The professional life of a journalist is seeded with catastrophic events of the sort the country faced yesterday at the finish line at Copely Square. There are lessons we learn that can be helpful, as all we move forward with the telling of the story and the weeding through the facts, in Boston.
April 19 1995, a massive truck bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children. It would become the first major news story of my career, followed by months spent in Denver covering the trials of the men responsible, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
I marveled as the nation came together around that tragedy. Then I covered the arrests, trials, and conspiracy theories, which persist to this day, interviewing the victims, their families and returning periodically to celebrate the rebirth of Oklahoma City.
But what did we learn from those tragic events and their aftermath?
In any fast-moving story, there is bound to be misinformation in the first 24-48 hour cycle – about the numbers injured or killed, about who did this and why.
In Oklahoma City, the context for speculation on the latter question was the first World Trade Center bombing that had occurred two years earlier. That led police, press and members of the public to suspect international terrorists, likely the same group that had carried out the bombing in New York. A man inconveniently named Ibrahim Ahmad, a Jordanian-American traveling from his home in Oklahoma City to visit family in Jordan on April 19, 1995, was arrested in what was described as an “initial dragnet.” But further investigation cleared Ahmad of any wrongdoing.
As luck would have it, a state trooper spotted Timothy McVeigh, driving on Interstate 35. He was not pulled over in connection with the bombing, but instead because he was driving without a license plate. He was then detained for illegal possession of a firearm. Soon forensics tied him to the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.
McVeigh, and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, it turned out, were domestic terrorists — militia movement sympathizers looking for revenge against the federal government for its handling of the Waco Siege, which ended in the deaths of 76 people exactly two years prior. They hoped to inspire a revolt against what they considered to be a tyrannical federal government. Nichols was convicted in both federal and state court and is serving life with no possibility of parole in federal prison. I covered McVeigh’s execution in June 2001.
That September, however, came the story that would change everything. That’s when the planes hit. The first, then the second. So many people in Boston yesterday made the comparison to 9/11. The uncertainty, at first, about what was happening; and then, after the second blast, the powerful knowledge that something was terribly wrong. It was the same on 9/11. One plane, an accident perhaps. Two planes, certainly not.
I was born in the shadow of the World Trade Center. When I was a toddler, my father often took me to watch the construction of the two massive structures. I had never known a New York City without the Twin Towers, until September 11, 2001.
So, that morning, dispatched by ABC News to what would come be known as Ground Zero, as I approached that gutted and massive hole in the ground, I completely lost my bearings. I had no frame of reference without those towers.
I was at Ground Zero every day for two weeks. I reported on marines digging for survivors with their bare hands; volunteer fire fighters from all across the country joining the rescue mission; daycare workers who had saved scores of children before the towers fell. My crew was the first to gain access to what rescue workers called “The Pile” — bringing the world the very first images from within the smoking heap of rubble that was once Tower One. We also covered the last two survivors pulled from the rubble days after rescue workers had given up hope of finding anyone alive. That was September 14th. They had been trapped underground for days.
A journalist can never become a part of the story. But journalists do have the power to alter the course of events, if they lose their objectivity.
Which gets me to the story that reminds me most of what is happening in Boston today – the Centennial Olympic Park Bombing in during the summer Olympics in 1996. I’ve covered that story three times in my career. First, when the summer Olympiad was disrupted by the explosion of a nail and pipe bomb at a concert there, killing a woman who had brought her daughter to hear the music and injuring more than 100 others, including a cameraman who suffered a fatal heart attack after the blast.
Within a few days, police charged Richard Jewell, a security guard at the concert. Jewell had initially discovered the explosive device on park grounds and alerted police. He had also helped evacuate the area, arguably saving lives and was initially hailed as a hero. I recall how quickly the media tide turned against him, however, as he became the prime suspect in the case. Jewell was never charged, but endured weeks of media coverage aggressively focused on him as the presumed bomber, labeling him with the term “person of interest.” We portrayed him as a failed police officer that may have planted the bomb to then “find” it and be hailed as a hero.
The actual evidence against Jewel was dubious at best, however. In October 1996, he was cleared of all responsibility in the bombing. But Jewell remained a suspect in the minds of many Americans. Attorney General Janet Reno later expressed regret that his name had ever been leaked to the media. “I’m very sorry it happened. I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak.” That was in 1997.
In 1998, authorities tied a series of similar bombings across the country, to Eric Robert Rudolph. Rudolph was a 31-year-old carpenter with an anti-abortion and anti-gay agenda. I was one of many journalists who covered Rudolph, his agenda, and the extensive manhunt that finally brought him to justice. As part of an agreement to avoid a death sentence, Rudolph pleaded guilty to three bombings, including the Olympic Park bombing. He is serving four consecutive life terms in a maximum-security federal prison.
The third time I covered this story was in 2007. That was when Richard Jewell died of natural causes. He was suffering from severe heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. I felt it was important to take a look back at the case and reiterate, one last time, that he’d been innocent, all those years before. I wonder how many Americans still associate Jewell with the Olympic Park Bombing, how many Americans still think he’s guilty. Richard Jewell was 44-years-old when he died.
We got the Olympic Park Bombing case totally wrong. We accused the wrong person. And it literally took years to build a case against the right person, and finally find him guilty of the crime. This time around, in Boston we should take a step back – journalists, law enforcement, and members of the public — rather than make the same sort of mistake again. Given the depth and breadth of the evidence – hundreds of backpacks strewn about, a 15-block crime scene, tens of thousands of people in the vicinity of the blasts — this could, and should be the beginning of a very long process.