I’ll never forget that morning twenty years ago. I sat with the Oklahoma congressional delegation in Dallas for a hearing on the Base Realignment and Closure Commision when I heard the news. An Oklahoma City reporter tapped me on the shoulder and said, “we have a report that there’s been an explosion at the federal building in Oklahoma City. We understand it’s gone. Which federal building is your congressional office in?”
My heart sank. I thought about my staff I left behind in Oklahoma City that morning. At the time, my congressional office was located only a block and a half away from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. We finished the meeting with a very abbreviated presentation and immediately left to catch a flight back home.
Before arriving, I saw the grim scene on television but nothing could prepare me for what I witnessed on the ground that day.
I’ll never forget coming up towards the street of my office from the south. I soon realized there weren’t windows in any of the buildings. The sheer magnitude of the explosion had blown them all out. Debris and broken glass covered the streets and emergency response teams shuffled through the rubble, still searching for those who could be saved and recovering those who could not.
I’ll never forget the hours and days to come, as the process shifted from rescue to recovery efforts. We watched the old building move in the wind. Its core had been blown out.
I’ll never forget the grave expressions of the folks who had worked themselves to exhaustion in the explosion’s aftermath. Fire and rescue crews from across Oklahoma and the country packed up and drove to Oklahoma City, not knowing what to expect.
In 1995, terrorism was something that happened overseas. It was not a tangible issue at home yet and we were naïve as a country in that respect. As the following investigations uncovered how simple the resources were to create a bomb of that scale – materials that existed in almost every community in the United States – Oklahoma and the rest of the country changed.
The Oklahoma City bombing is still the single largest act of domestic terrorism our country has suffered. We learned these attacks can come from within and we learned to prepare for these threats in the future.
In the wake of the tragedy, our community’s resolve to rebuild was stronger than ever. No one wanted this attack to permanently destroy the vitality of Oklahoma City. Our primary goal was a swift and robust recovery. Everywhere we turned a hand was reaching out to pull us back to our feet. Today this city is more viable than it has ever been.
The outpour of public support from across the country changed me forever.
For example, a colleague of mine at the time from New Jersey invited me to his district. One of the public schools and local military bases had held a fundraiser for the Oklahoma City relief fund. I arrived at the auditorium not knowing what to expect. It was filled with students and off duty military personnel and these good people presented me with a $100,000 check to take home for the recovery efforts. I was nearly 1,500 miles away from Oklahoma, but that sense of comradery from my fellow Americans made me feel right at home.
If someone thought they could strike a blow to the core of America, they only confirmed that we are a family and that we can come together and be decent to one another.
There’s always been the traditional perspective that Oklahoma is just a nice little ag state with oil and gas wells in the middle of the country. If you didn’t go down I-35 or down old Route 66, you might have missed us. But on that day twenty years ago, we were thrust onto the world stage and demonstrated that in the worst of circumstances we could reemerge stronger and more united than ever before.
On this 20th anniversary of the OKC bombing, we reflect on the 168 lives lost and the families and loved ones who live on with their memories.