A folk music group from the 1990s, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” released an enigmatic song called Shades of Gray in 1998 written by Dar Williams. The lyrics follow three young men from Arkansas on their misguided road trip in 1995, full of mischief and entry-level crime, through the backroads of Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Twenty-eight years ago this week, danger came in the form of domestic terrorists striking Oklahoma City.
It seems a straightforward folk tale until the three guys cross the Oklahoma line. But it turns darker, flashing a stunning revelation, late in the song. I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard it, because it brought back one of the most important times in my life.
I remember when I first heard Shades of Gray in the year of its release, because it took me back to April, 1995. That was when I hit life’s clutch and downshifted into low gear to pull myself back into my sane lane. I was still hurting badly from the loss of my wife and, three years later, this ballad took me back to my 1995 stopover in my native Oklahoma City, on my cross-country road trip to recenter myself.
It brought back with shocking clarity how stunned I was when I heard the news of what happened on the Wednesday morning of April 19 as I ate breakfast in suburban OKC.
The Jimmy’s Egg diner was full of breakfast patrons, and my friend Ben and I were at a corner table chatting away over our omelets and grits. All of a sudden, the tile floor beneath our feet jolted, the walls around us shook for a split second, and we heard a muffled boom!
A moment later a TV news bulletin flashed across the screen, announcing there had been an explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
The immediate speculation was an exploded natural gas line. It happened just after most of the offices opened for business at 9 a.m., and there may be injuries involved, the news anchor said.
This would be the first of an endless string of news updates over the next several days but, at this point, the cause and damage were unknown.
Within a few minutes, videocams were on the scene at the Federal Building, and the footage was devastating. The foreground was littered with dozens of charred, burned-out cars, some still on fire and others smoldering. Running, staggering, and hobbling through this carnage were an untold number of people trying to escape the burning building.
Firefighters in full gear were dragging hoses and pick axes toward the rubble, police officers were trying to set up barriers and string yellow caution tape
around the area, and nurses and doctors trying to tend to victims on the spot, whether that be the middle of the parking lot or on the grassy lawns away from the building.
But what caught your attention even more was the still-standing, yet mortally wounded hulk of this 9-story brick Federal Building, with most of its façade gone along with a mammoth, semi-circular crevice from the front side of the building.
You could stare straight into the bowels of this carcass and see what was left of the upper floors and then, as your eyes scanned down to earth, the flattened, pancakes stack of concrete floors piled on top of each other.
It was as if Godzilla had stomped into downtown Oklahoma City, reached down and taken a huge bite out of a 9-layer cookie wafer and spit the pieces out into the surrounding streets.
As the news cameras panned around to the surrounding streets, you could see that neighboring buildings failed to escape the wrath of the Murrah Building explosion.
Taking much of the punch were the Athenian Building, the Water Resources Board Building, the Journal-Record Building, and the Downtown YMCA, all lined up on Northwest 5th Street facing the Federal Building just across the street to the south.
Remembering the Y
Watching the screen, my gaze hung on the YMCA for a moment, realizing that was where I had spent so many hours swimming with the Boy Scouts when I was young and earning all the Red Cross lifesaving badges plus – in later years – my SCUBA diving certification. The building was ripped apart and would undoubtedly have to be imploded.
Ten minutes later, the newscasters had amended their earlier speculation about a gas line explosion, and were calling this the result of a bombing by persons unknown. Also amended was the conservative estimate of a few people injured; now the reality had set in that many people were not only injured, but also killed.
Some still trapped
Some were still trapped inside the rubble, and rescue efforts had begun. Then the sobering announcement was made that that second floor of the Federal Building housed not only offices, but a working day care center that had been fully populated with children and toddlers.
Newscasters soon began issuing pleas for viewers to give blood at their local Red Cross donor sites, and to buy and drop off needed emergency supplies. Everything was needed downtown, from bottled water, to first-aid supplies, to batteries, to blankets … to diapers. Numerous drop-off locations were available for these volunteered items. Ben and I left the diner and see what we could to help.
Trying to help
He headed toward WalMart and I went to find the Red Cross Blood Donation Center in Norman. When I arrived, there was already a long line forming. On this day, if you were in or near Oklahoma City, you wanted desperately to do even your small bit to help. Twenty minutes later, I was in the donor room, having my blood typed, tested.
After the blood center, I headed toward WalMart, finding many of the shelves already empty, but picking up some items I thought could be useful at the bombing site.
Throughout the day the continuous news reports showed the gravity of the situation downtown. The casualty count was climbing, hour by hour, and estimates were it could reach as high as 100 or more dead and upwards to 1,000 injured.
The final death count, which wouldn’t be known for days, was 168. More than 800 were injured.
Not all those casualties were from the Murrah Building itself. Many of the injured were from those either outside on surrounding sidewalks and streets, or they were from the buildings that ringed the Federal Building. Flying glass, along with the debris blasting through those windows, found their mark on those going about their Wednesday morning’s work.
Throughout the day, nearly everyone in the Oklahoma City area was multi-tasking: doing their day jobs while also listening to news updates on radio or TV. The picture was starting to become a little clearer as the day went on. At 9:02 a.m. a person or persons had exploded what looked like a huge homemade bomb at the Murrah Building. The first day’s investigation showed it had been placed in a Ryder rental truck, parked at the front entrance of the building.
The initial thought was that it was a terrorism act probably committed by Middle Easterners. The memory of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City was still on the country’s mind. It happened shortly after noon on February 26 when a blast erupted from the parking garage beneath the trade center and carved out a crater almost 100 feet across.
It only took a day to realize this was not the work of Middle Eastern terrorists but of a home-grown pair of disgruntled Americans, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who resorted to terrorism out of revenge for the AFT and FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. April 19, 1995, was the two-year anniversary of that raid.
Years later, on Jan. 6, 2020, I would watch a large throng of right-wing extremists attack the nation’s Capitol. I wondered then, as I do now,, if any of them or their supporters realized they were engaging in the same kind of crazed reaction that Timothy McVeigh did when he pulled the trigger on the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.
Would they have supported McVeigh’s actions?
Back to the streets
As the sun went down on this day of infamy, I was exhausted emotionally but I still felt a driving need to help in whatever way I could.
It had been a few years since I’d worked full-time as a professional journalist, having turned to teaching the craft at Boston College. But my skills were still intact, and I knew everyone was hungry for answers to what had happened on this day and why.
I decided to return to the streets of Oklahoma City as a reporter, gathering those answers.. After reporting and writing two dozen stories over the next few weeks, I realized it was the best decision I’d ever made.
Helping others had, in turn, helped to heal me and put my own personal pain in perspective. Reporting on the determination of my fellow Sooners to move beyond the pain and danger that befell Oklahoma City had convinced me I could still summon up the strength to make positive contributions to life as well.
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."