Twenty years ago this Sunday, on a quiet spring morning, I found myself on a Southwest Airline flight, headed toward Oklahoma City. That had not been my plan that morning. But a phone call to my bureau office sometime after 9 am changed everything.
‘Someone just blew up the federal building in Oklahoma CIty,’ my editor in Dallas yelled. He was not a man given to yelling. I asked for details. You rush off into a storm of a story, it’s good to know what happened, what to expect. ‘Terrorists. Somebody. We don’t know,’ the editor yelled. ‘Just get there.’ So I did.
I called Ginny at home, asked her to throw some clothes in a carry-on, packed up my laptop and called Hertz for a rental car in OKC. Then I rushed to the house. If I hurried, I could make the last morning flight, Ginny drove me to the airport, her face tight with anxiety. She’d sent me off to tornadoes, hurricanes and other calamities. But this was new. This was different.
Conversation boiled over in the airport about the images starting to flood CNN blasting out of every TV set there. Speculation ran rampant that Muslim terrorists were involved. Or maybe drug criminal gangs. The flight was packed I grabbed a window seat and waited to see what would come next once I got to the destination.
As we approached OKC, the pilot advised that we’d be passing over downtown, pointing out the damaged hulk of federal building. The plane’s conversational buzz came to complete silence. I looked out my window and saw the 10-story building with it’s front scooped out in a gaping hole. As firefighters and rescue teams swirled around the base of building, it looked like an ant bed destroyed by a child.
When I got downtown, police had set a security barrier for several blocks. I parked, and ran toward the epicenter of the blast, calling in to the Dallas office to find out who else was there and where we could link up. Up closer, the back of the building looked almost undamaged, but the frenzy of activity around the perimeter of the blast area was more intense. Downtown workers evacuated from neighboring offices stood together, their faces dazed with shock and disbelief. No one could grasp how the kind of horror commonplace in, say, Beirut or elsewhere in the Middle East, could arrive unbidden in their little town. A wind picked up from the north and the stench of burning plastic and other things filled the air. The crowd of bystanders grew larger, their faces locked on the ruined building.
I won’t bore you with the common details of my reporting. For the next four of five days, I met with my colleagues from the Dallas Morning News, talked to people, attended impromptu press conferences with police, fire and federal officials, gleaning the raw data of news. And phoned them in. Like every other reporter, I picked up pieces of the story that homegrown terrorists who viewed themselves as patriots for blowing up office workers and children, had packed a van with barrels of fertilizer and fuel and set it off shortly after 9 a.m on April 19, 1995.
The people of Oklahoma City rebounded. They began doing what they could to help the survivors and grieve with the families of the 168 dead. They talked with disbelief that an American, a ex-soldier could act with such evil intent toward his own countrymen. They cursed the name of Timothy McVeigh, the bomber. and on Sunday, attended church and prayed for his soul and those of the survivors. They talked about how they would rebuild, how they would remember the dead.
My most vivid memory of the event isn’t tied to the rescue teams pulling out the wounded and the dead, or the shell-shocked firefighters working the scene. But on a day or two after the bombing, I stood in a light rain brought by a late cold front, soaking up the images of the ruined downtown. Thousands of panes of glass had been shattered in a 10-block area by the sheer force of the explosion, someone told me. But there, in front of the bombed federal building was a high-rise hotel, every window blown out by the blast. The building seemed to sag and lean inwardly. I could see light-colored drapes, sucked out of the shattered windows as they waved limply in the rain.
It became, for me anyway, the sad reminder that evil can grow in the oddest of places, right here at home.