OKC Bombing “Surreal” 28 Years Later

by Kevin Burton

   A bomb blast that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City 28 years ago today, reverberates still.

   My wife Jeannette worked at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building for the department of Housing and Urban Development for 5½ years from 1983 to 1989.  Six years after she relocated to Wichita, that building was bombed by two anti-government white supremacists.

   The story is familiar to you by now. Here is part of a Wikipedia entry:

   “The Oklahoma City bombing was a domestic terrorist truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City  on April 19, 1995. It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.”

   “Perpetrated by two anti-government extremists and white supremacists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the bombing killed 168 people, injured 680, and destroyed more than one-third of the building, which had to be demolished. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 other buildings within a 16-block radius, shattered glass in 258 buildings, and destroyed 86 cars, causing an estimated $652 million worth of damage.”

   “At 9:02 a.m., a Ryder truck, containing over 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel mixture, detonated in front of the north side of the nine-story building.  The explosion created a 30-foot-wide (9.1 m), 8-foot-deep (2.4 m) crater on NW Fifth Street next to the building.”

   “At 9:03 a.m., the first of more than 1,800 9-1-1 calls related to the bombing was received by Emergency Medical Services Authority.”

   Jeannette got the news as most did, through media accounts.

   “One of my co-workers was listening to the radio. She said ‘Hey Jeannette didn’t you used to work at the federal building in Oklahoma City?’”

   “Yeah, I did. Why?

   “It just got bombed.”

   “I said ‘no!’” Jeannette recalled.

    There are two Federal buildings in the area.  Jeannette said at first she thought the building at 200 NW Fourth street was the one hit because federal judges work there. It seemed like a more plausible target.   But she soon learned that the Fifth Street building, the one she had worked at, had been hit.

   “I was in shock. It was surreal. It was just unbelievable,” Jeannette said. “It was unbelievable that one of our own could hurt all those people. And every one of those people were someone’s family.”

   As the days passed, she got more details from Wichita and national media. 

   “When I read a name, I saw a face,” Jeannette said.  “Granted, I had lost touch with them, but it was still someone I knew and worked with.”

   She remembers being affected by the famous photo of firefighter Chris Fields carrying the body of Baylee Almon. The little girl had turned one year old the day before, and attended a birthday party with family.

   That image and others were jarring.

  “Little things from kids, like one shoe…. I can never wrap my brain around hurting all those kids like that. And the (news stories) said they had trouble identifying the remains. It’s just terrible.”

   “That (McVeigh) was one messed-up dude.”

   Jeannette remembers one of the victims Judy Fisher, as “a very special lady. I baby sat for her, with her daughter.”

      “She was one of the first people who really reached out to be a friend,” after she got the HUD job, Jeannette said. “We would go to break together and have lunches together. She really lived her faith.”

   Jeannette recalls a time when money was tight and she was living in a n apartment with three roommates. She had paid her share of expenses but didn’t have money left over for food.

   “I was just telling her this. I wasn’t asking for anything,” she said.

   “About an hour after I hung up there was this knock at the apartment door, and there she was with two or three bags of food.”

   “That taught me that no matter what circumstances you’re in you should help others,” Jeannette said. “I’ve been paying it forward ever since.

   “I went to her funeral.”

   Thirty-five of the victims were HUD workers. “I probably knew most of them,” Jeannette said.

   The old Oklahoma City beep baseball team was called the Bombers.  I thought they would change that name after the bombing. I wondered how the team could do any successful fundraising as the Oklahoma City Bombers. They never did change the name.

   I told Jeannette this story and she then told me she had worked at the Murrah building. Had I not told that story she may have never mentioned it. It’s not something she talks about readily.

   “Honestly, I ‘ve blocked some of that out,” she said.

   Sunday though, she looked at a website that listed the names of the dead.   

  “Colleen Guiles,…Gene Hodges…Castine Deveroux, I used to buy honey from her.”

   “Susan Jane Ferrell, she was on the phone with family,” when the bomb hit, Jeannette said.

   A few days after the bombing Jeannette reached one of the survivors by phone. This woman told Jeannette that she had been in a meeting in a conference room on the ninth floor at the time of the bombing.  She said the people in the meeting didn’t realize what had happened, but when they stepped out of the conference room, the sky was visible.

   “She thought a tornado had hit,” Jeannette recalls.

   The thoughts of work-a-day Oklahomans run to tornados, not domestic terrorism.

   “The bombers were tried and convicted in 1997. Sentenced to death, McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, at the U.S. federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The execution was transmitted on closed-circuit television so that the relatives of the victims could witness his death,” according to Wikipedia.

    “Nichols was found guilty of conspiring to build a weapon of mass destruction and of eight counts of involuntary manslaughter of federal officers.  After he was sentenced on June 4, 1998, to life without parole, the State of Oklahoma in 2000 sought a death-penalty conviction on 161 counts of first-degree murder  On May 26, 2004, the jury found him guilty on all charges, but deadlocked on the issue of sentencing him to death. Presiding Judge Steven W. Taylor then determined the sentence of 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.”

   “The Oklahoma City National Memorial

was dedicated by President Bill Clinton on April 19, 2000, exactly five years after the bombing,” according to Wikipedia.   

   “On the south end of the memorial is a field of symbolic bronze and stone chairs – one for each person lost, arranged according to what floor of the building they were on. The chairs represent the empty chairs at the dinner tables of the victims’ families. The seats of the children killed are smaller than those of the adults lost.”

    “On the opposite side is the “survivor tree,” part of the building’s original landscaping that survived the blast and fires that followed. The memorial left part of the foundation of the building intact, allowing visitors to see the scale of the destruction. Part of the chain link fence put in place around the site of the blast, which had attracted over 800,000 personal items of commemoration later collected by the Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation, is now on the western edge of the memorial.  North of the memorial is the Journal Record Building, which now houses the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.”

   Jeannette has been to be museum once and called it “heartwrenching.”

   A ceremony will be held today at 8:30 a.m. at the museum. The names of the 168 victims will be read, followed by 168 seconds of silence. Then, bagpipers will lead the family members, survivors and first responders across the street to the Field of Empty Chairs.

   How has the bombing changed Jeannette? “It re-enforced that no one is promised tomorrow, and that you don’t take relationships for granted.  Sometimes you think ‘I’ll call them tomorrow…’     

   “Cherish those that are in your life.”

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