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‘There was no playbook’ for handling the Oklahoma City bombing

At the 20th anniversary, we look back at the Oklahoma City bombing. Public television station OETA shares reflections from survivors and victims’ families, and Judy Woodruff talks to former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, former Director of Homeland Security of Oklahoma Kerry Pettingill and Barry Grissom, U.S. attorney for the district of Kansas, for lessons learned from the attack.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, a moment that shocked the nation and changed the way we think about threats at home.

    Two minutes past 9:00 on the morning of April 19, 1995, downtown Oklahoma City is torn apart.

  • MAN:

    I went under the table when the ceiling started falling in. And that's what saved me, I guess.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A Ryder truck loaded with a diesel fuel and fertilizer bomb blew up next to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, cutting it in half; 168 people, including 19 children in its day care center, died. More than 650 were injured.

    On April 21, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh and another former soldier, Terry Nichols, were arrested, and later formally charged with the bombing.

    Two days later, then President Bill Clinton came to comfort the city and the country.

  • PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON:

    For we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    McVeigh and Nichols, members of far right-wing anti-federal-government groups, timed the attack for the two-year anniversary of the fiery end to the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians. That breakaway religious sect, in Waco, Texas, had staged a 51-day standoff with law enforcement, which ended with an FBI-led assault on the heavily armed compound; 76 members of the group died that day.

    In 1997, McVeigh was found guilty on 11 federal counts of murder and conspiracy. He was sentenced to death and executed in 2001. Nichols was later found guilty on federal charges of conspiracy and manslaughter and 161 state counts of first-degree murder. He is serving multiple life sentences in a Colorado federal prison.

    The anniversary will be recognized throughout the coming weekend in Oklahoma City, and there will be much attention on how survivors and families are faring.

    Our colleagues at the PBS station OETA produced a documentary called "Resilience" and spoke with many of them. It was done in conjunction with The Daily Oklahoman newspaper. Here's an edited excerpt.

    It features the now-grown daughters of a bombing victim, the sister of another, a 21-year-old man who was one of six children who survived from the day care center in the building. It burned his infant lungs and left third-degree burns over half his body. And, finally, the head of the credit union in the Murrah Building at the time.

  • WOMAN:

    I don't know how we did it. The first morning we opened up for business, there was probably 500 members of the credit union that some of them had been housed in the Murrah Building. Nobody had anything to do. In fact, everything in Oklahoma City stopped. Everybody stopped when that happened.

    ROSSLYN BIGGS, Mother killed in bombing: Our dad thought it was really important for us to continue with — you know, continue with life. And that's really been — even from the immediate incident, that's really been a defining kind of trait as we have — as we have gone along. Otherwise, you sit glued to the TV and you can only — you can only watch — watch so much over and over again.

    CINDY ASHWOOD, Sister killed in bombing: A counselor once told me that you have body memories. Your body remembers what your mind processed in a traumatic event, and that sometimes your body reacts, sometimes in similar fashion. And I think that's really true, and you do. You just start getting kind of tense.

    And, sometimes, it's funny. I will just almost not feel well, and I will think, huh, I wonder what's wrong? And I will be like, it's April.

  • PJ ALLEN, Survivor:

    I constantly deal with that day every — every day of my life, so it's never really pushed to the aside. I always am thankful that I was able to make it through that day. And what I take from it whenever I think about it is that God had a plan for me to survive that day, and why I'm at college to try to figure out what that plan is.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Three perspectives now on lessons learned from the attack and how we face domestic threats today.

    Jamie Gorelick was the deputy attorney of the United States at the time, the second highest position in the Department of Justice, and a point person in the response in the trial. She served on the 9/11 Commission and is now a partner at the law firm WilmerHale. Barry Grissom is the United States attorney for the district of Kansas. And Kerry Pettingill was a lieutenant with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol on the day of the bombing and an early responder. He would later become the first director of homeland security for the state.

    And we welcome all three of you to the program.

    Kerry Pettingill, as we said, you were with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol on the day this happened. You got the call. What did you see?

    KERRY PETTINGILL, Former Director of Homeland Security, Oklahoma: Well, when I first started responding to the downtown area, I had approached from the north. It was — there was already gridlock. I had to drive across sidewalks in order to get as close as I could.

    And I had to walk in from the north, and I had in my mind that it was going to be a — we knew it was some type of an explosion. But I was thinking natural gas or perhaps even an airplane had crashed into the building, because we — at that time, we had a downtown airpark.

    But when I turned the corner and I saw the building, or what was left of the building, I knew immediately that this was no natural disaster or not natural, but a disaster — an accident. And then the observations were just the way the people were going about helping each other and, for me, it was trying to determine what to do next.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How do you think, looking back on it, Oklahoma City and the state did deal with it at the time, and how are they doing today?

  • KERRY PETTINGILL:

    Oh, I think the immediate response was tremendous. It was a coming together of everyone, not just the responders, but also I say the professional responders, the actions of those men and women that were involved in the blast, those that were injured, but could care for others, the way that they assumed certain roles and cared for each other and helped get everyone to safety.

    I think that the leadership from the governor's office, the mayor's office, the Chief Marrs at the fire department, Chief Gonzales at the police department, and Bob Ricks, who was the special agent in charge of the FBI, the way everyone came together and made decisions very quickly, I think, helped us maneuver through the immediate processes of trying to gain some type of control over the incident.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Barry Grissom, as we said, you were in — you are in Kansas. You were in Kansas at the time. That's where Timothy McVeigh rented the truck. And we know that's where he got the materials to make the mom bomb. What did this mean to that part of the country? You could argue that was the last place people expected there to be an attack like this?

    BARRY GRISSOM, U.S. Attorney, District of Kansas: Yes, ma'am. That's the refrain you always hear, that, how could this happen here?

    To believe that and to ultimately find out that the Ryder truck was rented in Junction City, Kansas, and that the ammonium nitrate was purchased in Herington, Kansas, and the blasting caps were stolen from a rock quarry in Marion, Kansas, and no one detected or connected the dots that ultimately led to the tragedy, that was the thing that really shocked us.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And something that you didn't think would happen in that part of the country? And how do you think that the midsection responded?

  • BARRY GRISSOM:

    I think the midsection responded just like we want them to. As Kerry described what the folks did here in Oklahoma City, the outpouring of support from Kansas, from Texas, from Arkansas, from Colorado was amazing.

    What it did do for us, though, it was an awakening. It made us understand that this isn't an East Coast or a West Coast phenomena, that this is something that can take place in our backyards, in our neighborhoods. And, as a result of that, the evolution that's happened in law enforcement through joint terrorism task force working together has been really great.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

    And, Jamie Gorelick, from where you sat, number two, we said, at the Justice Department in 1995, how — what was it like to deal with it from here? And how did you know — there was no playbook for something like this.

  • JAMIE GORELICK, Former Deputy Attorney General:

    There was definitely no playbook.

    And to your earlier question, Judy, this was entirely shocking to have something like this happen in the heartland. And when we found out that it was one of us, that was doubly shocking. Dealing with the event itself was an extraordinary effort. You had many state and local responders, and you had many different federal agencies that had to be deconflicted.

    And one of my jobs was to make sure, working with the governor, that we knew who was doing what. You had a crime scene and a rescue scene in the same place. And that active investigation had to start right away, even as we were clearing through the rubble and trying to save people.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As you look at it from a federal perspective, and looking at how the state and the local area responded, how good a job did everybody do?

  • JAMIE GORELICK:

    Fantastic. I mean, people really did pull together. The people of Oklahoma were terrific. The country was so shocked by this, that there was an enormous pulling together of resources and feeling.

    I thought the president — you had some of his remarks — was terrific in a healing role and making sure that the people of Oklahoma City understood that the rest of us were there for the people of Oklahoma.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Barry Grissom, back to you.

    You have seen since them as a U.S. attorney in Kansas that part of the country, the entire country having to deal much more with domestic terrorism since then than anything we knew at the time. How have you seen the responses evolve and change?

  • BARRY GRISSOM:

    Well, the responses can best be defined as this.

    Roles have dissolved. It's very rare that it's federal, state, and local name tags. It's law enforcement. Through these joint terrorism task forces that we have now, we're able to work with law enforcement partners, cross-designate folks, and work closer to — with one another than we ever have in the past.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And what has that meant? How is it more closely together and understand that it is going to happen again?

  • BARRY GRISSOM:

    Yes, ma'am, that's right.

    And I can give you a perfect example. Less — a little over a week another, we stopped a young man who wanted to drive a carload of explosives on to Fort Riley and kill soldiers. That was just the past week. A year-and-a-half ago, we had someone who wanted to drive a carload of explosives onto the tarmac in Wichita, Kansas. And that was stopped.

    Tragically, we weren't able to stop a white supremacist who committed an act of domestic terrorism by three people at a Jewish community center in Overland Park. So, having been U.S. attorney for only five years and having to deal with three what I perceive as major terrorist potential events, that's — that we stopped two of the three, we take some pride in that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jamie Gorelick, how do you see Washington's response? I know you're out of the federal government now, but you watch it very closely. You were a member the 9/11 Commission.

    But how you have seen the government's response to domestic terrorism change from what it was 20 years ago?

  • JAMIE GORELICK:

    Well, I would agree that we're much less atomized and more cohesive than we ever were.

    If you think about the numbers, let's say the FBI has 40,000 people and state and local police are about a million, you have to knit those resources together. And, you know, the federal government is not going to know what's happening on every street corner the way a local cop is going to.

    So there has to be that sharing. It's much better. It's not perfect, but it's much, much better. There are all kinds of mechanisms for jointness. There's much better information-sharing, again, not perfect but a lot better.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And less likely to be the element of surprise, even though no one wants or wants to believe anything like this could happen again?

  • JAMIE GORELICK:

    Well, when you have just a few people or a single person who wants to do something bad, it's really hard to stop it, unless you have so much surveillance in your society that it's unattractive, to say the least, to the American people.

    And that's the balance that we are constantly debating and trying to trying to measure for ourselves.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Kerry Pettingill, back to you, how do you see Oklahoma, the people of your state, changing as a result of what happened 20 years ago?

  • KERRY PETTINGILL:

    I think that Oklahoma City has grown tremendously. It's a great city today. It's very progressive, and it is — Barry and I were talking earlier about how much it's changed.

    But the people were very resilient. And it was, as you guys talked about, the president saying that we weren't alone. Knowing that we weren't alone if our recovery was, I think, very beneficial in that process.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, it's very difficult to look back, but it's important that we do. And we thank all three of you for being with us.

    Kerry Pettingill and Barry Grissom and Jamie Gorelick here, we thank you.

  • JAMIE GORELICK:

    Thank you.

  • KERRY PETTINGILL:

    Thank you.

  • BARRY GRISSOM:

    Thank you.

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