What does the Oklahoma City bombing mean now, two decades later? Will the memory and meaning of April 19, 1995, gradually recede into a distant echo?
That’s hard to believe as one considers the extensive observances and media coverage this month. The grief and shock of what happened are as palpable as ever: On a sunny Wednesday morning, a terrorist bomb ripped apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 men, women and children. Those who saw it will never forget the black smoke rising in the sky, the bloody images of the injured, and the wreckage of the building marring the downtown skyline.
This multimedia story, including a video and a podcast, revolves around a question: What has changed because of the bombing? Oklahoma Watch spoke with several experts or leaders about their views on the impact of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
David Cid, Director, Homeland Security Institute, Rose State College
Anger, Terror and Compassion
Erika Doss, Professor, University of Notre Dame
Meaning of the Oklahoma City National Memorial
Images of the Memorial
Jon Hansen, former Oklahoma City Assistant Fire Chief
Rescue at the Murrah Site
On that terrible morning, Oklahoma City Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen, the Oklahoma City Fire Department’s public information officer among other duties, was thrust into the forefront of the act of terror.
Through the search and rescue operations, daily body counts and more, Hansen’s daily briefings from the epicenter of rescue and recovery gave him unique insights.
What changes have you seen, from your perspective, that came following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and from Oklahoma’s response?
I think we learned, as different disciplines, how much we need the other disciplines. Fire service needs law enforcement. Law enforcement needs emergency management. Emergency management needs total cooperation, and so on. I think (the bombing) taught us a valuable lesson — one we knew in the backs of our heads, but sometimes we were scared to admit. The public safety community, when you have the larger events, such as the Murrah Building, wildfire, tornado, flood—we learn how much we rely on our friends in law enforcement, our emergency management system, and how much we rely on volunteer groups.
How did that response operate?
We used ICS (incident command system). The fire service, we use it on just about every event we have — motor vehicle accident, structure fire — and always have. We formed something called “unified command.” There was a fire command officer and a police command officer. We were operating shoulder-to-shoulder, together, taking care of individual needs but also complementing each other, and I think that’s what folks really saw, a multi-disciplined command system. We really hadn’t done that part as well as we should have before. Now, that’s happening all over the country. When you look at the hurricanes, floods and wildfires, they form a unified command, often.
Was that part of the “Oklahoma Standard” that everyone talks about, or is that something different?
The Oklahoma standard that we saw wasn’t necessarily set by the public safety agencies. We feel like we did our job. We did what the public expected us to do … something that we were trained to do and should have done for our citizens. What brought the Oklahoma Standard to the forefront was the community response. It was the citizens of the great state of Oklahoma who stepped up and provided, a lot of times without even asking, help, support, volunteers and different non-emergency functions … The volunteerism that they provided was the Oklahoma Standard. That’s what made the core of the Oklahoma Standard in my opinion.
20 years later, looking back:
It’s a point of pride, pride in this community. Our community was able to recover from that type of event. The way our community recovered is a part of that Oklahoma Standard. I’m very humbled by the response the community gave, and to personally serve in a very small part with all of those great men and women. Looking back, it humbles you. You think, ‘Wow, what an honor, what an honor it was, through that tragedy, to have served those great people in their time of need.’”
Jon Hansen is the executive director for the Oklahoma Council on Firefighter Training, training volunteer and professional firefighters, emergency response personnel and those in related occupations across the state.
Ron Norick, Oklahoma City Mayor, 1987-1998
Rebuilding From the Bombing
On the morning of the bombing, Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick was speaking to a former mayor, his father James Norick, when a blast shook his business office on North Grand Boulevard.
“The building shook like something had happened in our building,” Norick said. “We wondered what was going on.”
Looking out the window, he saw a black plume of smoke rising over downtown. About an hour later, two police detectives escorted Norick to the site, where he met with then-police chief Sam Gonzalez and Fire Chief Gary Marrs.
“They said ‘It’s a bomb.’ I just couldn’t believe it,” Norick said. “They knew immediately it wasn’t a gas line explosion or an airplane crash or something like that.”
Norick said his job was to coordinate support efforts, such as having fencing put around the site and maintaining contact with the governor’s office, as well as making media appearances to update the public on the situation.
The scale of the disaster – 300 buildings sustaining damage and several businesses being displaced – meant that most other projects, including a massive citywide project, would be temporarily put on hold.
That project, the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan, known as MAPS, was a 1 percent sales tax dedicated to funding capital improvement projects now widely credited with revitalizing downtown Oklahoma City. MAPS, passed by voters in December 1993, had been championed by Norick as a way to invest in downtown to attract businesses to the city after the oil bust of the 1980s and failed attempts to bring employers to the area.
“We basically put MAPS on the second burner. We had to. We devoted all of our energy for quite some time to rebuilding, working with the federal government, working with FEMA and those sorts of things. We didn’t really worry about MAPS until many months after,” Norick said. “We put all the resources of the city toward this.”
Norick said the bombing pulled together people from all over the city, regardless of class or race, who tried to help the survivors, the victims’ families and the emergency workers searching the rubble.
The bombing, Norick said, taught him a lot about the depths of human cruelty, as well as the depths of human compassion and resilience.
“There’s some awful, cruel people in this world. I’ll never understand why people do things like that,” Norick said. “But I also learned the U.S. is a very resilient country. If some national disaster happens, whether it be the bombing, a hurricane, or whatever – the country responds and responds positively. Everybody treats everybody as family.”
Eventually, the city turned its attention to MAPS again and moved forward.