Too close for comfort: Murrah Building bombing remembered
Okemah businessman only three blocks away when deadly blast happened
By Ken Childers
Just after 9 o’clock on the morning of April 19, 1995, people working in or near the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City suddenly found themselves written into a terrifying chapter of history.
At 9:02 a.m., a truck packed with explosives that had been parked just outside the Murrah Building was detonated, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring over 800 others.
“It’s all very surreal, like it never happened,” said Okemah businessman Carl Alls, who was standing on the 10th floor of an office building some three blocks away from the federal building when the blast occurred.
“I was actually standing there looking out the window, and the next thing I know, the window just bowed in,” Alls recalled. “About the time I heard the explosion, I thought someone had dropped a bomb. I’ve been around bombs before, and I thought, man we’re being bombed.”
Alls said he remembers being knocked to the ground, then getting up to see what had just happened. “I don’t know whether something knocked me to the floor, it probably did and I just instinctively looked for a hole to get into. I got up and looked out the window – I had a great view – and there was this huge dust cloud. The most eerie thing, the one thing I remember, was thousands of 8 ½ x 11 papers falling like birds out of the sky,” Alls said.
Alls and his office mate went running outside to investigate, but were quickly sent back to their office building by authorities over fears a second bomb was about to go off.
“My office mate came running around the corner with a wild-eyed look on his face – I’m sure I had one too – and we took off. We rode the elevator down and headed up the street to see what was going on, and maybe try to help or something,” Alls said.
“We got up the street a block or so, and I heard somebody calling my name. I didn’t pick up on it at first, because I’m pretty sure my heart was pounding pretty fast, and I’m wondering what I’m going to do when I get up there. Finally I heard him, and it was one of the downtown policemen. He said ‘you guys need to get back to your office, because I understand there may be a second bomb,’”Alls remembered.
Alls said he and his coworker got close enough to see that it was the Murrah Building that had been damaged then went back to his office, which was locked down soon afterwards. Alls said he can’t remember if it was closed for only one day or several days.
“They may have had us shut down for a while, but I just don’t remember. Twenty-five years…it’s kind of like I’ve come home from overseas, closed that door and moved on. I never have been one to carry stuff with me,” Alls said somberly.
Although Alls didn’t carry all of the memories of that deadly day with him, he knows someone who did. He carpooled with a man who worked in another nearby building where two or three people were killed by the blast.
“I talked to his wife about 10 years later, and she said he was still having a rough go of it. I can’t imagine being in an office and all of sudden it blows up and people are dead. That’s a whole lot worse than being three blocks away and looking out of a 10th story window,” Alls said.
Alls said he had not returned to the site since. “I’ve never been back to the Murrah Building. The day I tried to walk over there and couldn’t get there, that’s as close as I’ve been to it since then. I’ve never really wanted to go back.”
Crime and punishment
A massive hunt for the bombing suspects ensued, and on April 21 an eyewitness description led authorities to charge Timothy McVeigh, a former U.S. Army soldier, in the case. McVeigh was already in jail, having been stopped a little more than an hour after the bombing for a traffic violation and then arrested for unlawfully carrying a handgun. Shortly before he was scheduled to be released from jail, he was identified as a prime suspect in the bombing and charged.
That same day, Terry Nichols, an associate of McVeigh’s, surrendered in Herington, Kansas. Both men were found to be members of a radical right-wing survivalist group based in Michigan.
On Aug. 8, Michael Fortier, who knew of McVeigh’s plan to bomb the federal building, agreed to testify against McVeigh and Nichols in exchange for a reduced sentence. Two days later, McVeigh and Nichols were indicted on charges of murder and unlawful use of explosives. On June 2, 1997, McVeigh was convicted on all 11 counts against him, and on Aug. 14 he received the death penalty.
The following year, Fortier, who had met McVeigh in the Army, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for failing to warn authorities about the bombing plan. Fortier was released from prison in 2007 and entered the witness protection program.
In December 1997, Nichols was found guilty on one count of conspiracy and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter, for killing federal law enforcement personnel, and was sentenced to life in prison. In 2004, he was tried on state charges in Oklahoma and convicted of 161 counts of first-degree murder, including fetal homicide. He received 161 consecutive life terms in prison.
In December 2000, McVeigh asked a federal judge to stop all appeals of his convictions and to set a date for his execution. The request was granted, and on June 11, 2001, McVeigh, at age 33, died by lethal injection at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was the first federal prisoner to be put to death since 1963.