AP Was There: Oklahoma City Bombing Story
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 19, 1995, a former U.S. Army soldier parked a rented Ryder truck loaded with explosives outside a federal office building in Oklahoma City. The blast at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others in what remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism on American soil.
The bombing occurred just two years after the first attack on the World Trade Center. Media and some Americans immediately speculated that Middle Eastern men were the culprits before the FBI later found that two white men were responsible for the attack.
Former U.S. soldier Timothy McVeigh was convicted in 1997 on 11 counts of murder, conspiracy and using a weapon of mass destruction in the explosion. He was executed in 2001. Another ex-soldier, Terry Nichols, was convicted on similar charges for his role in the bombing and sentenced to life without parole after the jury deadlocked on the death penalty. Both men were motivated by contempt for government, the hatred sharpened by the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
Twenty-five years later, the AP is making the original story and photographs available.
A car bomb ripped deep into America’s heartland Wednesday, killing at least 33 people and leaving 200 missing in a blast that gouged a nine-story hole in a federal office building.
The dead included at least 12 youngsters, some of whom had just been dropped off by their parents at a day-care center.
The government had received calls from six people saying they were from different Muslim groups, asserting they were responsible for the deadliest U.S. bombing in 75 years.
“But there is no way to know if the calls are genuine,” said a Justice Department official, who declined to be identified by name. “They could be hoaxes.”
At least 200 people were injured — 58 critically, according to Fire Chief Gary Marrs. Scores were feared trapped in the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
“I was in Japan for the Kobe earthquake and saw the devastation,” said James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The area impacted here is just as bad, if not worse.”
Three people were pulled from the rubble Wednesday night but two died a short time later, said Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen. He said a 15-year-old girl was taken from the building in critical condition. He also said a woman trapped in the basement said there were two others with her. She didn’t know if they were dead or alive.
The death toll was certain to rise.
“Our firefighters are having to crawl over corpses in areas to get to people that are still alive,” said Hansen.
The first of four urban search and rescue units activated by the federal government was headed into the building early Thursday, using dogs, acoustic listening equipment and tiny cameras to look for victims.
Attorney General Janet Reno refused to comment on who might have been behind the attack. President Clinton called the bombers “evil cowards,” and Reno said the government would seek the death penalty against them.
A Department of Public Safety dispatcher in El Paso, Texas, told the El Paso Times that an alert had been issued from the DPS for two people who may be bloodied and may be trying to cross into Mexico at Laredo, Texas. The bulletin said the information was on the authority of the FBI.
The bomb was believed to be in a minivan with Texas plates, owned by National Car Rental, said Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Kim Hughes. An axle of the vehicle was found about two blocks from the scene, said a police source who requested anonymity.
Their clothes torn off, victims covered in glass and plaster emerged bloodied and crying from the building, which looked as if a giant bite had been taken out of it, exposing its floors like a dollhouse.
Cables and other debris dangled from the floors like tangled streamers in a scene that brought to mind the car bombings at the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.
“I dove under that table,” said Brian Espe, a state veterinarian who was giving a slide presentation on the fifth floor. “When I came out, I could see daylight if I looked north and daylight if I looked west.”
Mayor Ron Norick said the blast, which left a crater 30 feet long and 8 feet deep, was caused by a car bomb. He said the vehicle had been outside, in front of the building.
“Obviously, no amateur did this,” Gov. Frank Keating said. “Whoever did this was an animal.”
Police Sgt. Bill Martin said that 12 of those killed were children.
Earlier in the day, paramedic Heather Taylor said 17 children were dead at the scene, a figure later disputed by police. Dr. Carl Spengler, one of the first doctors at the scene, said the children, all at the day-care center, ranged in age from 1 to 7, and some were burned beyond recognition.
About 20 of 40 children in the day-care center were missing late in the day.
The search continued after nightfall, with about 100 Oklahoma Army National Guard soldiers activated to help with rescue and security operations in the downtown area.
The explosion, similar to the terrorist car bombing that killed six people and injured 1,000 at New York’s World Trade Center in 1993, happened just after 9 a.m., when most of the more than 500 federal employees were in their offices.
The blast could be felt 30 miles away. Black smoke streamed across the skyline, and glass, bricks and other debris were spread over a wide area. The north side of the building was gone. Cars were incinerated on the street.
People frantically searched for loved ones, including parents whose children were in the building’s day-care center.
Christopher Wright of the Coast Guard, one of those helping inside the building, said rescuers periodically turned off their chain saws and prying tools to listen for pleas for help, “but we didn’t hear anything — just death.”
“You’re helpless really, when you see people two feet away, you can’t do anything, they’re just smashed,” he said.
Doctors had to amputate one woman’s leg to free her.
“She was lying underneath a beam. It was obvious that she could not be extracted alive,” said Dr. Andy Sullivan. “The attempt to remove the concrete beams would have caused the rest of the building to collapse. So at that point there was no decision made other than to crawl into the space and perform the amputation to get the patient out.”
The building, which opened in 1977, has offices of such federal agencies as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Social Security, Veterans Affairs, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Housing and Urban Development, and a federal employee credit union and military recruiting offices.
The bomb was perhaps 1,000 to 1,200 pounds, said John Magaw, ATF director. As for whether his agency suspected terrorists, he told CNN: “I think any time you have this kind of damage, this kind of explosion, you have to look there first.”
Bob Ricks, agent in charge of the FBI in Oklahoma, said that there were hundreds of leads and that the bureau was treating them all seriously. “At this point we do not speculate as to who is responsible,” he said.
Keating said he was told by the FBI that authorities were initially looking for three people of Middle Eastern descent in a brown pickup truck.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol put out an all-points bulletin for the three, but Keating later downplayed the report, saying it was one of many leads being checked.
Keating also said they were checking whether the rental of a vehicle in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was tied to the explosion. Dallas is about 200 miles south of Oklahoma City.
The explosion heightened U.S. fears of terrorism. Federal buildings in several cities were evacuated because of bomb threats, and the government ordered tightened security at federal buildings throughout the country.
In 1920, a bomb blast in New York’s Wall Street area killed 40 people and injured hundreds. Authorities concluded it was the work of “anarchists” and came up with a list of suspects, but all had fled to Russia.
After Wednesday’s blast, emergency crews set up a first aid center near the federal building, and some of the injured sat on the sidewalks, blood on their heads or arms, awaiting aid.
Carole Lawton, 62, a HUD secretary, said she was sitting at her desk on the seventh floor when “all of a sudden the windows blew in. It got real dark and the ceiling just started coming down.” She then heard “the roar of the whole building crumbling.” She managed to crawl down some stairs and was not injured.
The explosion occurred on the second anniversary of the fiery, fatal ending to the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. That siege began with a raid by ATF agents a month and a half earlier.
Oklahoma City FBI spokesman Dan Vogel wouldn’t speculate if there was a connection. The FBI’s offices are about five miles away.
In the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993, a rented van blew up in a parking garage beneath the twin towers. Four Muslims were convicted.