Reflections on the Oklahoma City bombing
“In an instant, this day was transformed into a moment of history — a moment of unspeakable horror and darkness and loss.” FBI Director James Comey.
My reflections last year (20th Anniversary) of the Oklahoma City Bombing. They are still relevant and thought I’d re-share here on Medium.
It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since the Oklahoma City bombing. Many of our new friends may not realize I (Seth) grew up pretty close to the bombing site. And, because we were all a part of a very tight knit community, everyone here has their stories and memories to reflect on… here are mine.
On a Wednesday morning on April 19, 1995 I was an 11 year old 5th grader. The day started out with excitement. We were going on a field trip to the OKC Philharmonic. However, the busses were late and all 5th graders were left in the portables to hang out and chat until we heard what was to happen next. The teachers went over to the main building for a quick meeting probably to discuss the updated schedule and adjustments to our field trip. It was sometime before 9:00 am when they left for their meeting.
Since we were in the portables waiting for next steps from our teachers, I remember we were all excited for the field trip and were just doing what most 5th graders would do to kill the time: talk with friends, scribble drawings on pieces of paper at our desk, write notes, etc. One of my classmates had missed school the day before so I was helping them catch up. We learned how to write checks. I pulled out my trapper keeper and was showing them how to write a check. “And, after you have the name in the right spot, you’ve put down the date and the dollar amount, and have filled out what the check is for, all you have to do is sign it like this.” I started to sign the check and my pen slipped. 9:02 a.m. There was a loud noise and our portable started to shake. None of us had any clue what just happened but had no reason to expect anything bad.
Let me back up for a second to explain a few more details that help provide additional context. My elementary school was 13 miles from the site of the blast. When the bomb went off, a shockwave travelled from the explosion. Because Oklahoma is flat, the blast was felt and hear up to 55 miles away. So, it was no surprise that we felt and heard it in our portable buildings at our elementary school. Another odd detail of the day was our field trip destination. The OKC Philharmonic was a few blocks from the site of the bombing. What if our busses had been on time? Would we have been in the area? Were we supposed to get there by 9:00 o’clock? Would we have driving right by the truck filled with explosives at the wrong time? These are all details I simply don’t know. But, I still think about them often.
Our teachers came rushing in a few minutes later to check on us. They had of course learned what had happened. Some of them probably kept their cool, while others did not and told us a bomb had gone off downtown and that many people were presumed dead. Can I blame them for losing their cool? Not at all. We were going to eventually learn what had happened. I’m sure thoughts were racing through their heads on people they knew that worked in the building, or wondering if any of our parents worked downtown close to the site. There were so many unknowns. We’re not typically comfortable with things unknown.
We didn’t do anything for the rest of the day. We had normal scheduled activities like lunch and recess, but no classes. During recess, the sky was filled with clouds of a pinkish green color from the chemicals inside the fertilizer bomb. I haven’t seen anything like it to this day. Other students were picked up by their parents. I honestly can’t remember if I left school early or not that day. But, I do remember seeing the images on the TV when I got home.
I clicked back and forth between the channels. I saw the images of concrete crumbled in the streets. I saw hunks of metal unrecognizable that must have been cars. I saw ladders from fire trucks reaching up several stories in the debris trying to rescue survivors. I saw lots of blood. But, I also saw people running TOWARDS the bomb site (who does that?). I saw people banding together to rescue children from the daycare on the first floor. I saw men and women in business clothes digging through debris, carrying supplies, and removing victims from the carnage right alongside firefighters, police officers, and first responders.
But, it didn’t stop there. Throughout the week, people would bring cell phones (so people could contact loved ones), baskets of cell phone batteries, pizzas, clothing, water… anything to make rescuers and victims feel more comfortable or to do their work better. Cars were used as ambulances, people who had never met in their lives embraced one another, and some literally gave the shoes right off their feet. This became known as the Oklahoma Standard. It definitely wasn’t the beginning of such altruistic behavior in the heartland, but was simply a name to represent the types of people and actions of good taken directly in the face of evil.
I even saw people I knew on TV. My soccer coach was downtown dropping his son off at daycare. What if he would have been in the area a moment earlier? Other familiar faces were interviewed. I must have watched the same clips, scenes, and interviews a dozen times over the next few days. All the footage repeated, but it felt like every time I saw it, it was like seeing it for the first time. My parents were out of town at the time, somewhere in the Caribbean. I remember my dad cut his vacation short and hopped on the first flight home because of the overwhelming need for doctors to help out in the hospitals, especially surgeons who could help repair, amputate, desperately fight to save people’s lives.
There were a number of other items to reflect on in the days, weeks, and years to come. The incredible story of the survivor tree, friends experiencing loss, the building of a beautiful memorial, the countless stories of “I should have been there at that time, but wasn’t.” But, these are just a couple snippets from the moments leading up to, and the moments following the bombing as best as I can remember. Some of the details were fuzzy, I was only in 5th grade at the time. But, the memories that are the most accurate have nothing to do with what happened in this horrible moment, but what happened after after and in response. People banding together, showing that good ultimately wins.