Following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995, the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dispatched three structural engineers to monitor the site.
Mark McVay and two other civil engineers arrived the next day. The District sent a fourth structural engineer, Mark Burkholder, a couple of weeks later, to monitor the site so demolitions experts could implode the remaining structure.
The bomb that destroyed the building detonated just 15 feet from the building and caused the deaths of 168 people.
“After the blast, a lot of Good Samaritans rushed in to help,” said Mark McVay. “One of the people who responded was a nurse. She just arrived at the site and was trying to help victims when a piece of debris fell and hit her on the head.”
The nurse, Rebecca Anderson, went to the site after seeing news reports on television. She died in the hospital four days later. Though rescue workers sustained numerous injuries searching for and assisting survivors, she was the only one killed.
“The roof of the Murrah Building was made from a mixture of light concrete and insulation, and it just crumbled in the explosion,” McVay said. “There were large chunks of debris hanging from the skeleton of the building that could crush a car if they fell.”
The civil engineers used a transit, a surveying tool used to measure angles, and a telescope to watch for falling debris. They also advised rescue workers as they attempted to remove rubble during the search for survivors.
“We would go into an area and assess the structure and tell them, whether they could move a piece without endangering a survivor,” said McVay. “There were a lot of long days. I remember being exhausted.”
Burkholder was sent in as the building was being prepped it for demolition.
“The demolition experts were drilling holes to weaken the remaining structure and to place the charges,” Burkholder said. “They were concerned that as they weakened it, a slab might fall down. There are critical spots on the building that you don’t want to move and we checked them regularly.”
The engineers set up their transit under an American elm tree in what used to be a parking lot between the Murrah Building and the Journal Record Building. The explosion sent glass and shrapnel into the tree’s trunk and branches, and even destroyed some of the branches. Though the explosion ripped away a portion of the Journal Record Building’s roof, the elm remained.
“At that time it was just a tree,” said Burkholder. “But a lot of people in casual conversation were asking, ‘How did that tree survive?’”
The Survivor Tree has thrived in the years following the bombing. Though it represented a curious improbability at the time, today it is a symbol of a community’s resilience.
“You have to realize that businesses in the area were so damaged they just closed down. I had to go five blocks to buy a sandwich and the sandwich shop that was open had damage. I thought the entire area around the site would be demolished,” said McVay. “I never realized that tree would become a symbol for the survivors or the city, even though we were all commenting, ‘that’s one tough tree.’”
McVay and Burkholder both agreed that they were most affected by the destruction of the daycare located on the second floor of the building, and just above the blast zone.
“It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” said McVay. “It hit you in the gut when you see little kids’ toys scattered amongst the debris.”
Burkholder said he visited the site 10 years ago on a field trip with one of his children.
“When I first went back it kind of weighed on my mind,” he said. “It was tough. I can’t imagine the people who were doing the search and rescue operations.”
McVay said he is considering whether he will visit on the 20th anniversary.
“No, I haven’t been back. I can’t say that I haven’t had the chance, I just haven’t gone back,” he said. “I’d like to go sometime. I hadn’t planned on going on the anniversary but now that you mention it.”
The other structural engineers from the Tulsa District have moved on to other assignments. Lori Thomas now works at the Galveston District and John VanLeeuwen now works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.