Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.
Twenty years ago this week, networks and newspapers carried coverage of the aftermath of what has come to be known as the Oklahoma City bombing. It was a time before cell-phone cameras, and very few individuals even carried cell phones at the time. Facebook and other social media had not been born yet, so the nation’s attention turned to the official news gathering agencies to provide the images and reactions.
The Great Bend Tribune was an evening paper at the time, so on April 19, an AP wire story was ready before the afternoon deadline, and on the front page. By the next day, reporters had caught their breath. Susan Thacker, long-time Great Bend Tribune staff writer, provided editorial reflection with her editorial, “So close to home.”
“It was only a matter of time.
“What happened in Oklahoma City on Wednesday may just as well have happened in Wichita or Topeka. A homemade car bomb flattened a federal office building, killing innocent men, women and children. The worst act of terrorism in our nation’s history hit close to home, forcing us to realize there is no 100 percent safe haven.”
The local angle
Jennifer Schartz, prior to becoming a Barton County commissioner, was a staff writer with the Great Bend Tribune. She worked with wire editor Randy Fogg on a story about Great Bend native Randy Moeder, an attorney working in an adjacent building to the Arthur P. Murrah federal building the morning of the bombing. He described what he witnessed that morning.
“ It knocked everyone to the floor,” Moeder said in a telephone interview the morning of April 20. “All the windows blew out and people were pretty hysterical.”
The people in his building evacuated. Still fearing more bombs would go off, they “Immediately got out of downtown. It was really chaotic...people going down one way streets the wrong way....”
The story also recounted the experience of Scott Bobbitt, Great Bend, who was in Oklahoma City near the bombing site moments before the blast. Like Moeder, he continued to move out of the city, and called his family to let them know he was okay when he reached a neighboring city. He continued to see the smoke for several miles.
Speak out when haters speak up
President Clinton addressed the nation in response to the bombing. He opened a national dialogue on the spreading of hate.
“When you hear people say things that they are legally entitled to say, if you think they’re outrageous, if you think they either explicitly or implicitly encourage violence and division...then your free speech and your responsibility requires you to speak up against it,” he said.
Later that week, Editor Chuck Smith, now deceased, lambasted the bombers with his editorial, “Hang them.”
“Once again we see why our nation should never have done away with public executions...When they coldly planned their attack, when they bought the ingredients and rented the van, when they drove to the scene and set the bomb, they gave up any right to life that decent citizens enjoy....”
and the following day, he wrote “Hate is here.”
“Within a few miles of Barton County are people who secretly meet to hate and to plan their reaction when they finally have enough people to attack our government. At a meeting of theirs a few years ago an unidentified “guest speaker” discussed the coming of the mongrel government and those attending casually talked of “Jew York” and the “Jewpreme Court.”
“This are is not only sprinkled with bigots who can’t stand seeing families of different races being friendly with each other, who cringe when they see anyone but a white man in a position of power--we are also confronted with organized groups of these people...
There is little that we can do to help the people in Oklahoma City now, but we must do something to stop the hate in our midst, or else Oklahoma City will only be the start.”
Catching the bombers
Meanwhile, FBI agents and Kansas police agencies had rounded up two suspects, who later were tried and found guilty. One was put to death in 2001, and the other continues to serve out 161 consecutive life sentences in a federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo.
On April 23, 1995, President Bill Clinton attended the Time of Healing prayer service, speaking at the event and expressing the nation’s grief. The act of terrorism killed 168 people.
Eventually, the building was demolished and the site became the Oklahoma City memorial, a national park, where even today, visitors leave flowers and pictures and tokens of remembrance of the victims. Editorial note: If you haven’t visited the memorial, put it on your list of places to visit at least once in your life. Be prepared to be moved, and remember to bring your tissues. Stop by the Survivor Tree. This tree is featured in the movie, “Elizabethtown.”
(A video of the Oklahoma City Memorial can be viewed on the Great Bend Tribune’s facebook page, posted on April 19, 2015.)