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Bomb Kills Dozens in Oklahoma Federal Building

Federal Building after the bombing
Photo by the Daily Oklahoman/SABA
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 1995; Page A01

OKLAHOMA CITY, APRIL 19 -- An apparent terrorist car bomb exploded outside a federal office building here today, collapsing the north face of the nine-story concrete building, injuring hundreds of workers, and killing at least 31, including 12 children who attended a day-care center on the second floor. Local officials said they feared that the toll would rise quickly because by early evening more than half of the estimated 550 people who worked in the building were still unaccounted for.

Assistant Fire Chief John Hansen said rescue workers had seen "many more fatalities in the building that we are working around" while searching for survivors. He added, "The death toll could really skyrocket" when they begin removing corpses.

The bombing, described by authorities as the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil, occurred in the most unlikely of targets -- this heartland capital city of 440,000 that residents once jokingly described as "the town where nothing much ever happens." It occurred shortly after 9 a.m. Central time, when employees were settling down to their work day at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and when the maximum number of people were going in and out of the structure.

The explosion quickly turned the placid, tree-shaded downtown into a scene more reminiscent of the aftermath of bombings in Beirut or Tel Aviv. Workers staggered out of stairwells, blood dripping into their eyes. A woman moaned on the ground, part of her leg apparently missing from the blast. Employees at buildings blocks away reported being thrown from their chairs, windows were shattered, and residents who live 30 miles from downtown reported feeling the powerful vibrations of the blast. Everywhere around the city, people stood in stunned silence, not believing what they had just seen and heard, not comprehending how anyone could have done such a thing.

"Obviously, no amateur did this," said Gov. Frank A. Keating (R). "Whoever did this was an animal."

The building itself was so damaged that simply searching for survivors became a long, perilous task that stretched throughout the day and into the night. The entire front portion appeared to be excavated, as if it had been hit with a wrecking ball many times -- cables stringing down over the sides, steel reinforcements visible, portions of offices still recognizable. Debris from the blast formed a pile two stories high in front of the building, cascading all the way across the street and into a parking lot. The explosion itself blasted a crater eight feet deep and 20 feet in diameter that was filled with rubble.

Tonight, the First Christian Church on 36th Street also doubled as the Family Assistance Center, the sad place where relatives came to bring pictures of their missing loved ones, to tell about birthmarks and scars and other things that might help to identify them. At 11 p.m., 100 people still waited here, holding a quiet prayer vigil and listening to television reports that told them nothing.

Antonio Cooper and his wife, Renee, were still trying to find their 6-month-old son, Antonio Jr., who was enrolled in the day-care center and is still unaccounted for. They held a picture of him, dressed up in a bow tie and grinning broadly. "He is a playful boy," Cooper said, as the boy's mother cried at his side. They said they would wait all night for news.

"This is a sad place to be," said Richard Dugger, an agent of the Oklahoma medical examiner's office who was helping. "Tomorrow will be the really awful day when everyone starts to get the official notification. That's going to be a horrible thing to watch." The mysteries surrounding the bombing were not dispelled as the day passed. The death toll was unknown, only certain to go higher, and authorities said they would have to resort to "a process of elimination" to determine the toll. Federal authorities broadcast a plea to all persons who had been in the building to call a special phone number so that by knowing how many had survived officials could begin to estimate how many had died.

By 10 a.m., more than 50 people had been rescued. Another 12 hours elapsed before the 59th survivor was pulled from the wreckage.

The horror of the event was multiplied by the fact that so many of its first known victims were children. They were at play on the second floor of the building when the bomb exploded beneath their day-care center. Broken toys were scattered amid the shards of concrete. Rescue workers feared that as many as 30 children may have been in the day-care center and only two were known to have emerged alive. Most were the children of federal employees who once had been able to take comfort in the thought that their loved ones were nearby.

Justice Department officials in Washington reported that the blast had spawned a wave of bomb threats throughout the country today. Although no other bombs were found, government offices in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Portland, Wilmington and Fort Worth were evacuated, and the news of the bombing had an unsettling effect on many Americans, who said that if such a thing could happen in Oklahoma City, it could happen anywhere.

"You can go to any public building in Tulsa or Dallas, you can go to a public sporting event, and this kind of thing can happen," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who was called away from a hearing in Dallas to go to the bombing site. "We've been very, very fortunate in this country. You think about it, America is wide open. We don't have very tight security. My guess is, if somebody wanted to do an attack anywhere, they would have some success."

The Murrah Building housed a variety of federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the Social Security Administration; the Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture departments; and the Secret Service.

Troy Grigsby, the deputy manager of HUD's field office in the building, said co-workers told him that the work day had just begun when the blast sent everyone screaming for the stairwells. The HUD workers were taking computer-training classes in the center of the building.

"One minute they were just beginning to sit at computers, the next they were knocked to the floor," he said. "They said the wall caved in."

Mary Heath, a psychologist who works about 20 blocks from the Murrah Building, said the blast "shook the daylights out of things -- it scared us to death. We felt the windows shake before we heard the noise."

Within moments of the blast, the walking wounded began pouring out of the federal building and nearby structures. Some were screaming hysterically, some were so bloodied that it seemed impossible they were still standing. Many said nothing at all; they looked disoriented as they stumbled toward the triage center that had been set up on the street. One woman was carried to the triage center in her desk chair by two husky men. An hour after the blast, automobiles across the street were still on fire, producing plumes of thick, black smoke. The floors of the Murrah Building were "pancaked," rescue workers said, collapsed one on top of the other.

As the morning passed, it was the thought of the children that most troubled many of the residents here. Called "America's Kids," it is a relatively small center with an enrollment of 41 children, including 25 whose parents are federal workers and the remainder from the community. There were estimates today that 30 children were in attendance.

"Oh, I can't stand the thought of . . . those innocent children, sitting there playing, thinking they're safe, and then this happens," said Sherri Sparks. Sparks said she had several friends who worked in the federal building and are unaccounted for.

By mid-morning, as the gravity of the situation became more apparent and casualties began to arrive, hospitals all over Oklahoma City put out calls for all emergency medical personnel to report to work, and the Red Cross blood bank issued an alert for donations. The injured sat on sidewalks, their heads in their hands, awaiting medical assistance.

"It's like Beirut. Everything burning and flattened," said Carl Spengler, a physician who arrived about five minutes after the blast.

At 11 a.m., the rescue efforts within the building had to be halted when workers reported seeing what they thought was another bomb. The workers had to pull back for an hour and a half while a bomb squad investigated, and although it turned out to be a false alarm, the delay was painful.

"We were right at the point where we were getting to people and we had to leave them," said Hansen, the assistant fire chief.

Later, a fire department hook and ladder was positioned next to the gaping side of the building so that workers could be evacuated. One man in a suit and tie struggled hesitantly down the ladder, as if he were in a daze, as workers coaxed him down. By noon, federal office managers began scrambling to account for all their employees, but it was still difficult to determine who was in what condition.

The rescue efforts were "going slow" by mid-afternoon, Hansen said. "The building is in danger of collapse. We're talking to victims. We've got listening devices and dogs. But it's slow. We reach through cracks and hold people's hands and reassure them as we can. The firefighters are coming out with tears in their eyes." One firefighter said it hurt him terribly to "know I can't get to those people." Staff writer Rene Sanchez and special correspondent Elizabeth Hudson contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.

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