Twenty years ago today, on a bright spring morning three days after Easter, virtually everyone in central Oklahoma heard and felt a thunderous blast, which rattled windows as far as 40 miles away and blew a hole through the heart of our city. Events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have supplanted the Oklahoma City bombing for many Americans, but for those of us who lived it, the memories are fresh and at times searing.
As a newly minted speechwriter for the equally untested new governor, Frank Keating, I lived and breathed the bombing and its aftermath for the next several months. For 21 days and nights, swarms of police, fire, and other emergency workers labored at the site around the clock, bringing out the dead. Others comforted the wounded and the bereaved. And through it all we got a glimpse of the America that could be if we learned to flex our best natures.
Some vignettes from memory:
The first hours were chaos, but within that chaos a determined response emerged. Cops and firefighters dug into the still-smoking rubble, pausing at a whistle blast to listen to the muffled cries under their feet. The shattered building loomed over them, dropping debris that killed one nurse and injured others, who persisted even when ordered out of the pit.
At the perimeter, an equally urgent response was rapidly taking shape. A pizza chain set up an improvised kitchen on a debris-covered sidewalk and for the next 21 days and nights handed out food for free to any worker who asked. Churches and civic groups established feeding lines. At the nearby convention center, incoming rescue teams found rows of bunks, phones, food, extra clothing, even a barber shop and massage center, all for the asking.
One of the larger churches turned its entire campus into a family support and notification center. Day after day, waiting families would gather, hoping for and fearing the call to an inner room where, one after another, they were told that a loved one’s remains had been uncovered.
Of course the national media came, and so did the Clintons, who were in the White House then; the Bushes, from neighboring Texas; Billy Graham; and other prominent Americans. But so did anonymous helpers, some of whom had driven a thousand miles or more to ask, “What can I do?”
A fire chief from Manhattan helped brace the teetering rubble and grew close to Governor Keating and others. Six years later, he was among those who died when the Twin Towers collapsed. He did his job here, and he did his job there.
No one asked a penny for their help. Millions gave their dollars. Now, 20 years later, kids who lost parents or who were themselves injured can attend college for free on those dollars. And there were no massive federal aid programs like the ones New York demanded and received after 9/11 — which caused some Okies to wonder why a victim of terrorism in Manhattan was worth a million dollars, while our neighbors weren’t.
But we soldiered on, rebuilding, and crafting a memorial that is the only self-supporting part of the national park system. At annual remembrance ceremonies, we see old friends, some still limping or blinded, all determined.
One night not long after the bombing, a police officer on perimeter guard was standing in a drizzling rain when an old car pulled up to the curb. The driver’s window went down, and he said he had just heard on the radio that the workers needed steel-toed boots at the pit. He handed over a pair of worn but serviceable boots, and as he drove away the policeman noticed that the boots were still warm and that the driver, an anonymous workingman, was barefoot.
Oklahoma — America — is a place where an ordinary man will give you the boots off his feet and ask nothing in return. Yes, government at all levels did its part in 1995, but Oklahoma City was a people’s response, to a people’s everlasting credit. I hope everyone running for president next year remembers that.
— Mike Brake is a longtime journalist, writer, and editor in Oklahoma. He was a speechwriter for Governor Frank Keating, and he edited In Their Name, an oral history of the bombing published later that same year.