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October 29, 2007

Special Report: Oklahoma City

Written by  Richard L. Arnold, CDRP, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
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Wednesday April 19, 1995 started like any other day for the residents of Oklahoma City. People were just beginning their daily routine when suddenly, the unimaginable happened. At 9:04 a.m. CT a bomb was detonated in front of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The sound from the blast was heard up to 15 miles away, but the repercussions of what had happened traveled around the world. The worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil had just happened deep in America's heartland.

The bomb was a two to three ton device made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with combustible fuel oil. It was placed inside of a rented Ryder truck, which was then parked in front of the north side of the building. The blast destroyed one-third of the building from roof to ground, leaving a crater eight feet deep, and 30 feet wide. The building housed several federal offices including the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Administration, Social Security Administration and several others. There was also a day-care center located within the building. In all, 169 people were killed and several hundred were injured, some severely.

The design aspects of the Alfred P. Murrah building were not particularly remarkable. Its cast-poured concrete and glass structure can be seen replicated in many downtowns across the country. To prevent overheating by the sun, architects had shielded the south half of the building with overhangs and placed much of the building's infrastructure, like stairwells and elevators on that side. This design type probably saved the lives of most people who were on the south side of the building at the time of the blast. However, to create an aesthetic entrance, four support columns were exposed at the front entrance, running the full height of the first and second floors and creating an atrium at street level. When the blast hit, it knocked out three of these columns. As the second and third floors gave way, higher floors tore away from the structure and fell on top of one another creating a domino effect.

Several buildings surrounding the Alfred P. Murrah building sustained damage also. The Oklahoma Water Resources and the Journal Records Buildings directly across the street sustained heavy damage to windows and offices. Parts of the federal building were actually blown into the face of these office buildings. The YMCA was also badly damaged from the blast as well as the First United Methodist Church, which suffered severe structural damage. The Federal Courthouse located directly behind the blast face of the Alfred P. Murrah building had several windows blown out.

For the first week following the blast, an entire eight-block radius was closed to the general public. Since it was considered a crime scene, security was very tight in this area. This made it difficult for recovery teams to try and assess the damages that awaited them. The offices of Kerr McGee and Conoco were in this secured zone. 

Soon after the bomb was detonated, around the country, city after city, people wondered if it could happen in their town. Bomb scares ranged from Boston, New York, Washington and Nashville making residents feel jittery and vulnerable.

Less than 48 hours after the blast, FBI agents, with the help of state and local authorities, had apprehended and charged the first suspect in the bombing. Timothy James McVeigh was already in police custody when evidence pointed to his involvement with the blast. The search for the second suspect is intensifying as the days pass since the blast. The government is offering a $2 million reward leading to his arrest and conviction.

What was a shock to the majority of people was that these were two caucasian American's from the Midwest.
These actual suspects were very different from preliminary beliefs that there was some sort of Middle-Eastern involvement in the bombing. The initial belief that a Middle-Eastern group was responsible was probably a response from the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993, where six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. Four Middle-Eastern men were convicted in that incident and a fifth is awaiting trial.

As the story behind Tim McVeigh's background unfolded, attention was drawn to his involvement with militant militia groups that have a great deal of animosity towards the U.S. Government. Militia groups have existed since the Revolutionary War. However, many Americans are unfamiliar with groups of this nature and their particular beliefs or ideals.

In response to the bombing, politicians are pushing for strict regulations of ammonium nitrate, a very common fertilizer. In Europe, where people have suffered far more terrorist bombings than the United States; they have been better protected from easily accessible fertilizer-based bombs like the ones used in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombings. Ammonium nitrate has been tightly regulated in Western Europe since 1980 and is sold only for use as an explosive to people with special permits. In the U.S., by contrast, six million tons of ammonium nitrate are produced annually for fertilizer and sold openly in major farming communities. If it becomes highly regulated, it could drastically affect the agriculture industry in this country.


Robert Arnold, Kevin Kraff, Patti Fitzgerald and Janette Ballman of DRJ contributed to this report.

This article adapted from V8#3

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