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THE PAIN THAT BINDS

by | Jul 24, 2023 | Firm News

There are certain events in life that people do not just recall but they remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened. Often called “flashbulb” memories, these events are so extraordinary they fix an image in your head of that exact moment. Like VE-Day, September 11, 2001, the sinking of the titanic, and the moon landing, these events are eternal in our collective memory—some tragic and some triumph. But not all flashbulb moments occur on the middle of the world stage.

When I was fifteen years old, I learned that an ambush attack in Afghanistan killed my brother. I remember every breath, every glance, and every heartbeat of that day.  That single instant of news to change my family forever. Even eighteen years later, I cannot say we ever fully recovered.

That flashbulb moment for my family was a microcosm of what happened on April 19, 1995, twenty-six years ago this month. I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with many great Oklahomans over the past week about that day and the time that has passed since. Each one of them, save one, can tell you with vivid recount where they were and what they saw the day the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in downtown Oklahoma City. For each of them and for people across the nation, the Oklahoma City bombing has been the chief flashbulb moment in their lifetime.

Governor Frank Keating had been in Office just over three months on the morning of April 19, 1995. After a prayer breakfast downtown with Mayor Ron Norick, he was in his office at the Capitol when the windows shuddered. That was unusual, given that bullet proof windows do not have the tendency to shudder—even in Oklahoma winds. His first thoughts were of Will Rogers International Airport and Tinker Air Force Base. Then he received reports of a gas line explosion downtown. When he saw the first footage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building from a news helicopter, he knew it was not a gas line. Governor Keating realized instantly this was an intentional act.

Newly appointed Federal District Judge Michael Burrage was in a plane heading to Washington, D.C. for training when he received news of a gas line explosion that devastated downtown Oklahoma City. By the time the plane landed, he saw footage of people he knew coming out of the building, including his daughter-in-law as she bled from injuries  while carrying a child from the crater that was the Murrah Building.

Judge Don Andrews recalled being an attorney in Judge Clinton Dennis’ courtroom, now Judge Martha Oakes’ courtroom, when a flash and bang knocked the glass out of the window. “Several other attorneys and myself were standing next to the window and we immediately went to the ground.” The court room was wall to wall with people on a contempt citation docket. everyone in the room thought the powerful blast must have come from the alleyway outside the courtroom windows. It was not until Judge Andrews was outside walking his clients to safety that he saw the plume to the north and realized the blast was in the area of the Murrah Building. He later learned that he lost several clients who worked in the Murrah Building.

Larry Ottaway was on his way to work that morning and decided to stop by Brown’s Bakery at the urging of his sweet tooth. He was standing in Brown’s when the blast went off and shattered the glass windows. Watching the events unfold for the next half hour or more, Larry witnessed pickup trucks of people being shuttled to St. Anthony’s for treatment. If Larry had not been hungry for a pastry, he would have been driving to his office next to the bombing as it occurred.

Justice Steven Taylor, the then Chief Judge of the 18th Judicial District, was about to start the final day of a first-degree murder trial. Justice Taylor was running a few moments behind and was about to walk into the courtroom to begin closing arguments when he was notified that a gas line exploded in downtown Oklahoma City. Deciding not to distract the jury, he carried on with his duties. While the jury deliberated that afternoon, the news broke that the explosion was an intentional act.

Polly Anderson, the Executive Director of Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, was living in Florida at the time and remembered being in her living room emotionally watching for weeks as the story of the bombing unfold.

Seth Paxton, a young attorney from Tuttle, Oklahoma who works at the Capitol on a regular basis, said that the bombing has been a presence in his life since he can remember and the impact of that day is the most obvious thing about Oklahoma City.

The lasting impact is certainly undeniable. But aside from the tragedy, Oklahoman showed the world something that was not expected at the time. Twenty-six years later, each of these people agree that the unity and resilience of Oklahoma is a part of the “Oklahoma Standard.” Dorian Quillen wrote: [1]

“The Oklahoma Standard” is a great strategy for dealing with the terrible events life often presents in our own lives. We may face challenges which seem beyond our capacity to overcome, yet by choosing a response of resilience we refuse to be defined by the worst things that happen to us.

Just a cursory search of the Oklahoma Standard will give you many examples of the amazing responses born on April 19, 1995. In fact, Governor Keating was later told by a significant Washington figure that Oklahoma’s response and competency in the wake of the explosion was nothing short of expert and was unmatched in its time.

The impact of the response to the bombing, not the bombing itself, has been nothing short of remarkable. Governor Keating remembers a time when Oklahoma City was widely considered to be a lesser city to Tulsa. Today, Oklahoma City is a booming metropolis: both beautiful and historic.

Today, the State of Oklahoma, almost 70,000 square miles in size, feels more like a community rather than a state. The rescue workers from within Oklahoma and beyond set in motion a lasting legacy of kindness and caring that Oklahoma is known by. The meanest thing I have ever heard an Oklahoman say is “bless his heart.” Even with an undertone of Southern wit, we cannot even be mean without being kind-hearted at the same time.

I have often been asked why I chose Oklahoma City to as my home. Why not my hometown or Dallas, where I have family. I never could put my finger on what it was until I spoke with these amazing people. There is such a communal feeling in Oklahoma that is a direct result of Oklahoma’s reaction to the bombing.

Justice Taylor recalls explaining to the attorneys for both the prosecution and defense in the State’s case against Terry Nichols that the trial was going to be fair and impartial “or there would be no trial.” He was so impressed and pleased with the “superb job” of the attorneys for both sides at the conclusion of the four-month trial. That trial, according to Justice Taylor, proved that the system worked and that no matter how heinous a crime, each person deserves and can receive a fair and impartial trial. He added that “without defense lawyers upholding their oaths to do their very best, the value of our rights as the citizens of Oklahoma would be absolutely worthless.” I would agree.

“The stark irony that the very government that McVeigh and Nichols sought to undermine was good enough to give them a fair and impartial trial,” Justice Taylor recalls. That is an important lesson for everyone to remember, especially lawyers. No matter how traumatic an event, the oath that attorneys in Oklahoma subscribe to is of the utmost importance to maintain.

The Oklahoma Standard is still alive today as Oklahoma as a community is defined with two words: Unity and Resilience. Though that day may have been the most painful the Oklahoma community has ever dealt with collectively; nothing unites like pain shared. Executive Director Anderson reflects that Oklahoma City is a caring and helpful place in a way that she has not seen replicated.

That is the epitome of the Oklahoma Standard. We take care of ourselves, sure enough, but we also just “take care.” When the members of the New York City Fire Department arrived to Oklahoma City to assist, they were treated like members of the community.  Every night, the local treatment for these men and women who traveled to the heartland to help was a made-up cot, with a piece of candy and a handwritten note on the pillow thanking them. Our rescue workers and volunteers have set the standard in care and kindness. Natural disasters like tornadoes and floods are simply no match for the Oklahoma Standard. Neither is terrorism.

Thank you to Justice Steven Taylor, Governor Frank Keating, Executive Director Polly Anderson, Judge Don Andrews, Michael Burrage, Larry Ottaway and Seth Paxton for taking time to speak with me.

[1] metrofamilymagazine.com