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October 29, 2007

Terrorism Hits The Heartland: Eyewitness Account

Written by  Lloyd R. Smith, Jr., CDRP
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Around 9 a.m. on April 19, I was getting ready to leave the Myriad, our convention center, when I felt a terrific blast. I thought we had experienced an earthquake except that the ground was not vibrating.

The shock wave from the blast was so powerful that many building occupants miles away thought that their building was the victim of a disaster.

I rushed up the street about six blocks to see that our nine story Murrah Federal Building had the front half completely blown off and the majority was gutted with only a shell left. It was a mass of twisted steel with dense smoke caused by car fires in the parking lot across the street. There was glass all over the streets for blocks and businesses several blocks away had some or all of their windows blown out.

The Need For Planning

The bombing is the most devastating terrorist event of recent history, the greatest on U.S. soil, and proves that no area is safe. Regardless of our location, we are all vulnerable to terrorists and should include this threat in our business and mission recovery planning.

Prior to the bombing, I had been in the destroyed building several times. Many of the businesses housed in the federal building had no total business/mission recovery plan. As frequently happens, other priorities got in the way and planning for business recovery was deferred.

One organization, a single-site operation, had most everything destroyed by the bomb. Eighteen of their 33 employees were listed as dead or missing. Fortunately their data was offsite and they were able to return to business quickly.

I have a client in a building about 150 feet from the destroyed building. They were committed to recovery planning, and we were already in the process of developing a recovery plan. After the area was sealed off because of the bombing, we were able to arrange for them to get back into their building for a short period.

The inside of the building looked like an earthquake, tornado or hurricane had struck. Doors were blown off, ceilings were down, lights and cables were either down or hanging and files and debris were all over. Shattered glass was everywhere. Computer and special office equipment were heavily damaged.

Observations and Recommendations

Most of the lessons learned are basic, but need to be reiterated.

  • Have a current recovery plan that will cover both personnel safety/evacuation and business or government operations. The plan should include recovery from appropriate or multiple locations. In the Oklahoma City situation, many downtown premises, including supply and service sources, were inaccessible or off limits.
  • Consider that your personnel may not even be able to get to alternate locations for operations or supplies. Organizations should have recovery plans with several options and a well trained staff to maximize recovery effectiveness.
  • Accountability of personnel has been a problem at the Oklahoma City bombing site because basic planning was not done in many cases. Have a marshaling area, some distance from your building where all employees are told to go.
  • Develop a list for the marshaling area and have each employee give their name and sign in before they are permitted to leave. Those who assist the injured in evacuation should provide names of the injured and attempt to ascertain which medial facility will be used.
  • Those in glass buildings are more vulnerable to injury and damage from storms, earthquakes, and bombings.
  • If you are in a facility with a lot of glass, either stock plywood and tarps or get them immediately to cover open or damaged areas. Protect your facilities and equipment from further damage.
    I know of one facility manager who has had all his glass pre-measured and has the measurements stored in a glass company's computer.

  • Also, have a way of providing effective security, especially after a disaster.
  • Have shut off locations for all utilities identified in your plan. Non-engineering personnel should also be trained in utility shut off procedures. I suggest a sign or instructions, posted discretely, for a few key personnel.
    Fortunately, in Oklahoma City, the gas company was able to turn off the gas and prevent more explosions. There was also water problems because several pipes were severed during the explosion.
  • I recommend each employee keep a plastic bag in their desk drawer to facilitate removal of purses, jackets and "work in progress." Obviously one should not jeopardize safety, but, following the bombing, many employees in nearby buildings had time to take a few things with them on the way out. Remember, you may not get back into a facility for some time or ever once it is sealed off or declared off limits.
  • It is important to get a positive message on your incoming phones as soon as possible. I recommend you have several sample messages and the mechanism/procedures set up in advance to do this.
    State that your organization has been impacted by a disaster. All essential data and information were backed up and stored offsite. Explain that you have implemented your business recovery plan and expect to restore essential operations shortly, or by a certain day. You should also take the initiative to notify major customers via phone, fax, overnight letter or newspaper ads. It is also important to assure your customers as well as those who may have outstanding financial obligations that all records are safe.
  • An important requirement for the contingency planner is to develop several alternatives to both voice and data communications backup.
    The disaster in Oklahoma City provided an opportunity to show that backup communications are important. Sometimes cellular worked and other times it didn't or was busy.
    To improve cellular communications, one of our cellular providers was able to give priority to certain numbers that had been pre-identified through a local business and government emergency management organization. They even brought in a portable cell site on wheels to place in the high cellular traffic area. This provided additional communication routes for the cellular phones.
    Regular phone service was available to some and others experienced difficulties such as dead phones, instant busy or recordings. Portable phone banks and other emergency services were provided.
  • Have computer equipment checked by professionals after damage from debris, dust, soot, fire or water.
  • Recovery planning should list all skills of employees that could be useful in responding to or recovering from a disaster.

One organization in the Oklahoma City area found the services of an employee who is also a reserve sheriff deputy to be valuable. He was able to get past the barricades and into the damaged building to bring items, equipment and information out and could coordinate with other law enforcement personnel for special requirements.

Further, those who were trained in first aid or had EMT and paramedical training were of great service in the initial treatment of injured employees.

There is no absolute protection against sabotage and terrorism. However, a current business/mission recovery plan is a must.

There are certain vulnerabilities that can be avoided as well as ways to make an operation less attractive to a terrorist or saboteur.

Because large scale terrorist attacks frequently cause regional disasters, even those businesses that are not a target need an effective recovery plan which can allow their operation to continue or recover.


Mr. Smith is president of Business and Government Continuity Services in Oklahoma City.

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