I had only been living there for two years when the bomb went off.
My California driver’s license had expired, and, not being sure how long I would be staying, I got around Oklahoma City mostly by bicycle, walking, or taking the city’s excuse for public transportation.
I had to make a few trips downtown to the Murrah federal building to get a replacement Social Security card and other documents every so often, and I would ride my bike to the southern side of the building near the patio area where I could chain the bike to one of the utility pipes under an overhang. I would then bound up the steps to the public plaza, pass the the playground to the day care center, enter the building from the second floor, and either walk down the stairs or take the elevator to the first. I actually never entered through the front door, nor saw the front of the building, even though, as I said, I had been to the building a number of times in my two years of residence in the city.
Unlike the city of Boston or Los Angeles where public offices, like Social Security or the motor vehicle registry, were always packed with people, Oklahoma City was small enough that there were never any long lines or crowded waiting areas, and whatever you were there for, the person behind the counter was free enough to take whatever time was needed to meet your needs, so conversation was possible and your dealing with receptionist or clerk never rushed. You and the person behind the counter were people, not numbers or nameless faces.
Twenty years ago today I was standing in the teachers’ mail room at Taft Middle School at North May and NW 23 Street looking out the window and having a casual conversation with my principal when there was a loud bang and the floor trembled. I watched for what I thought would be a large truck that must have just hit a good sized pothole to pass by on the street that the window was facing, but instead saw a large column of smoke rising from the downtown area, and assumed a fire had broken out there.
I walked back to my classroom to get ready for my first class of the day, and like other teachers, my day went quite normally with my students and I having no idea of what was going on in the parallel universe of downtown.
It only took a very little time before the explosion of the Murrah building was deemed to not have been the result of a gas leak, or anything similar, but the conscious effort of at least one individual to cause mayhem and death.
Parents began to come to the school to take their children home.
By the time I got home that afternoon it had been decided this was an act of terrorism, and, of course, this meant that with the now non-stop news coverage, both local and national, experts would be asked their uninformed opinions and would gladly expound on what they thought were the facts.
This rather quiet little city on the plains whose big spasm of growth was a few years in the future was being described as a hotbed of Islamic dissatisfaction that had led to an act of domestic terrorism in the style favored by extremist Muslims, the car, in this case, a truck bomb.
This in spite of the actual perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh having already been arrested for driving a car that had no license plates within 90 minutes of the explosion with some evidence in his car pointing to him as the bomber.
The continuing narrative of the experts had the unfortunate result of having citizens turn on each other, people who up to this point had been neighbors.
I worked with a man who went home that first day to his neighbors standing on his lawn cursing him out for his extremist Muslim ways, and telling him to go home. His faith was B’Hai, not Islam, and he had lived in the United States for many years having raised a family here.
Another man was detained at the airport as he was ready to board a plane to visit his family in the Middle East because a neighbor had shown authorities pictures of his suitcases sitting on his front porch where he had placed them while he did the usual last minute check of gas, lights, and water before locking his house and putting them in his car. No one seemed interested in why a neighbor would be photographing his luggage hours before the explosion. She reported him the moment she heard of the explosion only because he was Middle Eastern and had suitcases. Until then, he was a regular neighbor in a quiet neighborhood with no idea his neighbor harbored negative suspicions about him. He was eventually released.
At another house, as her neighbors stood outside yelling and threatening those within, a mother took her children into the bathroom as it was the only interior room with a lockable door. Both she and the children were terrified to the point it caused her to miscarry. This child is not counted among the children who lost their lives because of the bomb.
Another friend, also B’Hai, sent her children to relatives out of town.
And the experts just kept on explaining that this was obviously the work of Muslims.
Meanwhile acts of heroism were being performed by people who had no idea of the motivation of the perpetrator, but whose only concern was to get as many people out of the rubble as possible.
Most everyone in the city knew someone who was in the building either as an employee or a citizen meeting for an appointment, and if you did not know someone directly involved, you certainly knew someone somehow connected to the building.
My students had neighbors and relatives who worked there.
There were some lucky coincidences that saved lives.
The mother of one of my students who worked at a downtown church daycare was preparing her daily walk to the Murrah Building’s daycare playground, but one child was late and the rest were so squirrely that she was late in heading to the playground, and because the kids were so jumpy and uncooperative as they walked down the street, she was frustrated enough to announce that they would all go back to the church and maybe go to the playground later when the kids became more cooperative. A block away from the building they reversed course and were a block or two away with a large building between them when the bomb went off. If her kids had been better behaved, they might have been counted among the victims.
At the office building opposite the building, a friend was waiting for the morning meeting to begin. His boss, who was leaning on the window sill looking at the view, announced he was ready to begin, and as he walked to the head of the table and was then behind a wall, the explosion happened, and the window he had just been looking out became shrapnel that would have killed him.
The daughter of a fellow teacher who had been driving her mother crazy because she was irresponsible about time and arrived habitually late for just about every appointment was true to form that morning, leaving the house late, and was a few blocks away from the building at 9:01.
There were unsung heroes as well.
The first known person who entered the collapsed building to see if he could get anyone out was interviewed once, and then seemed to just disappear. I recognized him as the quiet man who came to the bar I frequented who usually kept to himself, but when engaged in conversation was a pleasant enough person. He was only interviewed that once, and from what I heard, moved away at the first opportunity. I never saw him at the bar again at any rate.
Although everyone is familiar with the picture of the fireman cradling the body of one of the youngest victims, and the police officer who had handed the child to him, few if any are aware that another fireman had crawled into the wreckage, found the child, crawled back to where he was able to hand the child off, and then returned to the rubble to see if he could find any more survivors or victims. His identity, though extremely important, has been lost to time.
The picture of the fireman carrying the baby became iconic.
The day after the event, teachers had to stand by each door of each school to screen anyone who entered during the day, and prevent anyone who might attempt to enter for suspicious purposes as the day before could have been an isolated incident or the beginning of some sort of organized attack on government buildings, and schools are government buildings.
None of us knew what to do if anyone barged in with the intent to do harm, so the door guarding assignment was beyond unnerving.
Many parents kept their children home from school over the few days that followed the explosion, especially the Islamic families and those who merely looked Middle Eastern.
On one level the coming together of the city was inspirational, on the other, fed by the experts on terrorism, the treatment of the suspect group was an embarrassment.
I learned from a fellow teacher, who had been born and raised in Iran, and who, after marrying her American husband, had moved to the United States in the 1970’s before the hostage situation and was not Muslim , how things were for her family and Middle Eastern friends over the 24 hours since the bombing.
There was a lot of fear and anxiety engendered by the non-stop news coverage, but little anger toward the terrorism experts who were speaking without information, perpetuating stereotypes and engendering that fear and hatred.
Then Timothy McVeigh was caught. A white, Christian, former service man who had done what he did to protest the events the previous year in Waco, Texas.
Without skipping a beat, and with no apology to the local members of the Middle Eastern community, the very same experts who had been so wrong and who had fomented the hatred and terrible acts pitting neighbor against neighbor, shifted gears and became experts on the motivation of Timothy McVeigh.
The theme of each commemoration of the Murrah building bombing and the tributes to the victims, survivors, and first responders is community and healing. But the damage done by the experts has yet to be addressed.
Each time an act of terror is committed elsewhere by some Muslim extremist group who represents Islam as much as the KKK represents Christianity, and the person being interviewed references Oklahoma City, those in the position to do so should loudly correct the misconception if it is used merely to promote misinformation to promote hate against the targeted group du jour.
Each time pork is left at a mosque or any form of vandalism is performed on one, the leadership in the city needs to remind its citizens that hatred had been erroneously given expression and support in the city’s darkest day, and the light will not shine completely until the record is set straight and the locals treat their neighbors as the neighbors they are and not the nameless faceless terrorists and supporters of it they aren’t.
There is one great example from the bombing that shows that people can get past the pundits, the experts, and the hurt.
Bud, who owned the gas station at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and NW 39 Street, the Gateway to the Gay Strip, and at whose gas station I regularly put air in my bike tires, had lost his daughter in the bombing, but not his soul. He knew that in spite of the television interviews and the brave face, Timothy McVeigh’s father was mourning the loss of his son not only on the day of the bombing and his subsequent execution, but at the moment the idea to strike out at the government by attacking the federal building entered his head, with no one seeing the father without connecting him to the son’s heinous act.
Knowing his heart could be aching as much as his own, Bud contacted Mr. McVeigh and set up a quiet meeting with no media.
Where others had anger, Bud had empathy.
Over time the bond grew, and Bud eventually sold his gas station, moved to where Mr. McVeigh lived, and the two bereaved fathers gave each other support, and as far as I know still do.
Although people who were aware of their world twenty years ago have the memory of the bombing and the loss of friends, neighbors, and relatives, those born later would have only a vague understanding of events, so after 15 years the Murrah Building was finally added to Oklahoma history textbooks with a longer reference than the original page or two it had been given.
When the Boston Marathon bombs went off, I steeled myself for the unending ramblings of speculating “experts” who would go on about their theories without any real knowledge of facts. I saw the same fear mongering and spreading of stereotypes that I had seen in Oklahoma City, and prayed, in the figurative sense, that the damage they had done to the community of Oklahoma City would not be visited upon the community in Boston.
And, as the country’s attention is on the twentieth anniversary and the events of that day are recounted, I hope the experts stay quiet, and people can see that terrorists come in all stripes, and that no one group has a monopoly.
It’s not the religion or the group that needs to be watched, but the extremists who come in all shapes, religions, and backgrounds.
Conveniently blaming any one group does not hurt the terrorists as they are immune to what people think of them. It hurts the group scape-goated and the good people who, free of the venom of experts and office seekers, would not demean themselves by turning on their neighbors while being played the fools.
What happened twenty years ago in Oklahoma City- the bombing, the community division, the residual hatred for a group that lingers- should not happen again anywhere in any community. What should not have been, and should never again be was the over shadowing of the community initially coming together for the sake of the victims, the survivors, the first responders, and all the residents whose lives were affected that day.
The city proved it could have been a unified community, and that initial unity should never be forgotten and should not have been destroyed regardless of the motivation of the experts and politicians.
The politicians need to be reminded of this each time they attempt to pass divisive legislation that pits neighbor against neighbor, religion against religion, group against group, or personal advantage against what is best for the citizenry who, left to their own devices have shown they are one.
(These are my own thoughts of the events of 20 years ago. I may not have been so immediately affected as others, especially those whose city it truly was and still is, but on this major anniversary, and having a blog, these are my musing on an event that happened during the second year of my 18 year stay. Each person who was there on that day has their own experience and scars. )