OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – On Monday, people across Oklahoma remembered the 168 lives lost 26 years ago when a truck bomb tore through a federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was lead investigator of the attack, says the act of domestic terrorism will stay with him forever.
Garland, who was 42 years old at the time, was principal associate deputy attorney general, a top lieutenant to then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
“Twenty-six years ago, I was sitting in my office at the Department of Justice in Washington, when an “Urgent Report” from the Oklahoma City U.S. Attorney’s Office came through. It was soon followed by a second “Urgent Report,” and then a third. There had been an explosion at the Murrah building,” said Garland during Monday’s ceremony.
Garland said that they turned on the news and saw his first glimpse of the destruction left behind by the bomb. It wouldn’t be his last.
Officials were able to track an axle that landed 200 yards away from the blast at the Alfred P. Murrah Building to a Ryder truck that was rented out of Junction City, Kansas.
As law enforcement officers worked to identify the bomber, Garland says he was on a plane to Oklahoma.
When he arrived, he learned that Timothy McVeigh had been found in the Noble County Jail.
“Charlie Hanger, then a sharp-eyed Oklahoma state trooper, who until last year was the Noble County Sheriff, had stopped him 90 minutes after the bombing for a missing license plate. Charlie noticed that McVeigh was concealing a gun, arrested him for unlawful possession and brought him to the jail. He was about to be released when the FBI arrived,” he said.
He says he had to go to Tinker Air Force Base for McVeigh’s first court appearance since the federal courthouse had been damaged. At that point, he argued that McVeigh should be detained and the magistrate agreed.
After that, he says he was able to get his first look at the Murrah building.
“It was night, but you would not have known it. Bright lights lit the site up as if it were midday. The front of the Murrah Building was gone. The parking lot across the street still held cars that had been flattened by the blast. An army of first responders was crawling all over the wreckage. They had rushed to the scene from across Oklahoma and across the country. They included rescue workers from my own Maryland community, who had arrived even before I did. They were sifting through the rubble for survivors and the dead. And everyone was crying. At the time, we did not know exactly how many people had died. But we did know that the children’s center, which had been at the front of the building, was gone. Then and there, we made a vow. We promised that we would find the perpetrators, that we would bring them to justice, and that we would do so in a way that honored the Constitution.”U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland
Garland met with many family members and survivors of the blast. He even carried the program for the memorial service in his briefcase everywhere he went. The attorney general has called the work the “most important thing I have done” and was known for keeping a framed photo of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in his courthouse office in Washington.
“We tried to treat you as we would have wanted our own families to be treated. And in return, you and all of Oklahoma City treated us like family. You took care of us – the first responders, investigators, and prosecutors who had converged on the city from across the country. The Salvation Army kept a food line going to feed us day and night. I don’t remember what I ate, but I know I was never hungry. Nearby tables were piled high with donations of everything from toothpaste to deodorant, from sweatshirts to rain jackets. A barbershop relocated to the convention center and offered free haircuts. When I look at photographs from those days, I realize I did not visit the barber often enough. One resident noticed our increasingly disheveled look and even set up a laundry service at the command center. I cannot express the depth of my gratitude for your thinking of our comfort in the midst of your pain. Nor the depth of my admiration for the care Oklahomans extended to those who were hurting, neighbors and strangers alike. This came to be known as “the Oklahoma Standard” – a spirit of community service, generosity, and kindness that we had never seen before. The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum keeps the Oklahoma Standard going to this day. As Mr. Kennedy noted, once a week the museum hosts “Better Conversations,” to bring together people from different backgrounds, different politics and different ideologies, to discuss issues about which they disagree. It may not change minds, but it fosters understanding. And understanding is key to living peacefully, side-by-side, looking for common ground instead of allowing our differences to polarize us.”U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland
Garland also talked about the present-day climate in the U.S., where he says the same extremism behind the bombing lives on more than a quarter century later.
“Although many years have passed, the terror perpetrated by people like Timothy McVeigh is still with us. Just last month, the FBI warned of the ongoing and heightened threat posed by domestic violent extremists. Those of us who were in Oklahoma City in April 1995 do not need any warning. The hatred expressed by domestic violent extremists is the opposite of the Oklahoma Standard. And this memorial is a monument to a community that will not allow hate and division to win. The Department of Justice is pouring its resources into stopping domestic violent extremists before they can attack, prosecuting those who do, and battling the spread of the kind of hate that leads to tragedies like the one we mark here today. We must all stand together against them – for the safety of our communities, and for the good of our country. As Kari Watkins, the executive director of the memorial and museum, often says: ‘On this sacred ground, we [must] work to find common ground.’ Oklahoma City, you are always in my heart.”U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland