My Turn: Recalling Oklahoma City and April 1995

Posted: Friday, April 19, 2002

At 9:02 a.m. on 19 April 1995, I was working in Oklahoma City and was on the telephone with our company's insurance agent. As we were talking, there was an explosion - our building rocked and the agent said he had almost fallen out of his chair. We continued talking, speculating what the explosion could have been. We both thought it must have been a gas line explosion in the downtown area just eight blocks away. Everyone went outside where we could see the black smoke pouring out of some building in the heart of the city.

"It was the Federal Building," someone said.

No one really knew exactly what had happened, but many of my employees raced to the scene to check on friends or relatives who worked in the general area.

Once arriving there, the scene was horrific. Smoke, debris, emergency workers, and people wandering the streets in a condition that resembled a war zone. The injured either made their way to the nearby hospitals or were taken there on stretchers.

I went back to the office to be sure it was OK. One of our buildings had lost all of the plate glass windows that faced toward downtown. They had shattered into a million pieces.

Speculation ran it course. Once we found out it had been a bomb, it was commonly assumed that someone from the Middle East was the culprit. By this time, 10 a.m., the whole city was in shock not knowing.

The company I worked for had a fleet of dump trucks and heavy equipment. Our management staff contacted the city and offered men and equipment to work at the scene to remove debris and help in anyway they could. The rescue-recovery effort went around the clock - three shifts involving 12 of our employees on each shift. Supervisors were needed to take care of our own employees, so I volunteered to help. I worked at the bomb site every night for the next two weeks.

Security was tight. All volunteer workers had to get photo ID badges so they could get into the site. FBI and ATF agents checked the IDs and questioned each person. Fast food restaurants furnished food and a clothing depot was set up inside the post office across from the Murrah Building. All types of donated clothing, gloves, hats and safety masks were available. The management of this area was well done. Everyone tried to help each other to make what was outside the post office easier to deal with.

During the next two weeks, I saw many things and heard many stories. Most stories centered around the question, "How could anybody do this"? Nobody knew.

Occasionally work would stop. We all knew what this meant - another victim had been found. The trained dogs and their owners were a silent group, doing their job, locating who they could. When work stopped, usually 15 minutes later the firemen would bring out a black bag. One bag contained the body of a marine recruiter who had died at his desk.

Once they got him down to street level, all hats came off in a show of respect. Taps was played and as the somber notes filled the area, all of the dogs began to howl. The sound was like a pack of coyotes howling at the moon. The music stopped and the dogs and their owners went back to their job.

After the two-week period ended, I resumed my normal duties in the office, but the talk continued. Who and why were still the questions. By this time, everyone who had died had been identified. Three of those were my friends. The whole city had been affected in some way.

To honor the site and the victims, a $25 million memorial was built. Even though I drove by the memorial many times, I never went inside. From my car, I could see the pool of water and the symbolic chairs made of black marble - one chair for each of 168 victims. Little by little, life went on and the healing began.

Mel Cheek moved from Oklahoma City to Juneau in October 2001. He is now the controller of the Juneau Empire.

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