Like our shared 9/11 experience, the day of the truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City started, for me, on television, 20 years ago today.
Since it happened in the morning, my newspaper coworkers and I were putting together the daily on deadline. I came out of the darkroom with a print for an editor and saw everyone crowded into the conference room, where the television lived since that’s where the cable enters the building.
I stuck my head in the door, just like I would do six and a half years later on 9/11/01, to see everyone’s eyes glued to the images brought to us by Oklahoma City television stations.
The destruction and chaos looked to me, initially, like an underground gas explosion we’d seen on television some years earlier in Mexico, and my first take was that Oklahoma City must have experienced a similar disaster.
Immediately we decided to hold the front page, and waited for stories and images to arrive from the Associated Press. At the same time, our editor decided we should have some stories and images of our own, so my news editor and I hit the road.
We arrived in downtown Oklahoma City at around 11:30 am, by which time the entire scene was locked down pretty hard. Still, we were able to get ahold of a local state representative, who we interviewed, and I was able to see most of the demolished building with my 300mm lens.
One thing I’ve learned as a journalist over the years is that in situations like 9/11 or the Murrah bombing or Ada’s Evergreen Mill fire in March 2000 is to do my job as quietly and transparently as possible. People in those situations and witnessing those situations are emotionally raw and frequently irrational, and no opinion of mine will improve that. So I remain as quiet as I can, and I make pictures as inconspicuously as possible.
I visited the site of the bombing a couple of years after the event, and again in about 2000. I also took my wife Abby to visit the site, now known as the Oklahoma City National Memorial, in 2008, and she found the experience quite moving.