Oklahoma: Oklahoma City National Memorial

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was the worst act of domestic terrorism to its time in the United States.

Site Office

Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation

Leadership Square

211 N. Robinson Avenue, Suite 150

Oklahoma City, OK 73102

Mailing address:

P.O. Box 323

Oklahoma City, OK 73101

ph.: (888) 542-HOPE [542-4673]; (405) 235-3313

fax: (405) 235-3315

Web site: connections.oklahoman.net/memorial

e-mail: okcmem@ionet.net

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was graven into the collective memory of Americans through the images of its violent destruction in the worst act of domestic terrorism to that date. However, before that day it had seen nearly two decades of routine service as the home of a number of federal offices in the capital of Oklahoma.

The Murrah Building stood in downtown Oklahoma City, on the corner of northwest Fifth Street and Harvey Avenue. It was named for Alfred P. Murrah, who was the youngest person to be appointed a federal judge and who served on the Tenth Circuit Court from 1940 to 1970. Construction on the building had begun in 1974, and it first opened to the public in 1977. It housed fifteen federal agencies, several defense department offices, and a federally operated day-care center that was used by many parents who worked in the Murrah Building and in other downtown offices.

The Blast

April 19, 1995, started as a routine day for the employees at the Murrah Building and in surrounding buildings. Visitors came into various offices to take care of various matters. In the day care center, the children were just sitting down to their breakfast juice. Nobody paid any particular attention to the large Ryder rental truck parked in front, although a few people knew that delivery trucks were not supposed to park there. Unknown to them, this truck contained a 4,000-pound (1,800-kilogram) bomb made by combining racing fuel with ammonium-nitrate fertilizer.

At 9:02 a.m., everything changed with a flash and a thunderous roar. An explosion tore through the nine-story building, ripping away the entire facade over the front entrance and collapsing parts of all nine floors. Many people within the building suddenly saw their colleagues vanish in a haze of smoke as the floors gave way beneath them. The explosion left a crater eight feet deep and thirty feet across. It also severely damaged several nearby buildings, causing additional injuries. The rear axle of the Ryder truck, thrown several hundred feet by the blast, nearly killed a family when it struck a small passenger car.

People in nearby buildings wondered why thunder should be coming from a clear blue sky, until they saw the smoke rising from the blast site. Others thought that a gas main had exploded. People as far as thirty miles away felt the effects of the blast, and many thought they were feeling an earthquake.

Oklahoma governor Frank Keating was at his desk at the state capitol building at the time of the blast. He heard the explosion, and moments later an aide arrived to tell him of the destruction of the Murrah Building. Keating immediately called for a disaster declaration and ordered the head of the Oklahoma National Guard to take charge of the rescue efforts.

However, people in the area had not waited for any official direction to begin rescue efforts of their own. Survival had often been a matter of merest chance, and many people who had not been seriously hurt immediately began helping their colleagues escape the wreckage. One employee of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) survived a six-floor free fall in an elevator and immediately went to work looking for evidence in what he knew would be a major case. Another federal law enforcement officer, trapped within the wreckage, used a portable tape recorder to preserve his own immediate impressions in the hope that they would help identify and convict the perpetrators.

This spontaneous reaction was not limited to the Murrah Building itself. People from nearby buildings, even individuals with no emergency training whatsoever, hurried to offer any help they could. Parents who worked elsewhere hurried back in the hope of rescuing their children from the day care center, which exhibited some of the worst damage.

Soon the professional rescue workers arrived, bringing equipment and trained dogs who could sniff out people trapped within the wreckage. Over the following hours the world watched them pull survivors, many badly injured, from the broken concrete and twisted steel.

Over the next several days the heroism of rescue workers and medical personnel riveted the attention of the nation as these professionals sifted through the rubble to rescue any remaining survivors. For many of the victims it was already too late, and the sight of firefighters carrying the broken bodies of children from the day care center aroused the indignation of the entire world. Meanwhile, federal investigators were also sifting the rubble for clues to the identity of the perpetrators of this atrocity.

On May 23, over a month after the blast, the recovery efforts were terminated. The ruined structure had become so unstable that continuing to dig for remains would endanger the living. The wreckage was then demolished with dynamite in a controlled explosion, permanently entombing the unrecovered human remains. A total of 168 people had lost their lives in the bombing, and many others had been permanently disabled by their injuries.

There were calls for harsher penalties for terrorist acts, as well as more stringent controls on materials that could be used in terrorist activities. Others expressed concern that increased security measures could end up destroying cherished civil liberties for law-abiding citizens without producing any substantial increase in public safety.

The Investigation and Trial

In the first few hours after the blast, many commentators jumped to the conclusion that this had to be the work of foreign terrorists, perhaps Islamic Fundamentalists, who had previously caused an explosion in the World Trade Center in New York City. However, investigators soon traced the axle from the destroyed Ryder truck to a rental agency in Florida. When they interrogated the rental agent, they discovered that this was not the work of foreign terrorists; the perpetrators had been white Americans, quite probably with backgrounds in the armed forces. This was the work of a homegrown terrorist organization.

Further investigation revealed that the primary suspect was already in custody on an unrelated charge. Timothy McVeigh, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, who had become a drifter after his discharge from the Army, had been stopped for driving an unlicensed vehicle and was awaiting a bail hearing. Federal investigators then contacted the county jail where he was being held and had him transferred to a federal prison to be arraigned on charges of having bombed the Murrah Building and murdered the people who died in the explosion.

This arrest, as well as the arrest of Terry Nichols as a possible accomplice, focused attention on the various antigovernment extremist organizations with which these two men had been connected. Many of these groups actively opposed the federal government as having exceeded its constitutional authority. Many subscribed to various theories that the government was involved in a vast conspiracy to deprive the American people of their traditional liberties and create a police state. They argued that the government had become a tyranny, to the extent that they considered themselves justified in acts of violence against it. These groups had become militant after a 1992 confrontation with federal agents at white supremacist Randy Weaver’s Idaho home left his wife and son dead. After the ATF’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, turned into a deadly firestorm, many decided it was time to take action.

McVeigh was tried in 1997 for the bombing. Due to the extensive publicity regarding the bombing, the trial was held in Denver rather than in Oklahoma City. During the trial, many of the survivors testified about their experiences. McVeigh was convicted of having bombed the Murrah Building and subsequently was sentenced to death. Nichols was tried separately, and while he was convicted of the lesser charge of having conspired with McVeigh to bomb the Murrah Building, he was not convicted of having used the bomb.

The Memorial

Even while rescue and recovery efforts were still in progress, people began to create their own informal memorial to the victims. Cards, poems, and teddy bears were left along the chain-link fence that surrounded the site. This continued even after the wreckage was demolished.

There was considerable debate as to the long-term future of the site. Some wanted to rebuild the Murrah Building, to have it rise like a phoenix from the ashes as a way of saying that life went on in spite of human evil. Governor Keating firmly rejected this idea, saying that this site was now hallowed ground and should not be put back to mundane bureaucratic purposes. Instead it should be set aside for a permanent memorial that would enshrine the names of the victims and provide hope for a future in which the sort of hatred that had created this destruction would be wiped away.

In 1997, a plan was unveiled for a permanent memorial park featuring 168 empty stone-and-glass chairs, each inscribed with the name of one of the slain victims of the bombing. It also preserved the Survivor Tree, a small tree on the edge of the grounds that had become strongly associated with the survivors of the blast. The plan also included the creation of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism and the Oklahoma City Memorial Center. The memorial center would be in the nearby Journal Record Building, containing exhibits explaining the meaning behind the symbolic memorial. This building suffered extensive damage from the blast, and its restoration would be done in such a way as to preserve the appearance of damage to the south facade. The memorial center would also contain a special exhibit designed particularly for children, which would teach them about the bombing while still conveying the message that the good in humanity generally outweighs the bad. Ground was broken for the memorial park in 1998, and it was completed two years later. The Oklahoma City National Memorial was dedicated on April 19, 2000, the fifth anniversary of the bombing.

For Further Information

  • Hamm, Mark S. Apocalypse in Oklahoma: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997. Concentrates primarily on the politics behind the bombing, in particular the right-wing conspiracy theories held by the bombers.
  • Hoffman, David. The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror. Venice, Calif.: Feral House, 1998. A discussion of the politics behind the bombing and the rationales of terrorists for their acts.
  • Irving, Clive, ed. In Their Name: Dedicated to the Brave and the Innocent, Oklahoma City, April, 1995. New York: Random House, 1995. Focuses on the rescue efforts immediately after the bombing.
  • Lamb, Nancy. One April Morning: Children Remember the Oklahoma City Bombing. New York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Books, 1996. An illustrated book in which children who survived the bombing tell their own stories.
  • Rappoport, Jon. Oklahoma City Bombing: The Suppressed Truth. Santa Monica, Calif.: Blue Press, 1996. Alleges that the Oklahoma City bombing was not the work of Timothy McVeigh, but of a secret government cabal whose actions were covered up by the FBI.
  • Ross, Jim, and Paul Meyers, eds. We Will Never Forget: Eyewitness Accounts of the Oklahoma City Federal Building Bombing. Austin, Tex.: Eakin, 1996. A compilation of eyewitness accounts of people who survived the bombing or participated in the rescue of the survivors.
  • Serrano, Richard A. One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. A study of McVeigh’s life and how he decided to bomb the Murrah Building, including information on the bombing and the rescue effort.