The blast was heard up to 50 miles away but felt across the nation.
It was just after 9 a.m. on April 19, 1995, when the bomb went off outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was one of those events that seem to make the world stop turning. At the time, it was the worst terror attack on U.S. soil.
Lt. (now Capt.) Stephen Spall of the New York City Fire Department was driving home from his shift when he heard the news on the radio. He immediately called in to see if he needed to go back to work. The next day, he was on a plane to Oklahoma.
FEMA sent 11 urban search and rescue (US&R) teams from across the country to Oklahoma to help search the rubble for survivors and victims. Spall was on the team from New York City.
The 600 US&R members worked around the clock for two weeks carrying casualties from the rubble of the nine-story building. In all, they dug out 165 bodies, of the 168 who died, including more than a dozen children. “I saw them work so hard at the daycare center, even putting their own safety at risk,” said Spall in a recent interview with Yahoo News.
Timothy McVeigh, a militia sympathizer originally from upstate New York, was arrested and convicted in the bombing; he was executed in June 2001. “It did not matter who did it, but then when you found out it was an American, it hurt a little more in the midst of the cleanup,” Spall said.
Months before the bombing, Spall had been promoted to lieutenant. As a firefighter with a civil engineering degree, Spall had skills that were needed to make sure other rescuers could get in and out of the unstable building.
At one point, the team from New York was searching for Capt. Randolph Guzman. The 28-year-old Marine was working in the recruiting station in the building when half of it collapsed.
New York Police Sgt. Michael Curtin, a Marine reservist, spotted the scarlet stripe on Guzman’s dress blue pants, several levels down in the rubble. Spall was called in to devise a plan to recover Guzman’s body.
It took some time, and the rescuers had to work in shifts. Curtin refused to take a break and told Spall that he did not care if he was fired — he was not leaving without his fellow Marine. With every shift change, Spall switched Curtin to the working team. By the time they reached Guzman, all the rescuers were former Marines.
When Guzman’s body was brought out, covered with an American flag, the noisy disaster zone went silent. “Everybody stopped; the fire department and police department from New York handed him off to their brothers in the Marine Corps in Oklahoma City. It was phenomenal. I was honored to be there,” said Spall.
“The people of Oklahoma are iron-strong, and I got such a good feeling about America at that point,” said Spall. “Every generation is tested, and this showed how strong we were.”
A bigger test came on Sept. 11, 2001.
Spall was about an hour outside of New York City working at his second job when he heard about the attack at the World Trade Center. He immediately grabbed his firefighter gear and called his wife to say he was going in.
He recalls the drive as a nightmare. The bridges into Manhattan were closed, and it seemed to take forever to get there, even driving at 80 mph. He did not go back home for five days, and he continued to help with the cleanup at the World Trade Center until the following May.
Curtin, the dedicated Marine during the Oklahoma City bombing, died while attempting to rescue victims trapped in the World Trade Center, leaving behind his wife and three daughters.
Eight others on New York’s US&R team who helped pull victims from the Murrah Building lost their lives on 9/11. Spall is the only active New York firefighter left who responded to both disasters.
“I am well aware. And all of us that lived know how lucky we are,” Spall said. “It was not about me; I just happened to be one of the youngest, and that’s why I am still around,” he said.
Of the 2,977 victims killed on 9/11, 414 were first responders in New York City.
Spall still feels the emotional pull of Sept. 11, just as Oklahomans do about the Murrah Building bombing, 20 years later. And just as New York US&R team was there for Oklahoma, Oklahoma was there for New York.
The Oklahoma City Fire Department sent a team of 15 to assist with the recovery efforts after the attack on the World Trade Center. Many knew the nine US&R members who were killed, because all of them had also responded to the Murrah Building bombing six years earlier.
Spall is coming up on his 30th year on the job. He said he stays on because he wants to help train the next generation and make sure that they stand up to the tests they might face. As he looked back on this year’s anniversary, he said that he would be home with his family. His wife learned that she was pregnant with their third daughter while he was in Oklahoma City. She waited to tell him until he returned home, because she wanted him to be able to focus on the job.
Today, where the Murrah Building once sat, there is a field of 168 empty chairs. They represent the empty seats at the dinner tables of the victims’ families. The 19 smaller chairs represent the children killed. Visitors, family members, and survivors alike are meant to sit in the chairs as a way to honor the victims.
Spall has not had a chance to make it back to the Oklahoma City Memorial, but he hopes that one day he can honor Guzman by taking a seat in the chair that bears his name.