Never-ending headlights in the middle of the day.
That’s one image I will always remember from the days and weeks after the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
It was as if the entire state had joined in an unending funeral procession.
Norman and Cleveland County lost a number of residents, but the tragedy impacted the entire state and nation. Interstate travelers joined in the headlight procession to show solidarity with the state.
My time as Norman Transcript editor didn’t begin until eight months after the bombing. My main responsibilities then were shepherding three children, finishing graduate school and doing some freelance writing.
With the kids safely at school that Wednesday morning, I began my morning errands and planned to tutor some McKinley kids on the Apple IIE computers the school had set up in the lunch room. Remnants of Easter celebrations were everywhere. Crosses and a few plastic eggs dotted yards.
The call came from my wife whose law office was a few blocks south and east of the federal building. They felt the blast and initially assumed it was a natural gas explosion. “Turn on the television,” she said. “Something’s happened over there.”
I tuned in about the time the smoke cleared and a TV helicopter hovered near the damaged building. The image of the front of the Murrah Building took my breath away. Early in my reporting career I had walked or driven nearly every day from the Oklahoma Publishing Company at Fourth and Broadway past the federal building on my way to City Hall or the police station to gather the day’s news.
Schools were being dismissed early so I headed to McKinley where so many parents started arriving. There I was met by the school secretary who knew Karen worked in downtown Oklahoma City.
“You can’t go in there until you tell me she’s OK,” she said while blocking my entrance to the hallway.
“Yes,” I said. “She’s fine.”
Much of what followed was a blur. My phone began ringing. Relatives wanted to know if we were OK. I did some first-day coverage for USA Today. They wanted building plans and a diagram of the Murrah building and wanted to know more about the building’s namesake.
My first stop was the government documents area in OU’s Bizzell Memorial Library. They had some information on the building. The OU College of Law provided me background on Judge Murrah.
The newspaper wanted me to photocopy and FAX the information to them. Such was the technology of the day.
As Transcript reporters and photographers produced daily reports on the bombing, the local connections began to grow. Everyone seemed to have a connection to one or more victims.
One of fourth grade teacher Debe Johnson's students that I tutored at McKinley Elementary lost his mother. Trudy Rigney had only recently graduated from OU and began working for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. Her son, Jonmichael, was my pupil a couple of afternoons a week.
We read and drilled on math, read some books and laughed hard. He liked stories about animals who took on human qualities. Rabbits, squirrels and sparrows. I brought him books from home.
I remember him being excited about an upcoming pizza party with his mom. It never happened. After the bombing, I was told Jonmichael went to live with relatives in another part of the state.
A well-known former dispatcher with the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office died in the bombing. Rona L. Chafey was working with a Drug Enforcement Administration state and local task force when she was killed. A plaque honoring her hangs in the sheriff’s office.
Susan Jane Ferrell, the daughter of fellow newspaperman Don Ferrell, died in the blast. She was working as an attorney in the local office of the U.S Housing and Urban Development Agency. She was buried in her hometown of Chandler.
The news coverage was continuous. After days of anger and grief, kindness began to take hold. Oklahomans did what they could to help out. Blood donations increased. Churches saw more people at their services. President and Mrs. Clinton came for the memorial. They shared the stage with Gov. and Mrs. Keating. There was no partisan message. Oklahomans were resilient but the healing would take time. We all had hope.
“Your building blew down, but the spirit of Oklahoma City fell not for it is founded on a rock,” President Clinton said.
First responders from Norman rotated in relief shifts at the bombing site. We wore ribbons of hope and grieved as more victims were located and identified. Some families held out hope long after the operation turned from rescue to recovery.
OU students channeled charity drives toward bombing relief causes. We wrote thank you cards to the first responders.
Life did go on. Our son’s Boy Scout troop had a reservation at the Tri-City shooting range. I presumed it would be canceled. Not a chance. It was a needed diversion for the Scouts and their leaders.
Soccer matches were held. Baseball teams began forming for the summer season. High schools held their proms and graduations went on as planned. Flags went up spontaneously outside homes. The redbuds and dogwoods bloomed in the countryside. We prayed and knew better times were ahead.
President Clinton’s words from the memorial will always stay with me.
“What you are doing demonstrates to a sometimes bitter world that love triumphs over hate, goodness over evil and that after the darkest night there is a dawn.”
Editor’s note: Andy Rieger was editor of The Norman Transcript from late 1995 to 2015.