Oklahoma City Bombing: Facts, Timeline & Aftermath

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995 was one of the most devastating attacks in U.S. history. In this lesson, we'll talk about this event and see what it meant to Americans at that time.

The Oklahoma City Bombing

Compared to many places in the world, the United States is relatively peaceful. The nation was able to come together after the American Revolution, it has experienced a single civil war, and has a functioning democracy which has provided non-violent outlets for dissenting voices to be heard. So, large-scale violence has not generally been a major concern. However, that makes isolated and extreme incidents all the more devastating. One of the most violent events in American history was the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995. Caused by an American radical named Timothy McVeigh, it is still the worst act of homegrown terrorism in America's relatively peaceful history.

The federal building in Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City Bombing

The Bombing

On the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a rented Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the heart of Oklahoma City. That truck contained over 5,000 pounds of homemade explosives. McVeigh lighted the timed fuses for the bombs and took off in his getaway car. At exactly 9:02 AM, the bombs detonated, immediately destroying about a third of the 9-story federal building and launching rubble across the city. Nearby cars were incinerated and approximately 300 buildings in the vicinity were severely damaged. Worst of all, 168 people were killed. Nineteen of the victims were children who were in the building's daycare.

Reaction and Investigation

When McVeigh attacked the federal building, the United States was not actively at war. So, the attack caught everyone completely by surprise. Many people in the city at that time later claimed that they thought there had been an explosion from a gas leak. However, it quickly became clear that this was an intentional act of violence. But who had done it, and why? In 1993, just two years earlier, a group of radical terrorists from the Middle East had detonated a similar bomb outside the World Trade Center in New York City. So, there were some who assumed that this had to be the work of a similar foreign terrorist cell. The government started clearing the rubble and launched a massive investigation.

The day after the bombing, federal investigators found a major clue: the rear axle of the Ryder truck that had contained the explosives. On that axle they found a vehicle identification number, which led them to a body shop in Junction City, Kansas. There, FBI agents learned about the man who had rented the van and put together a composite sketch. After searching the entire town, some hotel employees recognized the man in the picture and gave police the name of Timothy McVeigh.

Composite sketch and mugshot of McVeigh

So, who was McVeigh? He was a decorated Army veteran and a security guard who had developed a radical hatred of the federal government. McVeigh believed that the federal government was oppressing the liberties of the American people. These opinions became extreme after a shootout occurred between the federal government and a radical religious group in Waco, Texas on April 19 of 1993. During the shootout, the compound under siege caught fire, and 76 men, women, and children were killed. While the government claimed that the leaders of the radical sect had set the fire, some believed that the government was responsible. McVeigh was among those who supported this view, and it convinced him of the need for a revolution. The federal building in Oklahoma City housed offices for 14 separate government agencies; to McVeigh, attacking this building was a direct attack on the federal government and was meant to spark a revolution.

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