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Thursday, January 26, 2023

‘Terrorism Was Not a Buzzword in 1995’: First Responders Recall Devastation of Oklahoma City Bombing

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a truck bomb exploded outside of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, blowing off the entire north face of the building, killing 168 people and injuring another 650.

Among the loss of life were two of Tinker’s own, Airman 1st Class Cartney Jean McRaven, of the 32nd Combat Communications Squadron, and Airman 1st Class Lakesha Richardson Levy, of the 72nd Medical Group.

More than 1,000 military and civilian personnel from Tinker Air Force Base took part in rescue, recovery and relief operations following the devastating attack. Tinker Fire Department Captain Jimmy Westervelt, Assistant Chief for Training Justin Dulworth and Major Bradley Vance were a few of the initial responders on that day and are the three remaining members of the department that responded to the tragedy.

Westervelt said the initial group of responders with the Tinker Fire Department were out the door to head to the Murrah building by 9:04 a.m.

They completed a 72-hour stint before shifts were cut down to 12 hours for the following two weeks.

All relatively new to the force, Westervelt with five years under his belt and Dulworth and Vance with three, they consider the bombing as their “career event,” and something they hope remains their career event.

“You’re seeing it as you get down there and we’re always taught to size things up as you go to the scene, but it was kind of hard to size up something like this,” Westervelt said. “At the end of the day when you get down there, it’s obviously a lot worse than what you were thinking, but you have multiple agencies right off the bat doing whatever they could do to take care of what they needed to take care of in the immediate stages of it.”

Vance had gotten off of his regular shift at 7 a.m. that morning and had been at his home in south Oklahoma City for around an hour before he felt the blast.

“I knew immediately to head back in, it was big enough that I knew, so I headed back to work,” he said. “You weren’t trying to explain it at that time, you just had this in front of you and it was jaw-dropping awe.”

Tinker sent three trucks to the scene immediately and Westervelt said the group was tasked with the search and recovery of various divisions throughout the building, including the second floor where the daycare had been located and the “pit” which was the parking garage underneath that the building had collapsed into.

“Your job is to make the emergency better. When it happened it was our initial reaction to get in the rig and go. I couldn’t wait to get down there and help make things better. Everybody has that same mindset, you’re going to go make it better and deal with it later,” Dulworth said.

Removing emotion and crawling through various holes and tight spaces, members of the Tinker Fire Department looked for anyone that could be rescued while listening closely for sirens that could potentially signify a building collapse.

When Dulworth arrived on the scene at 6 p.m. that day, a form of command and control had taken place, the mass chaos had subsided and the search and recovery effort was still well under way.

“Everybody had work to do, it didn’t matter if you were from here or Texas or New York,” Dulworth said. “It didn’t matter where you were from; everybody had an assignment because there was so much to get accomplished.”

The three said they all grabbed sleep where they could. Vance remembers sleeping on the church steps with Dulworth after the chaos that night.

“Terrorism was not a buzzword in 1995. The word would’ve just been destruction. Something that you never thought would happen and you definitely didn’t think would happen in your hometown,” Dulworth said.

In the weeks following the explosion, the Tinker Fire Departments’ efforts switched to decontamination operations for debris and various bio-hazards.

It’s been 24 years since the three responded to the bombing and none of them have returned to that part of Oklahoma City since.

Westervelt has nightmares of the event to this day and says the closest he’s been able to get to what is now the Oklahoma City Memorial is Bricktown.

“It’s not that I don’t want to go back, every year at 9:02 I do my best to have some type of moment,” Westervelt said. “People ask me all the time why I don’t go back and I don’t want to say anything disrespectful, but I’m not ready I guess.”

Dulworth says he hasn’t been able to return either, but he hasn’t forgotten how he felt on that day.

“It’s something you don’t forget,” Dulworth said. “There are certain sounds that you remember. To me, there’s certain smells that can come back to you and there’s certain things that make you go right back to when you’re walking down the street that you can never forget.”

“Pictures of families, those were the individuals that were there, that was their life that was where they worked. I still see the faces of the people that we saw.”

After the unthinkable act of terrorism in Oklahoma City occurred, a 10-man squad from Tinker AFB, area fire departments, Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Civil Engineers and various medical professionals came together to create the Oklahoma Task Force. The task force was designed to respond to extreme emergencies with members highly trained for special rescue and logistics and became a national movement, with other states creating task forces of their own for a worst case scenario.

“They always say there’s a positive out of evil somewhere down the line,” Westervelt said.

Since responding to their career event, an event that defined terrorism for the nation, the trio has responded to other disasters. Although these are in completely different realms, no matter the tragedy, they’ve remained ready to look at the risk, run to it and make things better.

“It’s an honor to be sitting with these guys so late in our career,” Vance said.

Read more at Air Force Materiel Command

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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