“He’s bringing out the babies. I looked at him and said, ‘David, where’s the rest of the baby?’ ”
The recollection of that dead baby and the 167 other victims are vivid images and memories Norman Yeingst has of April 19, 1995 — the day a homegrown terrorist bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the worst day of his more than four decades of service in emergency response and management. Now the installation emergency manager at Sheppard Air Force Base, he said he doesn’t want people to forget the tragedy and know that it can happen anywhere.
The homemade ammonium nitrate bomb that was detonated killed 168 people, including 19 children. More than 680 people were injured in the largest terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11.
Yeingst was a Department of Defense civil service employee at the Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., Fire Department in 1995, and worked part time as an emergency medical technician and ambulance driver for Emergency Medical Service Authority. He arrived at work at the ambulance service that morning, he recalled, and had just finished taking stock and prepping his ambulance — Unit 72 — in anticipation for that day’s runs.
He said he was chatting with paramedic Tiffany Smith in front of the station looking toward the OKC skyline while waiting for his partner to arrive. He had no idea he would make one run that day to the southwest corner of the Murrah Federal Building.
“I saw the yellow smoke go up and felt the blast wave,” he recalled of the explosion at 9:01 a.m. “When you see yellow smoke, that’s a chemical-based (explosion).”
Yeingst said that he ran inside and told a supervisor something had happened and that he was going to get in an ambulance and go to the scene. Smith accompanied him, as did paramedic Eric Huffman.
The trio positioned the ambulance on the southwest corner of the federal building — the bomb was detonated on the north side — and began triaging and treating people.
“You go into an automatic mode,” he said of how the team worked when they arrived downtown. “It was total confusion. The first hour of any event is like that, it’s total chaos.”
At one point during the confusion, someone confiscated his ambulance to transport the injured to area hospitals. It was more than seven hours before he saw his ambulance again.
Those controlling the incident evacuated the area for more than an hour when what was believed to be another explosive device was discovered. Yeingst said it was determined that it was an unarmed practice bomb from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The evacuation allowed emergency personnel to regroup and continue the search and rescue efforts as well as treating the injured.
Yeingst recalled the majority of injuries for those who survived were caused by flying glass and debris as well as blunt force trauma. The original count of those dead in the blast was 167, but a nurse who rushed into the building to help was killed when debris fell on her.
The death toll didn’t end with the nurse. The emergency manager said the aftermath and psychological toll on some who responded to the Murrah Federal Building led to substance abuse problems and suicide for those who responded that day.
Yeingst said he and others continued search and rescue efforts for about two weeks. The building was demolished out of safety concerns on May 23, 1995.
The emergency manager said sharing his story isn’t about him, but about the incident that seems to have been forgotten in the 19 years that have passed. People shouldn’t forget significant tragedies like the OKC bombing, 9/11, the Moore, Okla., tornadoes and many other events that have caused heartache and learning experiences.
Another act of domestic terrorism could happen, he said, even in Wichita Falls, a town that has several similarities to Oklahoma City.
“Remember what happened, and be aware,” he said of people knowing their surroundings and reporting suspicious activity. “It takes everybody looking out for each other.”
It took Yeingst five years to return to downtown Oklahoma City after the recovery mission was called off. For several years he and other responders would meet at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to remember and honor the dead, the injured, the rescuers and others.
His hope is others will remember them and that day, too.