Fifteen years ago today, an unhinged coward lit a truck bomb and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, mostly federal workers (among the murdered were 19 children under the age of six, who were at the building’s day care center), and injuring 680 more. At the time, it was the most destructive terrorist attack in American history. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was executed by lethal injection exactly three months before his grisly record was toppled.
A few months after the 1995 bombing, I found myself in Oklahoma City for a writers’ conference. Some editors didn’t care for such clambakes, but I liked them. You met would-be authors (sometimes for a guaranteed fifteen-minute slot, which was part of the attraction), along with other editors, agents and poobahs. You made yourself available for less formal contacts too, sometimes spoke in an auditorium or banquet hall, and generally tried to encourage the local talent, in exchange for plane fare, a nice hotel room, and sometimes an honorarium. Writing is a lonely business, and it really helps to meet others who are struggling through the same kinds of pain. One woman walked up to me and said she was a novelist, “currently pre-published.” I had never heard that before, and I told her it was a wonderful attitude.
The Oklahoma conference was larger than most. There are local writers’ groups all over the state, and they even have competitions among them, so one function was an awards banquet honoring the state’s best in various kinds of writing. That’s a great idea – one more form of encouragement.
Because this conference was so buttoned down, they had a group of writers assigned to each special guest. I lucked into some great folks. Their job was to hang with me, drive me around in their van, and make sure my money was no good in Oklahoma City, even if we went off campus for, say, some BBQ. We found ourselves with a free afternoon one day and one of them said, “Anywhere you’d like to go?” I said, “I want to see the Murrah Building.”
I saw a faint shadow pass over my host’s face. “OK, you got it.” I tried to backtrack: “You don’t mind, do you?” He looked me straight in the eye. “It still hurts to go there. We’re happy to take you, but we never suggest it. The visitor has to do that.” I clumsily tried to back away again, but the die was cast. “You’ll see what we mean when we get there.”
And so I did.
No photos or TV coverage of the calamity could prepare me for the real thing. One third of a huge office building was sheared off and crushed, as if it had been stepped on by a gargantuan movie monster, which had also left an 8-foot crater. A chain-link fence now surrounding the building was stuffed with notes and plush toys for the children. The outpouring of grief was palpable. Someone had cut a hole in a nice middle American city, and it was still bleeding.
The power of the blast was far more enormous than I’d expected. Buildings across the street from the Murrah – itself set back from the road – were ravaged so badly that it’s a miracle more people didn’t die. They tell us that it damaged 324 buildings in a sixteen-block radius. McVeigh himself was lifted off his feet as he ran away after lighting a two-minute fuse. The explosion could be heard and felt as far as 55 miles away. It registered 3.0 on the Richter scale.
I stood at the chain-link fence and realized my mouth was hanging open. Tears welled up as I thought, there actually was a monster here. The man who caused this to happen. I couldn’t bear to look any more and went back to the van. None of the Oklahoma writers had gotten out. They saw that I’d been affected – they’d clearly gone through those stages of grief long ago — and didn’t say much as we drove back to the hotel, to a warmer environment of novels and poetry, a now-understandable chunk of it about the day horror came to town and decided to stay.