Thousands of search and rescue crews attend a memorial service May 5, 1995, in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, after an explosion killed 168 people and injured hundreds more April 19, 1995.
BILL WAUGH / AP Enlarge
OKLAHOMA CITY — Before Sept. 11, there was April 19 — when a truck bomb sheared away one side of a federal building in middle America and proved that anyone, anywhere, can be attacked.
The combination of two tons of fertilizer and fuel oil in Oklahoma City destroyed the notion that people content to live far from the nation's biggest cities and tallest buildings wouldn't be targets of terrorism.
As the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, many Oklahoma residents are still coping with the fear or anxiety set off by the earlier bombing. When a Molotov cocktail blew up alongside an Oklahoma City home this summer, people's thoughts and talk instantly turned to the 1995 explosion.
"Every time you see a bombing on TV, you think of the Murrah building," said Tom Kight, who didn't learn that his stepdaughter was killed in the attack until five days afterward. "I've lived with anxiety. You see some of the bombings, whether it's Afghanistan or Iraq, you're going to flash back."
Al-Qaida's attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the nine-story federal building, in retaliation for a 1993 government raid on a religious compound in Waco, Texas, killed 168 people in Oklahoma City, including 19 children at a day care.
The Molotov cocktail explosion this summer illustrated again how sensitive people in Oklahoma City are to any potential threat, said Susan Winchester, whose sister died in the federal building attack.
"I think we've experienced firsthand that it's not something to take lightly. You immediately put your memories and experiences into play," she said. "You realize it's something that is very, very real and something that can happen. If you're in a place where you've not gone through that, you might not take it as seriously. You know that it can happen."
In the latest case, authorities say a 15-year-old boy was playing with Molotov cocktails before the fatal fire that killed an elderly couple. Shirley Ferguson, 72, whose neighbors were the ones killed, said anyone is vulnerable.
"I'm sure it could happen again. I hope it doesn't, but the way the world is today, you never know," she said. "It makes me concerned about the evil that's around."
Ferguson's daughter, Sherie Asbell, 53, said the emotional impact of the Oklahoma City bombing and the firebombing in her mother's neighborhood are "too closely related."
"That brought a lot of fear back to me," Asbell said.
"It can happen anytime — anybody, anytime," said neighbor Bob Bosse, 64. "You just hope that it won't."
McVeigh, an army veteran, was convicted of federal murder and bombing-related charges in the Oklahoma City bombing. A co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, was convicted on federal and state charges and is serving multiple life sentences. McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001 — three months before the attacks targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
On Sept. 11, Richard Williams felt an awkward kinship with New York and Washington. Williams, who needed 150 stitches to close wounds on the right side of his body after the Oklahoma City bombing and lost dozens of colleagues and friends in the attack, said he "got that same, sick gut feeling those people got on April 19th."
"My first reaction was to pick up the phone and call my fellow survivors, people I knew. Here was that same feeling of understanding what those people were beginning to go through," he said.
Williams, 65, who was at a business meeting in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, said little things can still put people on edge.
"Hardly a day goes by in Oklahoma where we don't hear something about the bombing," he said. "Just to hear a fire engine, or a loud noise, or a sonic boom from Tinker (Air Force Base near Oklahoma City), any one of those things can trigger an emotion."
As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, "I know what they're ready to go through, physically and mentally, and that brings anxiety for me," said Williams, who has since retired and is living near Houston. "You see more and more (9/11) documentaries. It brings back that sickness, that sick feeling you get in your gut because it makes you relive it, but I think that's part of the healing process."
Winchester, whose sister Margaret Clark was killed in the Murrah building bombing, said she has benefited emotionally from a memorial erected at the site of the blast — something victims in New York and Washington don't yet have.
"Any time something like that happens now, I think there is compassion from anyone in Oklahoma, particularly anyone directly involved in the bombing here," she said. "There's just a very personal side of knowing what those people are going through."
Kight, 72, said that despite the time that has passed, the pain has stuck with him.
"Our memories as we get older, they fade to a certain degree," Kight said, "but I've got a picture in my mind that never (goes away)."