Oklahoma City Bombing: A Personal Reflection on a National Tragedy

OKC Bombing

Written by Pete Allen, Videographer for Feed the Children

Things sometimes affect us in ways we can never really predict. On April 19, 1995, I was in Durant, Oklahoma helping a food pantry give away a truckload of Feed the Children food boxes. With almost four years under my belt, I was a veteran of Feed the Children and I must admit I really loved my work.

Previously, I had been a television news man for the better part of a decade.The one thing I can tell you is the news business can make you a cynic.  I believed in nothing and I trusted little. And then one day by chance, I was watching television when I saw something that made me realize I needed a change. It was a Kodak commercial. Yes, a thirty second bit hawking the virtues of using that little yellow can of film in your camera. In the commercial, there was a father dancing with his daughter just after her wedding. There, in slow motion, was the culmination of a man’s hopes for his child; a happy life and Kodak 100 speed color film, 36 exposures. I remember sitting on the couch and thinking an ordinary person would be touched by such a thing but I felt nothing. It was in that exact moment I knew I had to make a change.  In just a few short weeks, I found myself at the door of Feed the Children and my twenty-six year odyssey as a humanitarian would begin.

I’m a photographer by title but working for FEED is really much, much more than just a job. It’s a way to help make the world a little better place by helping moms, dads and children who are facing hard times. During those four short years before the Oklahoma City Bombing, I had traveled all across our great country and around the world. Through my work of documenting desperation and hope in ordinary people, I had found that part of myself I had lost; my compassion for my fellow man. I had seen the results of disaster and poverty. I witnessed the uplifting of children and the generosity of people. But on April 19, 1995, I witnessed something very different. I witnessed the very worst and the very best of my fellow human beings. And to this day, it affects me.

I had been out visiting a family that morning. They were in the midst of a family crisis and were having difficulty putting three square meals on the table for their children. Fortunately, I was working for a company that just so happened to provide food to the food pantry in Durant. Funny how life works. After a very nice social moment with the family where we were able to give them a helping hand I drove back to the food pantry. When I got there the pantry operator was very upset. We went to her office and there was a small television on her desk and on it was the smoking image of a building torn apart. I couldn’t believe what I saw. My first thought was it must have been a gas explosion. Then I learned along with the rest of our state and our country just how devastating that smoking pile of rubble was. The people we lost. The children we lost. I say we because I believe we as a country collectively wept that day right alongside the mothers, and fathers and loved ones of those killed in that terrible moment.

As I drove back to the city I was struck by something so simple; headlights. Not wanting to sound like an old man but way back then headlights on most cars were something you had to turn on and off manually. It was a more analog world. Mile after mile, I passed oncoming cars with their headlights on. It was like I was witnessing the longest funeral procession in history and I suppose I was. After getting back to the office, I was immediately thrown into the work of bringing whatever help Feed the Children could bring in whatever way we could. We brought food, clothing, and personal care supplies for the emergency teams from as far away as California who had dropped everything and come to our city to help us. We even had dog food and bowls for the rescue dogs. If something was needed we did our level best to get it for them. I remember we found and flew in a portable pneumatic re-bar cutter because the rescue team needed it to cut apart the remains of the building without using cutting torches. Gloves, shovels, kneepads and a thousand other things. Tooth brushes, undergarments and work boots were just a tiny fraction of the things the brave rescue persons needed when they left everything behind and came rushing from all corners of the country to save lives. I worked on site everyday alongside my fellow Feed the Children team members doing what we could to provide comfort to the emergency personnel. It was an awful time. It was an uplifting time. Just being there watching those men and women struggle to find just one sign of life was heart wrenching. In the weeks and months afterwards we continued our work. We helped the families of those left behind. We cried with them and supported them in their grief. We got to know them personally and they became friends. Our work continued for several years after as the harshness of that day slowly began to soften.

Then, the Oklahoma City National Memorial opened. I have tried several times to go and see the memorial but I have never been able to walk through it completely. I have abandoned the idea of viewing it all. The memories of that day are still too strong within me to allow it.

Things sometimes affect us in ways  we can never really predict. For me, it was a silly commercial about a roll of film that led me to a job where I could be part of a team that brings help and compassion to the world. And sometimes, it lets me bring help and compassion to my neighbors.