OKC bombing: chaos and control

(Photos by Mitch Chandran, All Rights Reserved)

By Mitch Chandran

Chaos

During the year 1995, I lived in Oklahoma City and had about two years as a public affairs practitioner under my belt. I was also an Air Force Reservist at Tinker Air Force Base.

Tinker is located about 12 miles southeast of Oklahoma City.  On Apr. 19, a few minutes after 9 a.m., an unthinkable event occurred in the bustling downtown area, literally shaking the city, and through media, shaking the world and changing the lives of thousands of people in a blink of an eye.

Two days later, I was reassigned from the base to the downtown area, the Oklahoma City bombsite, to jointly work with other federal communicators to set up and work an onsite Joint Information Bureau.

The intended explosion collapsed the entire front half of a nine story federal building killing 168 federal & military employees, civilians and children (there was a daycare service in the building). Multiple buildings around the federal building were badly damaged as well.

Local law enforcement and federal agents from nearly every agency descended upon the downtown area and cordoned off a five city-block radius around the destroyed federal building.  Once local law enforcement and federal agents established a security perimeter, it was nearly impossible for anyone without a clearance to enter the controlled area.

When I reported to the bombsite, I signed into a makeshift FBI control center just outside of one of the entry control points.  Standing in a long line with other officials waiting for validation I received my access badge allowing me into the controlled area with a colored stick-on dot which got changed every few days as an added security measure.

An area just outside of one of the control access points was designated for the media where they had a distant view of the top half of the blown out building protruding above smaller city buildings as the backdrop for their reporting.  As you can imagine, there was local, national, and eventually international reporters there who were starving for updates and information related to the simultaneous search & rescue and investigation – grabbing anyone for comments who walked along the perimeter fence until we established a regular media update schedule.

My job was to represent the Air Force Reserve, validate information flowing to the various federal agencies and their headquarters, and work with media representatives regarding activity updates.  Along with working the media, I was also one of three officials, at least for the first couple of weeks, that had free reign with a still and video camera to photograph within the secure area, so you can imagine I took a lot of photos and video.

I don’t know the number of personnel working the bombsite but rescuers, firemen, law enforcement and many federal agency personnel came in from all parts of the country to help. This was a mammoth effort. There were many hundreds of people working in shifts around the clock.

With so many people working long hours day after day and in a relatively confined area it was amazing tempers didn’t rise after they hit their battle rhythm after the first week.

Community & Control

The out pour of donated food, clothing, supplies, medicine, cell phones (or bricks), and anything you can think of, arriving at the bombsite was nothing short of spectacular.  Logistically, it was a nightmare for officials to manage and sort out.  All in an effort to bring comfort to everyone involved working at the bombsite.  I’m not talking just by the car load – but by truckloads, one after the other.

The ad hoc command center was on the ground floor of an multi-story office building which was adjacent to a large, ground level, covered parking garage about three blocks north of the bombsite. The JIB was in there too. This parking garage was literally transformed into a huge department store, complete with department sections – pharmacy, men’s clothing, food court, etc.  Anyone authorized in the controlled area could just walk into the garage, help themselves to anything they needed or wanted to make themselves comfortable.  If you went inside the building, past the operations center, go up to the second floor you would have found half of the entire floor devoted to free massage therapy which many workers took advantage of to relieve their aching bodies.

The outpouring of donations from various communities and businesses was more than welcomed by everyone.  Field kitchens were erected by local restaurants with major food companies supplying the food in the parking garage and out in the streets (within the controlled area) near the bombsite providing hot and cold food 24/7 for at least the month i was there – again at no charge.  In contrast to the devastation, it was the most surreal environment I ever experienced.

Volunteers from surrounding communities almost rivaled the number of workers and investigators at the bombsite (which I think was more like thousands). I kept thinking it’s a damn shame it takes an event of this magnitude to bring out the best in people from all over the country. This out pour of concern from communities shaped the attitudes of everyone involved at the bombsite because they knew they were truly being taken care of while away from their own families, and as a result, worked tirelessly without conflicts between each other. The caliber of tiredness that I saw in so many people as the days went by would have most certainly justified short tempers and outbursts – but I never saw that.

One day, when walking from the bombsite back to the command center, someone was taping hundreds of hand-drawn (mostly in crayon) wishing cards by elementary school students to a wall. As I looked at them, I thought about the children that were in the day care center that day. That was a tough day.

This was a time in my life where I saw the extreme best come out in thousands of people solely because the extreme worst came out in two.

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