Today marks the 20th anniversary of a day I will never forget. At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and detonated what equated to 5,000 pounds of explosives. In the end, 168 combined adults and children were killed that day. All innocents and all without any reason.
I remember that day as though it was yesterday. An Oklahoma native, my husband’s job moved us to Rochester, Minnesota only three years earlier. Around lunchtime, my good friend at work called me from her lunch break.
“Cathie?” she asked. “Where is your family?”
“What do you mean? My Oklahoma family? They’re at home, I guess,” I told her.
“Okay…but where do they live?”
“Near Oklahoma City. About 10-15 miles west. Why?” I asked.
“Something huge is going on in Oklahoma City. You need to take your lunch now and go home. Turn on the TV and call your family. A building in Oklahoma City has been bombed.”
I was stunned. My heart stopped beating. I was concerned, but I had no idea how serious this was. I took my lunch break early and drove home.
I arrived home and turned on our local NBC affiliate. I will never forget the images floating across the screen. My local affiliate was carrying live coverage from NBC’s Oklahoma City Affiliate, KFOR. The newscasters I’d grown up with were now in my Minnesota living room. The images on the screen were live; scared people looking for loved ones, children and adults injured…it looked like a war zone.
The tears flowed. I was glued to the television and couldn’t comprehend what I saw before me. The Murrah Building was so close to my home! I learned later that my father was supposed to be in that building that morning, but had forgotten his appointment. If not for his forgetfulness, he would’ve been in that building when it came down.
My parents live in a small town just West of Oklahoma City — not more than 15 miles. My dad was outside using the rotor tiller in the garden. If you’ve ever used on of those things, you know they’re insanely loud and they make the earth around you shake. At the moment of the explosion, he both heard and felt the explosion while using the rotor tiller. The employees next door at Banner Co-op heard and felt it, too. The earth shook so violently that they came outside to look around, trying to discover what they’d felt. Even from so far away, it felt huge.
I’m not sure I can explain how I felt. Here I was, 650 miles away, and the home I loved was under attacked. Never before had I ever felt so insecure, so vulnerable. I sat glued to the television. Did I know any of the victims? My immediate family was safe, but that part of Oklahoma was still such a small community that the odds of knowing at least one person involved were high. It’s been 20 years and, though I don’t think I knew any of the victims, I have countless friends and relatives who were directly touched by that day’s events; victims by association…those who knew someone in the building or lost someone in the explosion. Even our early responders were victims, as the sights and sounds of that day profoundly changed them. One of those victims was a young man I knew “peripherally” from high school. By “peripherally,” I mean that he was a couple of years older than I and we weren’t friends in the truest sense, but my hometown is small and everyone knows everyone else. We knew each other well enough to say hello, but not well enough to run in the same circles. That gentleman was Terry Yeakey, and his death is officially documented as a suicide only one year after the Murrah bombing.
What I knew of Terry was a handsome young man with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen before or since. I never saw him when he wasn’t smiling. Those who knew him well say he was profoundly changed by his experiences that day. Many say his death was not suicide and have begun searching for answers. If you google, you’ll find a dozen articles asking for answers regarding Terry’s death. The only thing I know for certain is that, regardless of how or why he died, his presence is deeply missed by those who knew him. Like many, his life was profoundly changed by the events of that day and he remains in my memory as one of the heroes.
Another is a survivor that I didn’t know, but whose image and story have been emblazoned upon my heart and mind for twenty years: Edye Smith. Edye was a young mother who lost her two boys, Chase and Colton, while under the care of the building’s daycare center on the day of the explosion. Her babies were only 3 and 2. They would never see their first days of kindergarten, lose their first teeth, have their first dates, go to prom. I felt her loss as though it was my own, and that was before I had children. I don’t think I could handle the fresh pain of her loss now, after having two children of my own. You think you understand the loss of a mother until you have your own children and realize that there’s no way to understand that kind of loss. Just imagining it takes my breath away. From all accounts, Edye is doing fine today. She went on to have more children and has recovered from her loss as much as anyone can recover from that kind of loss.
Only two months after that day’s events, I went home to visit family. I had to go to the makeshift memorial. I had to see firsthand the destruction of my home, and I needed to pay my respects in person. If you’ve read about this event, you’ve no doubt seen the photos and the wide scoop taken out of one side of the building. It’s shocking to see in photos, but in person it was beyond belief. My breath left me and I could only stay a few minutes. It was the first time I’d ever experienced what I think might’ve been a panic attack. I imagined all of those people inside. I imagined the pain of those who’d lost loved ones, and the despair of parents who’d lost children. I still have no words, and the pictures simply don’t do it justice.
I remember the manhunt for Timothy McVeigh. They imprisoned him in the Federal Prison in my hometown. I remember seeing him in a bullet-proof vest and thinking it was such a waste. I wanted to hurt him, and I’m not usually a violent person. As the years progressed and he went to trial, I remember waiting and watching for his conviction and execution. I’m not generally in favor of the death penalty; not because I have a problem with the concept, but because studies show it’s more expensive in the long run than allowing the prisoner to rot in prison. And, honestly, I’d rather those who’ve committed heinous crimes to rot in a jail cell knowing that this is the extent of their life’s enjoyment. In McVeigh’s case, however, I couldn’t wait for his execution. Each day he spent on this earth left me angrier. Oklahoma need closure. There was no room on this earth for Oklahomans and Timothy McVeigh.
Twenty years have passed and there isn’t a time when I return home that I don’t think about that day. I always try to visit the memorial that now stands in place of the original building. It’s a beautiful tribute and you can “feel” the souls of those who’ve passed when you walk through. They were the first victim of domestic terrorism.
For a while, all of us were changed by April 19th, 1995. No, that’s not true. We’ll always be changed by the events of those days, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve been changed for the worse. What I’ve seen of my home state in the days following the bombing is amazing. We came together to help each other. We became more a community. We supported each other. We still support each other, if the tornados of the last several years are any indication.
Some people wilt in the face of adversity. Oklahomans become stronger. We will always overcome and be stronger for the challenges we’ve faced. God bless my home state and the many people remembering today’s anniversary with sorrow. You are all in the hearts and minds of the whole nation.