TU alumni remember Oklahoma City bombing 25 years later

It has been 25 years since the Oklahoma City bombing. Anyone remembering that event and its aftermath will at some point ask, “What did that attack do?”

The question has a technical answer: It killed 168 people and injured hundreds more, gutted the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and destroyed or damaged more than 300 other buildings at a total cost exceeding $500 million.

Oklahoma City National Memorial
The West Gate at the Oklahoma City National Memorial

The question also has a human answer: It rallied more than 12,000 Oklahomans and other Americans to turn out and help each other, putting “the Oklahoma Standard” on the map; it taught essential lessons in disaster response and recovery; and it galvanized American resolve at the beginning of an era of national travail that has since included the 9/11 attacks, two decades of military engagement in the Middle East, a series of mass shootings, the Great Recession, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-five years later, the lessons of Oklahoma City are as relevant as ever.

We spoke with TU alumni and friends who were part of that day and its aftermath.

April 19, 1995

Former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Turpen (BS ’72, JD ’74) had just returned from a prayer breakfast hosted by Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick. Turpen recalls the program that morning was unusually brief. The early adjournment had him driving back through downtown about 8:30. By 8:45, he was on the phone with Charlie Chapel (JD ’68), who at that time was serving on the Court of Criminal Appeals.

At 9:02, there was a concussion.

“Charlie’s a Marine, and he thinks immediately that it’s a sonic boom from Tinker Air Force Base,” Turpen said. “We had no idea what we were about to learn.”

Christopher Gehringer (BA ’89) was just finishing a smoke break on the third floor of the Journal-Record building, across the street from the Murrah building. He was pushing up from the table, standing with his knees bent. He figures that’s why he wasn’t knocked to the floor as were most of the others in the room.

“The ceiling tiles fell down and the fluorescent light fixtures, and 30 or 40 years of dust is hitting the air,” he said. “My first thought was that it was an earthquake, and then I thought the boiler room blew up. Then, after that, it wasn’t time to think anymore; it was time to act.”

Gehringer can’t say for sure how much time he spent guiding injured people to paramedics. “Time questions are tricky,” he said. “What felt like 30 minutes might have been five.” The identities of those he helped are also vague: Cindy’s boss. The lady with the significant neck injury. The woman blown out of her shoes.

“Almost every time there’s a special on the bombing, there’s a picture of four or five guys carrying a stretcher,” he said. “The guy on the front right is wearing dark slacks and a white shirt and has a brown beard and wearing glasses. That’s me. I have no idea who the guy on the stretcher was or what happened to him. We just took him to an ambulance.”

Gehringer had been working on the north side of the Journal-Record building, screened from the Murrah destruction. At some point, as things slowed a little, he walked around to the other side.

“Ambulances were showing up – paramedics, firemen, police. More and more professionals were showing up,” he said. “That’s when I realized how big this was. That’s when I said, ‘There’s nothing I can do for the federal building. I’m done.’”

The detail about people in the Journal-Record building being knocked out of their chairs resonates with Julie Watson. That happened to her, too.

Watson, just a couple of years into her career and nine months pregnant, was working at a downtown law firm housed in the top two floors of a nearby office tower.

“There were floor-to-ceiling windows, and the glass blew out on all of us,” she said. “The partners were in a meeting. It pushed people out of their chairs and blew glass everywhere — safety glass. The initial thought was that it had been a natural gas explosion. No one ever imagined that it would be what it was.”

After evacuating down an unknown number of stairs, Julie began to think about her husband, Dr. William “Bill” Watson (BA ’86), who was in the third year of his medical residency at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center.

“I was worried, because he was getting off work then and would often stop downtown at a coffee shop on his way home,” she said. “I had no idea where he was or what happened to him.”

“I had been working the night before and had just arrived home and was taking care of the dog,” he recalls. “There was a very loud explosion. I ran outside to look around, because I assumed someone’s house had filled with gas and blown up.”

As soon as he turned on the radio, he heard the news. Not long after that, he got a call from work.

“They called a code black at the medical center, which means that all personnel need to report to work,” he said. “So I went back. There was not a whole lot to do, sadly. There were some exceptions, but you either were injured so severely that you didn’t survive long enough to get to the operating room or you were injured in such a way that there was no hurry to get you to the operating room.”

Dr. Watson helped triage some patients in the emergency room, started some IVs and helped prepare some surgical cases. In all, though, it was not the pandemonium one might expect.

“I was probably home by 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” he said. His wife was home by then, and there was not much left to do but to watch the ongoing TV coverage.

Since That Day

The longer-term paths away from April 19, 1995, are as varied as the experiences of that day.

“Initially, I swore I’d never go downtown again,” Gehringer said. “Then, after a while, I did. Then I swore I’d never go the museum. Now, I try to go about twice a year.”

That schedule is deliberate.

Post-traumatic stress disorder “has a tendency to come back and kick you in the butt about 13 to 15 years after the event,” he said. “About 2009 or 2010, I thought I was losing my mind. Basically, it’s that after that amount of time, there’s enough distance that your brain thinks it’s time to start dealing with this stuff that you thought you dealt with 15 years ago.”

Gehringer’s strategy has included several outlets. Early on, he sought the advice of a mental health professional and read extensively about PTSD. In addition to visiting the memorial twice a year, he also has developed lectures for high school and college students. He even has run in three of the memorial half-marathons.

“There’s no getting over it, but there is learning how to deal with it,” he said. “You can either deal with it on your terms — i.e., I try to go the memorial twice a year because that’s on my timing — or you can ignore it or suppress it and wait until it surfaces. And when it surfaces, it’s much more intense.”

Julie Watson said she was sensitive to loud noises for some years afterward but otherwise carries no lingering trauma.

“It’s weird, because it definitely impacted me,” she reflected. “But the fact that I was so safe, and my child was OK, my husband was OK. There are so many people who were just so much more directly, horribly affected. I don’t know that I ever felt it was my personal tragedy in the same way that it was for so many other people.”

In days leading up to the 25th anniversary commemoration, the newspapers featured photos and names of the victims. Watson said she has made a point of recognizing them.

“I feel it’s an obligation to read each of those names every day,” she said. “I certainly feel a connection to those photos and to honoring those people.”

Turpen has had a profound impact on memorializing the victims and survivors of the bombing. He joined John Richels, former president and CEO of Devon Energy, in co-chairing a campaign that raised $21 million for the 9:03 Fund. That effort helped renovate the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, install high-tech exhibits and begin to build the organization’s endowment.

Turpen also served a term as the board chairman for the memorial and museum, led a successful effort to subsidize a visit for every ninth grader in Oklahoma City and is co-chairing the Looking Back, Thinking Forward Campaign. That effort is nearing its goal to raise the memorial and museum endowment to $20 million.

Fundraising is essential, but Turpen becomes most enlivened when he talks about the memorial and museum’s wide-ranging influence as a model for commemorating tragedy. He notes that the leaders of the 9/11 memorial project visited Oklahoma City during their research; it is perhaps not a coincidence that both projects feature a survivor tree and make prominent use of water.

“I’m proud that when there’s a tragedy somewhere else in the world, generally people come to Oklahoma City to learn the concept of memorialization,” he said, adding that more recently, representatives from Orlando, Florida, visited the memorial and museum as they plan to memorialize the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting.

Arguably, though, the most enduring part of the legacy of April 19 is not physical, but ethical: the Oklahoma Standard. It is a resolve to act with honor, kindness and service. First exemplified by the 12,000 volunteers who responded to help in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the Oklahoma Standard has since taken root as an overarching approach to citizenship.

Turpen makes a point of noting that the Oklahoma Standard has managed to forge agreement among three unlikely figures: former presidential candidates Michael Bloomberg and Beto O’Rourke and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He has taken each of them on a tour of the memorial and museum.

“They all agreed, ‘Mike, the Oklahoma Standard should be the American Standard.’”

The 25th anniversary of the bombing will find the memorial and museum closed — an unexpected result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ceremonies this year will be shared through a television broadcast. It is in many ways a disappointing turn of events. Perhaps we can flip our framing: Instead of seeing the pandemic as an obstacle to our remembrance, we can remember April 19 as a timely lesson for our current challenges.

“What we need to focus on right now is having peace over panic, faith over fear, compassion, courage and solidarity,” Turpen said. “We’re all in this together. Oklahoma City reminds us of that.”

Sadly, the anniversary also reminds us of a TU alumna who was killed in the blast: Susan J. Ferrell (BA ’79, JD ’82) of Oklahoma City was an attorney adviser with the legal division of Housing and Urban Development. Our hearts go out to her family.

 

Thank you to our sources:

Mike Turpen served as Oklahoma attorney general from 1983 until 1987. Today, he is a partner in the Riggs Abney law firm. Turpen is a member of The University of Tulsa College of Law Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. He remains active with the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, where served as chairman of the board and is an at-large member.

Christopher Gehringer is a former high school teacher and today is self-employed. At the time of the Murrah bombing, he was working for the Oklahoma Guaranteed Student Loan Program.

Julie Watson is a freelance writer and co-executive producer of Live from Cain’s, a radio program that is funded but currently deferring production because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is married to TU alumnus Bill Watson.

Dr. William Watson is an anesthesiologist with Ascension St. John Medical Center in Tulsa. He is actively involved with staff leadership at St. John and has served as chief of staff. He is the son of renowned TU English Professor Jim Watson. He and his wife, Julie, have four children. One son, Jim, is following family tradition as a current TU student, majoring in English and philosophy with a pre-med focus.