Technological And Engineering Lessons From The Oklahoma City Bombing | KGOU

Technological And Engineering Lessons From The Oklahoma City Bombing

Apr 17, 2015

An American Red Cross volunteer hugs a victim after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995.
Credit Provided / American Red Cross

All this week we’ve looked back at the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building as the 20th anniversary approaches – from some of the lingering mental health issues, to a new play that tells survivors’ stories, to how the recovery from the tragedy sparked downtown Oklahoma City’s renaissance.

On April 19, four employees of the Oklahoma Historical Society were injured while working in the Journal Record building across the street from the Murrah building. They ended up in four different hospitals, with little to no way to coordinate communication. That’s one of the biggest challenges the American Red Cross faced that day, according to The Journal Record’s Kirby Lee Davis:

More than 30,000 mental health cases would eventually be attributed to the bombing. Between the pressures facing victims, families and responders, the burden soon overwhelmed the Red Cross staff.

"We had never done it on this massive a scale," said Brian Jensen, a former response coordinator with the organization who now directs services to armed forces in Oklahoma and Arkansas. "We had to bring in mental health workers from across the country."

That proved one of several mass-care response policy changes the international organization made with that event, Jensen told a recent NAIOP Tulsa gathering. New ways emerged to connect family members. New methods of around-the-clock care developed for evacuation crews and other responders. New connections developed with local providers as the magnitude of the problems surfaced. 

The Oklahoma City bombing was one of the last major disasters in an era before the widespread proliferation of the internet. Even by September 11, 2001 – just six years later – the way people used technology to communicate had rapidly evolved. But nobody had a smartphone on April 19, 1995.

“The Red Cross is trying to help now, and using technology,” said Journal Record managing editor Adam Brooks. “They have a smartphone app called Safe and Well. It helps people say, 'I'm looking for someone,' then the Red Cross tries find them. You can announce yourself. So it helps people connect, but it also protects their privacy."

The Oklahoma City Federal Building at 301 NW 6th Street
Credit Brent Fuchs / The Journal Record

Ease, Method Of Attack Leads To Building Design Improvements

Walking through the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum with a civil engineer responsible for large office buildings is an interesting experience. They’ll point out all sorts of ways the remains of the Murrah building were incorporated into the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, from exposed steel rebar to the foundation’s original concrete slab. They’re important historical artifacts, but not just because of the tragedy, but also because the way the attack was carried out changed architectural and engineering codes to prevent another.

“Parking is away from the building. There's no drop-off zone,” Brooks said. “And really importantly, the glass that they use is laminated so it won't shatter. And they've reinforced the frame so it won't fly around."

That shattered glass caused hundreds of injuries on April 19, 1995 – from minor lacerations to wounds requiring feet of stiches. On a larger scale, the truck bomb destroyed a center load-bearing beam that caused a progressive collapse of the northern third of the Murrah building. Carol Ross-Barney, a Chicago-based architect who designed the new Oklahoma City federal building, told The Journal Record’s Molly Fleming the new structure would be far shorter, in order to keep any future collapse confined to a small area and minimize loss of life:

“We’re not looking at it as a bunker,” [Ford and ZFI Principal Mike Thompson] said. “You want to keep the building up so people can get out.”

. . .

“The frames the glass goes in have to be more robust,” [Ross-Barney] said. “If you look at the curtain wall, it’s really robust. We have to make it strong enough to resist a blast.”

Thompson said increasing glass strength was another change seen after the Murrah bombing.

“There were much better analytical tools that were developed to model how windows and doors respond to different magnitude blasts,” he said.

Obviously terrorist attacks aren’t limited to the central United States, with similar attacks on U.S. government buildings in 1998 at embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Part of the 2002 attack on a Bali nightclub in Indonesia was also carried out with a truck bomb. Brooks said federal government buildings overseas are supposed to follow U.S. building codes as closely as possible.

“But commercial buildings here and overseas don't really have to follow the same standards,. And that's because they're not really seen as much of a target.”

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