Fifteen years ago today Timothy McVeigh’s bomb shattered the tranquility of a bright spring morning in Oklahoma City. It doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed. Yet in Oklahoma this month, they actually had to pass a law to ensure the story will be included in basic school curricula because today’s students, most of them too young or still unborn in 1995, had never heard of the bombing. There is solace, however, in knowing so many others still do remember.
It disturbs me, in a way I can’t quite explain, that 9/11 and the media came together to usurp Oklahoma City’s very personal tragedy and make it part of today’s national and international climate of fear, hate, and terrorism. To me the bombing was an attack on my hometown, my property, my neighbors — a brutal violation of the peaceful innocence we’d always enjoyed in America’s Heartland. The tragedy is Oklahoma City’s to remember and mourn. The nation and the media are but voyeurs. I realize I can never see and discuss it as objectively as nonresidents do; I wish they could respect that they can never feel and understand it the way Oklahoma City residents do.
That said, the following is something I wrote a few years after the bombing. Only the last paragraph has been updated:
Bombs and Blue Ribbons
Blue ribbons were the symbol adopted by the people of Oklahoma City in the aftermath of the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
During those terrible days, Oklahomans across the state wore the ribbons, often combined with purple, yellow, and white, as symbols of support, hope, and remembrance for the dead, the missing, the injured, the rescuers, and each other. In those small tokens, we found strength, unity, and a tiny bit of comfort.
Equally memorable for many of us was the spontaneous lighting of auto headlights. In a gesture once reserved exclusively for funeral processions, drivers spontaneously turned on their headlights. Within hours of the explosion, literally miles of headlights could be seen throughout the city. Those ribbons of light helped bind us together and communicate our care and concern to one another.
The links here and here will tell and show you a great deal about the bombing and the memorial that later was built on the site. However, there was one unforgettable image in local newspapers that I have not seen since: a police patrol car parked at the scene during the rescue efforts with a message scrawled across its rear window:
WE WILL NEVER FORGET!!!
I grew up in Oklahoma City and lived there most of my life. I was at work at the medical association five miles away when the bomb went off. Even at that distance, our one-story steel frame and stone building shuddered alarmingly. We all ran outside, expecting to see chaos from a nearby gas explosion, or perhaps a train wreck, and saw nothing. When we finally thought to go inside and turn on the TV, we were met with an aerial shot of the familiar eight-story Murrah Building, its entire north side blown away.
First responders arrived at the Murrah Building just minutes after the blast and began tending the victims they found outside the building. Within hours we would hear about one of our doctors crawling into the wreckage and freeing a trapped woman by amputating her leg. Reports came in from the hospitals nearest the scene as they went into disaster mode, preparing for the second wave of victims, all those pulled from the building. For us at the medical association, that may have been the saddest part of the day. There was no second wave. No one else survived.
In the days that followed, the downtown streets and alleys I knew so well were crowded with strangers. Every access to the area was blocked by military vehicles and guarded by U.S. Army troopers, big burly men in camouflage fatigues armed with both rifles and sidearms. My hometown, a city famous for its friendly openness, looked like a war zone.
The headlights blazed for days. Flags flew at half staff. Blue ribbons, sloganed T-shirts, fundraisers, and blood drives were everywhere. Soup kitchens near the blast zone were open 24 hours a day, providing for the rescue workers. Radios and TVs were left on to blare the latest news. Every yellow Ryder truck was viewed with suspicion. Every siren reopened the wounds and rekindled the anxiety. It seemed to go on for months.
Remarkably, the bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was captured just a few hours later, arrested on a minor traffic charge. He was tried and convicted in 1997 and executed on June 11, 2001. His accused accomplice, Terry Nichols, is serving a life term in prison.
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