my wife was visiting her family. I told her the news and asked if she saw it on the TV yet. She claimed she heard about it, but when somebody mentioned it (“Isn't your husband in downtown Oklahoma?”) - she said she knew that I was on the outskirts of the city, far out of harm's way. I explained that I should/could have been there at the time of the incident. I don't think she understood what I was trying to tell her.

The rumour in the office at this time was that our coworker's newlywed wife was missing...

Saturday April 22nd, 1995

I was supposed to have flown back to Calgary this weekend. I can't remember now if the reason I didn't leave was because of the bombing, project deadlines or the schedule for us to move from Calgary to Oklahoma.

May 1st, 1995

We were on the road in our u-haul with all our possessions (not that many at the time). It was a good adventure for us – but I do remember explaining to my wife that the city she was moving to felt like “the city of death.” I regret that remark now. It was more reflective of the close community that was feeling the pain of friends, coworkers and family that had lost somebody in the building.

May 23rd, 1995

Five weeks after the bombing – the building was demolished. I remember hearing that they never found our coworker's wife's body and a few others in the rubble. It was determined that the building was too unstable to leave standing any longer. It was not a healing day for the city.

News reports released names of the dead and details that nobody who was in the Social Security office survived (It was the closest agency/office to the blast).

My wife and I had escaped for a vacation to Florida – we didn't tell many people that we were there vacationing from Oklahoma. We didn't have accents/drawls (yet), so many figured we were on holiday from Canada.

8:55 a.m. Friday April 19th, 1996

The first remembrance ceremony was being held at the site that had been scraped of all existence of the building destroyed one year earlier by Timothy McVeigh (the trial is just getting underway).

The announcer recounted many stories of heroism, including the good samaritan nurse
Rebecca Anderson, who died after getting hit by debris in the aftermath. She was passing by with her husband and two kids - when she decided that she had to stop and help. This is just one of many tragic stories being told this week. I remember avoiding all news on the topic, as it was too painful...

As will become the tradition of future remembrance ceremonies at the site, 168 seconds of silence was followed by the reading of the names of those who were killed. By the time they reached the minute marking the event that changed everybody's life – I was already on the road to work. I figured that with this timing of my 15 minute commute, I won't have to endure the ceremony.

9:03 a.m. Friday April19th, 1996

There was literally nothing on the radio as I drove to work. All stations were broadcasting the live feed from the site and the ceremonies had just reached the 168 seconds of silence for each of those that were killed. I was on the interstate/freeway that was part of my usual commute and of course, the traffic was pretty light that morning. During the moments of silence you could hear the wind in the microphone and the odd cough or stifled sob from the attendees.

A baby's wail came over the radio. It instantly reminded me of the now famous picture of a firefighter holding what was obviously the first child victim taken out of the rubble. I remembered that 19 children at the daycare were killed, including the one in the picture. My wife and I were starting to talk that spring about having a family ...

I had to pull over.

Now, I don't remember if I have told anyone about what happened on my commute that morning, but it was a life changing event. I realized that Oklahoma would heal and what I saw wasn't going to be reported in the media – CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS or HNN! Even the most popular evangelist of the area was not going to be able to promote or even recount the emotion of the event that happened next.

Almost everybody on the interstate had pulled over also. People got out of their cars, head slumped slightly and proceeded to hug each other on the side of the interstate. For several minutes there was no moving traffic on a normally very busy highway.

Fall 1996

My wife's parents came to visit and we agreed to take them to the site. There wasn't much to see other than a large chain link fence covered with children's drawings of thoughts of remembrance around the perimeter of where the building used to be. The buildings across the road were still damaged and there was some rubble in the parking lot to the north.

We touched the elm tree that somehow survived. There was a weird hushed tone about the place that made me very uneasy and an indescribable 'rumbling' that I could feel internally that seemed to get louder/stronger the longer we stayed there. I attributed it to anxiety - as it was the first time I had stood here since the week before the bombing.

11:01 a.m. Tuesday June 10th, 1997

Richmond, Virginia : My first daughter was born. This magical moment really had nothing to do with that eventful day in Oklahoma City – but it has everything to do with the fact that I wasn't in the Murrah building that morning. At 32, I was a 'dad' now ...

8:14 a.m. Monday June 11th, 2001

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in the worst act of domestic terrorism to date in the U.S., was put to death by lethal injection. I remember hoping that the families of the victims had found some closure.






In one of the most dramatic images of the day, firefighter Chris Fields carries Baylee Almon, who later died of her injuries. AP photographer Charles H. Porter IV won the Pulitzer Prize for this photograph. (AP photo)

The north wall of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown off by explosives packed into a rented truck. (AP photo)

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