The fourth floor of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce building is where I was when the explosion went off. It was a terrorist bomb that destroyed half of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, just four blocks away, where 550 people worked and 20 small children attended day care.
The bomb went off at 9:02 a.m. on the morning of April 19, 1995, and within 24 hours our Chamber of Commerce had set up a news media center, dealt with conventions that had to be canceled and organized an emergency business assistance center with a relief fund that early on generated, from unsolicited contributions, nearly $250,000 to help business owners restore service. Included in those donations was a very generous $500 check from a very small Chamber in Three Rivers, Texas (pop. 3,000, chamber staff: one). One of our roles, we felt, was to minimize the disruption of payrolls for impacted businesses.
In addition to the cash, phone calls made from our emergency business assistance center generated in-kind contributions of furniture, equipment, and temporary office space which totaled over $400,000 in value. So we became a clearing house for needed business resources.
I don’t know how many cups of coffee or dozens of doughnuts we served, beginning at 5 a.m. every day in the makeshift media center we set up in the lobby of the Medallion Hotel. However, it had to be a lot, considering that everyone from “Geraldo” to the Swedish News Service came to Oklahoma City to cover the worst terrorist act committed on American soil in history at that time. Our chamber staff dealt with 800 of the 2,000 news media folks who came to town over the weeks that followed.
For example: ABC sent in seven private planes and 100 people to produce segments for “Good Morning America,” ‘World News Tonight,” “20/20” and “Nightline.” CNN sent in more than 100 people from six bureaus all over the country, was still there weeks later, and had plans to stay on the story for the rest of the year.
Firefighters and federal rescue teams came from New York, Virginia, Florida, Arizona, Washington, California and Maryland, and team members said their experiences there were most unusual. They recalled that at the scene of disasters in other parts of the country they had to buy their own coffee and the price of bottled water tripled.
In contast, in Oklahoma City our goal was to prevent rescue workers from spending any of their own money. This culture and attitude became known as the “Oklahoma Standard.” Long-distance calls to their families were free. When combing through the wreckage of the federal building depleted their supply of work gloves, droves of people went to hardware stores and bought batches at a time. The same was true for knee pads, underwear and portable heaters. When rescue workers’ clothes got dirty, they were washed; when they ripped, they were bought new ones. When the rescue teams left OKC, they gave the governor a one-dollar bill and said that “this is the dollar we never had to spend here!”
For inspiration, they were given thank you notes from school children. And when they laid their tired heads down for the night on cots set up in our convention center, they found a mint or a rose on their pillows. Exhibitors from the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, whose convention had just been cancelled, stayed on to cook meals for the rescue workers. It may sound corny to some, but we wanted these rescue workers to know how much we appreciated them risking their lives to save some of ours.
The final death toll from the federal building bombing was 168, including 15 children at the day care center. In addition, nearly 600 were injured by a bomb made from fertilizer and fuel that weighed nearly 5,000 pounds.
One very generous rescue worker was killed in the recovery, and therefore, the final toll was 169 people who lost their lives in this tragedy.
More than 300 buildings and 2,000 cars sustained some kind of damage. One thousand fire personnel were rotated through the disaster area over 15 plus days, and it was reported that it would have taken a typical firefighter 15 years to generate that volume of experience, from the degree of exposure they received.
With a catastrophe of this magnitude, everyone at the OKC Chamber knew someone who was killed or injured in the blast, or who was related in some way to someone who was. As the death toll continued to mount, we were particularly concerned with the fate of a 21-month-old infant who was one of five children in the day care center who survived the blast. His mother worked for the chamber, and he spent three weeks in intensive care before he was allowed to go home. His mother decided not to return to work, because she felt her day-to-day interaction with him was critical to his continued recovery.
Some examples of news media testimonials included:
Dan McGraw, U.S. News and World Report: “I never thought too much about the place, but after seeing 300+ people standing in line for hours to give blood, I quickly changed my mind about Oklahoma City.”
Peter D’Oench, WPLG-TV in Miami: “Before now, I only knew Oklahoma City from a distance. I passed it on my way to my first TV job. I should have stopped.”
Since 1995, a public infrastructure vision which received citizen approval in 1993, before the bombing, has led to more than $5 billion of public and private funds being spent in downtown OKC alone. Known as MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects), it is a national model for public/private partnerships. Today OKC enjoys a track record of low unemployment and a diversified economy, and is truly a “cool place” to be.
There has been a long string of outstanding public and private leadership in Oklahoma City that continues to this day with Mayor Mick Cornett, now in his fourth term. In 1995, we could not have had a better mayor than Ron Norick or governor than Frank Keating to lead the efforts of our recovery at that time.
The images that will remain in my mind the longest are not of the victims being carried from the rubble of the federal building, as tragic as it was. What I remember most is the generous support that was displayed, such as:
The lady who drove up one day with 1,000 sandwiches in her car, that she and her neighbors had made for rescue workers.
The TV stations telling local citizens, “OK, thank you, we now have enough gloves, we do not need any more!” This was repeated when other products were requested and then squelched, as the need was quickly filled.
A local newspaper (The Daily Oklahoman) let a competitor, whose building was severely damaged in the explosion, use its presses to print.
The scene at a local bank where everyone was ordered to evacuate the building immediately after the bomb blast, leaving cash exposed at the teller windows. When bank personnel returned five hours later, not a single dollar was missing.
A child mailed in three Band-aids and included a note, “I hope this will help!”
Also, the local TV station that announced it would take drive-up donations for victims’ families, creating a traffic jam of good Samaritans. Cars were lined up for hours — an incredible scene!
Some of the lessons learned at the time included:
1) At our Chamber, we realized the need for a Crisis Management Plan that includes information as to where to meet and how to communicate with staff when you have to instantly evacuate your building for several days. Also, the realization that staff needs a stress debriefing from a professional counselor, to help channel their emotions and feelings — even if they have not been impacted personally by a tragedy.
2) In the community, the need for public emergency equipment to be compatible, such as having a common communication system in place. This was addressed soon after with a state-of-the-art system.
3) All businesses and citizens, the need for a Personal Crisis Management Plan, and to review the fine print of property insurance policies, to ensure they know exactly what extent of coverage they have and don’t have.
Today in OKC, one finds the Oklahoma National Memorial and Museum, which is supported by National Park rangers and has visitors showing up 24 hours a day and night, with 169 illuminated chairs for each victim.
Charles H. Van Rysselberge was president/CEO of the Chamber of Commerce in Oklahoma City (1993-2001), and later president/CEO of the chamber in Charleston, S.C., for nine years before retiring.