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Remembering The Day The Murrah Building Was Bombed


Twenty years ago today, a truck filled with fertilizer and chemicals exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At the time, the bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. One hundred and sixty-eight people died, including 19 children who'd been in the daycare center inside that building. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is in Oklahoma City where officials are gathering to mark the anniversary. She's with us now. Dina, can you just take us back? Remind us how events unfolded that morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, just before 9 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a Ryder rent-a-truck pulled up outside the Murrah Federal Building. A man got out, and he walked away. And then the images we saw after that were just completely unforgettable. I'm sure you remember the photographs at the facade blown off the building, the photograph of a firefighter holding on to an infant he had taken from the rubble that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. And it was so heartbreaking because the child died. And so over the past couple of days, there's been a lot of focus here in Oklahoma City on the little things - details that stay with people even 20 years after this happened.

MARTIN: Details like what?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, so the mayor of Oklahoma City at the time was a man named Ron Norick. And he was talking at a conference this week about little things like - he was, at the time, on the board of a local bank. And the bank was pretty close to the Murrah building. And he said there was real concern at the time that there were other bombs that might go off and no one was safe. So the bank asked all the tellers to leave right away, and they fled. They left the bank unlocked, all the money in the drawers. And when they came back to the bank days later, he said not a penny was missing.

MARTIN: Oh, my. So one of the other things that was remarkable about this case is how quickly the main suspect, Timothy McVeigh, was arrested, right - the same day of the bombing. What have you learned about how that happened so fast?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this was another great story they told. You remember they found the axle of that Ryder truck almost immediately after the bombing. And it had vehicle identification number, and that allowed them to very quickly track it to a Ryder rental place in Kansas. And if these details were available at the time, I've forgotten them.

But the truck was rented by someone who called himself Robert Kling. And they had this sketch artist do a drawing of him. They started canvassing motels around Junction City, Kan., where the truck had been rented. And they found the manager of the Dreamland Motel, who had not only seen the truck, but saw someone fitting the description of the person they were looking for. And she said she remembered because she thought he was a little weird. So she put him in the room right next to the office so she could keep an eye on him.

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And he checked into the motel under his real name. Then that night, he orders takeout Chinese - moo goo gai pan, they say. And he ordered the meal under the name Robert Kling. That was the name the truck was rented under. So they'd gathered all this information literally on the same day of the bombing.

The other amazing thing, as you say, is that Timothy McVeigh had already been arrested in just hours after the bombing. He was pulled over about 80 miles from Oklahoma City for driving without license plates. And he was carrying a gun so they put him in the local jail. They ran a check on him, and the FBI was checking to see if Timothy McVeigh had a criminal record.

And his name pops up and says he's sitting in this jail. And that led to the other image that's so difficult to forget, and that was when he was lead out of the jail - there was that jeering crowd that had already gathered. And what I remember was that thousand-yard stare he had.

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in Oklahoma City. Thanks so much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.