It was an ordinary workday for me. Wednesday. Hump day. A ‘Go to work early because your co-worker is going on vacation and there will be more for you to do' day. I was busy at 9:02 am when we heard it. Or more accurately, we felt it. A jarring "thud ... thump" that rattled the frame and glass of our building. It felt like someone dropped a heavy load that bounced once on the roof of the building, jarring all of us inside. Rooms quickly emptied, and as we spilled into the hallway we wondered just exactly what we had felt. No one was on the roof. What was it?
Outside, people from adjacent buildings were milling about, looking around and asking, you felt it too - it wasn't just us? And then someone pointed to the southern sky, to a large plume of black smoke billowing upward. It was quite distant, but it was striking against the otherwise clear sky.
Back inside, someone turned up a radio for all of us to hear. Reports of a large explosion and fire downtown, details are sketchy at this time, looks to be a gas main explosion, no word yet on how many were hurt. We nervously went back to work.
About an hour later, my boss returned from a downtown errand. He had no idea what happened. He was knocked to the ground by the force of the blast and dropped the package that he was carrying. He spoke of the heavy smoke that filled the air, people running frantically, not knowing where to go, and the debris cloud that swarmed over downtown, filled with what seemed like thousands of sheets of paper. He quickly determined that his best course of action was to get out of the way and let the police and firefighters do their jobs. He got out of downtown just as roadblocks were being set up.
Reports continued to come in over the radio. Dozens of walking injured, bloody and dazed. Widespread damage. The location was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. (Where?) Panic as police pushed back crowds in the face of another possible explosion. Speculation that this was a bomb. Another bomb scare, and crowds fled the scene again. Reports of the injured being rescued from the remains of the building. The entire face of the building gone, collapsed into a huge smoldering heap of rubble. Bodies of the dead visible in the debris. Human body parts - hands, feet, clothing - visible in the debris. Vehicles in the surrounding area on fire. Presbyterian Hospital jammed with injured, doctors and emergency vehicles still rushing to the scene. More reports indicating that this was not a gas main explosion, but probably a car bomb.
Late in the morning we had a staff meeting. Our boss told us calmly not to panic, that we needed to get our work done here and let police and fire and rescue workers do their jobs downtown. My boss had been in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1989 earthquake and was annoyed by hyped reporting from local news crews that seemed to convey the notion that the entire city of San Francisco had been reduced to rubble. This is probably not nearly as bad as it sounds, he told us.
I made a quick phone call to my parents in Texas. Have you heard what happened here? No. Okay, but you will see it on the news tonight. I just wanted to let you know that I'm okay, that nothing happened up here. Okay, thanks for calling us.
I left for lunch and headed home, which was much closer to downtown than my job. My cat was pacing around the house frantically. No doubt she felt the explosion and was confused. She sat in my lap and I scratched her ears as I turned on my television. My boss was right - it was not nearly as bad as it sounded.
It was worse. Much worse.
I had lunch out at a restaurant that day. It was probably one of the eeriest things I've ever experienced. The place was full and yet you could hear a whisper. No one seemed to be saying anything. They just ate quietly and talked in nervous, hushed tones. I finished my meal and headed back to work.
We had another staff meeting that afternoon. My boss was a little less sure of himself this time. He gave us a less-than-effective pep talk on the purpose of terrorism being disruption, and that we could defeat the plans of the terrorists by continuing to do our jobs and focusing on the work we had to do instead of being distracted by the confusion around us. One of my coworkers wanted to go donate blood. "No, we need you here," was the reply. In truth it would have been a pointless excursion. By Wednesday afternoon, lines of blood donors at the Red Cross were out the door. By that evening, they were turning people away.
Calls from concerned clients around the country started coming in that afternoon. The networks had switched to full coverage of the tragedy, picking up feeds from the local television stations. Fortunately none of my coworkers or their close friends or family were injured in the explosion.
The first reports about suspects came over the radio that afternoon. A brown pickup truck with three men appearing to be of Middle Eastern descent was seen by witnesses speeding away from the area at a high rate of speed. One of my coworkers was married to a man of Indian descent, with dark hair and dark skin and a noticeable accent. We advised her in all seriousness to encourage her husband to stay home for a few days and not venture outside until emotions had settled down.
That evening I popped a tape into the VCR, pushed "record" and sat glued to the TV. I still have that tape. I've never watched it, and I probably never will. The phone began to ring, as friends and relatives called to relay condolences and prayers and to inquire about people they knew. What about Jay - doesn't he work for the BATF? What about Raymond - doesn't he work for the federal employees credit union? Did you know anybody there? Are you okay?
A friend who worked downtown very close to the blast called me. He thought that a delivery truck had driven at full speed into their building. The power was knocked out, ceiling panels fell, doors blew open, and glass shattered. Only minor injuries at his workplace, but his boss took no chances and sent everyone home immediately.
I tried to go to bed but I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned for what seemed like hours, fighting tears that welled up in my eyes as I tried to comprehend the horror and senselessness of what happened in my city that day.