This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 1, 1995
Oklahoma City Bombing
It was just after 3 a.m. last Thursday morning, more than 18 hours after the deadliest terrorist bomb in American history detonated in front of a federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. And Justin Wagner, a 21-year-old agricultural economy student at Oklahoma State University, was finally heading home. Behind him, rescue floodlights illuminated the eerily devastated building, much of its northern side blown off, nine floors collapsed like a pancake, and concrete slabs, pipes and office rubble piled two stories high at its base. Wagner, trained as an emergency medical technician, had rushed to the scene shortly after the 9:04 a.m. blast - to tend to the wounded at first, then to pull out bodies and transport them to a makeshift morgue as the long, anguished day wore into night. Many of the victims of the bombing were children - preschoolers at a day care centre located on the second floor of the building. "I saw one little boy with half his face covered in glass and blood," a weary Wagner said as he walked away from the site. "I saw a doll and toys in the middle of the road. But the worst was seeing the little body bags."
Those images, the horror of battered, mangled children, magnified a human tragedy to monumental proportions. The death toll was expected to top 200, including at least 12 children - and more than 400 others were injured. Among the victims was one-year-old Baylee Almon, who died just moments after rescuers carried the bloodied child from the blast site - a moment captured in pictures widely published around the world. "If they do catch these criminals," said her sobbing mother, Aren Almon, "maybe they'll see this and see how much they've hurt me, and hurt my family and hurt other people. They destroyed our lives, and our homes."
The initial terror and shock swiftly gave way to calls for retribution. In the wake of the blast, suspicion initially fell on Middle Eastern terrorist groups. But it soon became clear that the alleged culprits were not foreigners but Americans, an under-the-rock discovery that revealed an underworld of homegrown, right-wing paramilitary groups - some of which have links to Canada - bent on destroying the U.S. government. By week's end, police had arrested one man: Timothy McVeigh, 27, was picked up earlier by police in Perry, about 100 km north of Oklahoma City, and formally charged with the bombing. They were also holding two brothers as material witnesses: Terry Nichols, 39, who surrendered to police in Herington, Kan., and James Nichols, 40, in Michigan. Meanwhile, heavily armed federal agents in Decker, Mich., 110 km north of Detroit, continued to search the farmhouse where James lived. But a manhunt continued on the weekend for another unidentified suspect in the bombing.
Authorities linked McVeigh and the Nichols brothers to the Michigan Militia, an anti-government group that operates in at least nine states. The group, of which McVeigh may have been a renegade member, reportedly has been obsessed by the fate of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Tex., which set itself aflame, killing 75 members, rather than surrender to federal agents in a bloody standoff on April 19, 1993 - two years ago to the day of the Oklahoma disaster. (That is also the date used on a fake driver's licence to rent the truck allegedly employed in the bombing last week.) Perhaps significantly, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City housed more than a dozen U.S. government departments and agencies, including the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which orchestrated the Waco siege. "April 19," says Lance Hill, an anti-racism specialist at Tulane University in New Orleans, "is considered a holy day to the militia movement."
Terry Nichols and McVeigh served together in the U.S. military. McVeigh, a native of Lockport, N.Y., 25 km east of Niagara Falls, reportedly saw action in the Persian Gulf War. He was taken Friday evening by helicopter to an airbase near Oklahoma City, and then, after a brief court appearance in handcuffs and leg irons, to a nearby federal facility where he was being held under heavy guard pending a further court appearance this Thursday. A former co-worker told the FBI that McVeigh harbored "extreme right-wing views" and anger over federal abuse of power in Waco - and had made a pilgrimage to the Texas site.
In Decker, where the Nichols brothers began farming about a decade ago, neighbor Dan Stomper said the pair, along with McVeigh, would sometimes set off home-made bombs. Another Decker resident, Les Phillips, said of the brothers: "They had a different outlook on things. They didn't want to pay taxes. They didn't want to get licence plates." Ironically, McVeigh was only stopped - about 75 minutes after the explosion - because he did not have a rear licence plate on his 1977 Mercury Marquis; he was arrested when the state trooper found he was also carrying a loaded Glock semiautomatic.
But only two days later - just before facing a bail hearing that likely would have led to his release - did police realize that the lean crew-cut McVeigh was one of the two white male suspects in composite drawings released earlier by the FBI. The drawings were based on two men who used aliases to rent a Ryder truck in Junction City, Kan., 40 km north of Herington, where Terry Nichols now lives with his wife and child. The truck was apparently the same vehicle that exploded while parked in front of the federal building.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, relatives, including parents of young children, continued their desperate vigil, waiting in Red Cross disaster centres for news of their loved ones. On Saturday, three days after the blast, heavy rain and wind suspended the search of the building. The hulk's dangerous instability had earlier hampered rescue workers in their efforts to clear away rubble. The area around the blast site in the state capital still resembled a war zone. Shattered glass littered the street in front of boarded-up windows; some small nearby buildings had collapsed. Investigators said that the bomb was a low-order explosive, made with common fertilizer and fuel, similar to the device used in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City that killed six and injured 1,000 others. The Oklahoma City blast was detonated either by timer or remote-control, and reportedly weighed at least half a ton. The explosion - so massive that people living 50 km away said that they could feel the reverberations - blew out windows 10 blocks from the site. Among those killed or seriously injured were passersby and people in neighboring buildings.
The bombing had an impact far beyond the devastation of immediate family members, traumatizing an otherwise quiet community and shaking the nation's confidence. "Everybody's asking, 'Why Oklahoma City?' " said Ron Smith, a police captain from Lawton in southwest Oklahoma, who drove 160 km with five of his men to assist the local police, state troopers, national guardsmen and federal agents who had converged at the bomb scene. "Maybe it's an easy target - they figure nobody's expecting it," ventured Smith, who found out just as he was leaving for Oklahoma City that his wife's aunt was among those in the building at the time of the blast - and remained unaccounted for at week's end. "But then, Oklahoma City is in the centre of the United States," Smith added. "Maybe they want to show that they can get us anywhere."
The "they" in this case appear to be fellow Americans. And even if the killers are convicted and punished for their crime - President Bill Clinton said prosecutors would seek the death penalty for the guilty - no one may ever be able to answer the plaintive questions of the victims: how, as Polly Nichols asked, "anybody could even think of doing something like this, much less carry it out?"
It was a pleasant spring morning when Nichols, 51, an executive director of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, a nonprofit organization that rewards achievement in high-school students, went up to her office in the Journal Record building. She happened to be standing by the window when the bomb exploded across the street. "One moment you're standing there," recalled Nichols, "the next, the room was full of smoke and dust. There was a big caboom, then a crunch, crunch, crunch sound, and then silence." Nichols did not realize at first that a piece of flying glass had punctured her neck, slicing her esophagus and an artery. She started down the stairs before her legs gave out. A passing stranger picked her up and carried her outside.
On the street, there was chaos - people pouring out of buildings, blood streaming from their wounds; mothers screaming for their babies; sirens wailing. Doctors and other volunteers also rushed to the scene. And the walking wounded turned to help those in worse shape. Despite the panic, Nichols was quickly transported to nearby St. Anthony Hospital - so close that some of its windows were also blown out by the blast. Doctors there said that Nichols would have died if she had arrived five minutes later - she was having difficulty breathing by then, just gurgling blood. A cardiovascular surgeon saved her life. And by the following day - bandaged and connected to tubes - she was well enough to express concern for the other victims. "I feel very lucky," she said. But also angry. "I can't even think of the right word. It's got to be way beyond 'bitter.' I think I will probably be ok, but there are many people who will not."
Craig McKaskle does not know if his aunt is among the dead or the living. McKaskle was working at a day care centre a few blocks from the blast. "All the windows shattered inward and part of the roof came in," he later recalled. "I tried to cover up the kids as best I could." After determining that the children were safe, he ran outside. "At first, there was so much smoke you couldn't even see the building," he said. As it cleared, he recognized the site. He knew his aunt, a Housing and Urban Affairs employee, worked there. He thought his father worked in the building, too - unaware that his father's office had been moved to another building just weeks ago. "I was in shock, disbelief," he said. McKaskle and his uncle, who raced downtown to search for his wife in the building that housed some 550 workers, waited for hours at a hospital for word of their family. McKaskle learned that his father was safe. But a day after the blast, he was still waiting to hear about his aunt. "Not knowing is so hard," he said. "We just keep praying."
Rescuers located scores of survivors in the first hours after the blast, but only fitfully after that. Dr. Rick Nelson, a physician from Muskogee, 220 km east of Oklahoma City, raced to a city hospital to offer assistance when he heard what had happened. But soon after he arrived, there were so many doctors on hand he went to the bomb site where the rescuers' work was becoming increasingly grim. In one case, they had to amputate, with minimum anesthetic, 20-year-old Dana Bradley's leg late in the day to extract her from under a collapsed beam. Bradley was in the building to get a social security card for her infant son. Nelson, meanwhile, began pulling bodies from the wreckage. Then, at about 8 p.m., "someone came along the line and yelled, 'we've got a live one,' " recalled Nelson the following morning.
Nelson crawled into the building to where a 15-year-old girl that he came to know only as Randi was buried, completely covered except for her right foot by concrete blocks and steel beams. He did not realize at first that he was lying on top of a dead body to get close to her. He kept talking to Randi as he and other rescue workers struggled to free her. He wanted to keep the girl calm, Nelson said, so that she would not struggle against the unstable concrete around her. "We were afraid that, like pickup sticks, everything would pile in on her," he said. It took more than two hours for Nelson and other rescue workers to free Randi, and before being loaded into an ambulance, "she told me that she loved me," Nelson recalled, tears welling in his eyes. As of late Saturday, Randi was the last person pulled alive from the wreckage.
The victims and their families, said St. Anthony's chief of staff, Dr. Murali Krishna, could now expect to ride a roller-coaster of emotions - a numb state of shock followed by deep anger and eventually a sense of vulnerability. "All human beings at some level feel invulnerable," said Krishna, a psychiatrist. "This kind of event shatters that. People have to come to grips with the fact that we're humans, not invulnerable, and that leads to a lot of sadness and emptiness."
In the hours and days following the tragedy, other fearful residents of Oklahoma City reflected on the fickleness of fate, on how close they themselves could have come to disaster. One man said that he had driven by the Murrah building just 45 seconds before the blast; another was heading for the building, but stopped off at a store - a 15-minute delay that likely saved him. Onlookers gathered day and night outside the yellow police tape sealing off the area. Tina Mares, a 28-year-old homemaker, was there with her two children. Her six-year-old daughter stared at the gaping hole left by the blast. "I can't believe there were babies in there," she said. Two weeks earlier, Mares and her mother were in the building. "I was parked probably right where the bomb went off," said Mares."It makes you think."
The quirks of fate dealt a crueller hand to others. Michael Norfleet, a marine captain from Stillwater, 80 km northeast of Oklahoma City, was visiting his headquarters on the building's sixth floor. He only dropped in about once a week - and just happened to be there when the bomb went off. "All of a sudden, we heard a loud bang," he recalled the next day, sitting in a wheelchair in the hospital. "Everything went black, like a hurricane. When the dust settled, I realized I had a bad laceration on my head and I couldn't see out of my right eye." Norfleet underwent 5½ hours of surgery - a plastic surgeon painstakingly stitched the flying-glass cuts all over his face and arms; an eye surgeon worked on his lacerated eye. "But there's a good chance I could regain the sight," said Norfleet, a pilot who fought Iraqi forces in Operation Desert Storm. "It is kind of funny," he added, with quiet understatement, "to have actually gone into combat and come out without a scratch - and then to be injured in our own backyard. It goes to show that no place is safe."
Norfleet's wife, Jamie, 27, was sitting on a sofa nearby. "I feel extremely lucky the Lord spared him," she said. "But our hearts break for the families that have lost loved ones." She recalled her own panic and horror, feeling "paralyzed by fear" during the two hours after the blast, before she learned that her husband was in surgery. Still in a heightened state of anxiety as she waited in the hospital for news of her husband's condition, Jamie Norfleet - seven months pregnant - went into premature labor. She was admitted and doctors helped stop the contractions. As she sat near her husband, her main concern was how her two young sons, aged five years and 15 months, would react when they see their father, his face swollen and stitched, a large patch over his right eye. "I'm not looking forward to that," she said. "But at the same time, I'm so grateful to have a daddy to bring home to them. We'll take him any way we can get him."
Maclean's May 1, 1995