Twenty-four years ago, a Ryder truck packed with nearly 5,000 pounds of explosives was parked in front of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal building by Timothy McVeigh — a Gulf War veteran who, two years prior, had driven to Waco, Texas, during the siege of the compound belonging to the Branch Davidians to show his support. At the scene, he distributed pro-gun rights literature and bumper stickers bearing slogans such as, “When guns are outlawed, I will become an outlaw.”
On April 19, 1995, he delivered a bomb that killed 168 people, among them 19 children—most of whom were in the building’s daycare center. The youngest victim was 4 months old.
In a matter of seconds, the blast destroyed most of the nine-story concrete and granite building, and the surrounding area looked like a war zone. Dozens of cars were incinerated, and more than 300 nearby buildings were damaged or destroyed.
The Oklahoma City Bombing remains the seminal event in Oklahoma City
On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and the investigation that remains one of the largest and most complex cases the FBI has ever undertaken.
Florence Rogers, head of the Federal Employees Credit Union, was in her office on the third floor of the Murrah building that morning. Seated around her desk were eight credit union employees, some of whom Rogers had known and worked with for decades. Although they were having a business meeting, spring was in the air, and there was talk of the women’s colorful seasonal dresses.
Special Agent Barry Black was at Tinker Air Force Base that morning tracking a fugitive in a stock manipulation case he had been working on for four years. Black was trained as an accountant, but since joining the Bureau seven years earlier, he had become a sniper on the SWAT team and had deployed to the Waco standoff in 1993—the event that had galvanized Timothy McVeigh’s hatred of the federal government. Black was also the newest bomb tech in the Oklahoma City Division.
He and his partner had received a tip that their white-collar fugitive was on the military base, and as they waited in their car for him, the bomb went off.
They were seven linear miles from the Murrah building. “I remember it was very loud and you immediately snapped your head toward town,” he said. “It was loud enough where you could see the people outside hunker down because of the noise.” It was later determined that the blast registered 3.2 on the Richter scale–very much like an earthquake.
Bob Ricks was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Oklahoma City Division in 1995. On the morning of April 19, he and many of his law enforcement colleagues were signed up for a charity golf event about 40 miles east of downtown sponsored by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. His counterparts from the Secret Service and U.S. Marshals Service were there as well.
“We were just getting ready to tee off, and all of a sudden everyone’s phones started going off. I got a call from my secretary saying that there had been some type of a bombing down at the Murrah Federal Building—didn’t know how bad it was.”
Evidence quickly led to Timothy McVeigh. Investigators determined the explosion was caused by a truck bomb and collected vehicle parts with telltale bomb damage. A vehicle identification number led to a Ryder rental facility in Junction City, Kansas. On April 20, the FBI released a sketch of the man who rented the truck. The owner of the Dreamland Motel in Junction City recognized him as a guest registered as Timothy McVeigh.
When the bomb went off, Special Agent Jim Norman was at his desk at the FBI’s Oklahoma City Field Office, located about five miles northwest of the Murrah building. “It shook everything in the office,” Norman recalled. “Files fell off people’s desks where they were piled up.” One of the Bureau’s senior bomb technicians, Norman, now retired, rushed into his supervisor’s office. “We looked toward downtown Oklahoma City and you could see a tan cloud of debris rising from that area. I told my supervisor, ‘I think a bomb detonated downtown. We need to go down there.’”
In his car on the way to the scene, a local radio station was reporting that the blast might have been caused by a natural gas explosion, but in his gut, Norman knew it was a bomb from the sound he had heard. “I never thought it was a gas explosion,” he said. Less than 15 minutes after the blast, he parked two blocks away from the Murrah building. It was as close as he could get because of all the debris.
McVeigh used a Michigan address when he checked into the Dreamland Motel. He listed the same address—which belonged to a brother of Terry Nichols—when he was arrested shortly after the bombing. Terry Nichols was one of McVeigh’s Army buddies also known for his anti-government sentiments, and the investigation showed that Nichols helped McVeigh buy and steal the material for the bomb and helped mix the ingredients.
Investigators discovered plenty of other evidence. The clothes McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested—along with a set of earplugs in his pocket—tested positive for chemical residue used in the explosive. McVeigh’s fingerprints were also found on a receipt at Nichols’ home for 2,000 pounds of fertilizer used to make the bomb. Other evidence linked McVeigh and Nichols to each other and to different elements of the crime.
The FBI initially had no idea how many people were involved. In 32 months, the Bureau logged more than 1 million hours of investigative work through the Task Force. During that time, investigators conducted more than 28,000 interviews, followed more than 43,450 investigative leads, collected nearly 3.5 tons of evidence, searched 1 billion records in 26 databases, and reviewed more than 13.2 million hotel registration records, 3.1 million Ryder truck rental records, and 682,000 airline reservation records.
In August 1995, McVeigh and Nichols were charged with the same 11 federal crimes.
Today, on the site of what was once the Murrah building, there is a memorial honoring the significance of that tragic day. The memorial was formally dedicated on April 19, 2000: the fifth anniversary of the bombing, and is cared for by the National Park Service and features two large bronze walls on either end called the “gates of time.” One is marked 9:01 am —the minute before the bombing, and the other is marked 9:03– the minute after. Between them sits a reflecting pool, and 168 empty chairs hand-crafted from glass, bronze, and stone represent those who lost their lives, with a name etched in the glass base of each. 19 of the chairs are child-sized.
The memorial is free to enter, but on site is a separate non-profit museum. Kari Watkins is the executive director.
This episode of America’s National Parks was compiled from the FBI’s website detailing their famous cases. It’s an excellent resource.
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Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.