Chapter II
The Immediate Crisis Response

A Summary of Victims' Needs During the Immediate Crisis

The immediate response to the bombing encompassed the search-and-recovery effort that lasted through May 4 and centered upon the need for information about the identity and status of victims and emergency support. The following victims' needs quickly became evident:

  • A crisis response plan for identifying and assisting victims of criminal incidents causing mass casualties that is linked to an overall system for responding to acts of terrorism.

  • A mechanism for providing information to families about their loved ones and to provide comfort and protection from the media.

  • A system for gathering pertinent information from families necessary to facilitate the identification of remains, for relaying information about the remains of a loved one, and for providing counseling services during the process of recovering and identifying remains.

  • A system of death notification that ensures that victims receive information about their loved ones before the media broadcast this information and that takes into consideration the wishes of the family and the safety and care of family members once they receive notification.

  • Mental health care service providers with experience and training in working with victims, their families, and others impacted by mass-casualty crimes.

  • Awareness of financial, technical assistance, and training resources for meeting the needs of terrorism victims.

  • A system for providing for first responders' physical and emotional needs, including regular communication with family members.

The Initial Incident Response

Within minutes of the blast, a massive search-and-rescue effort commenced that included fire, emergency, medical, and law enforcement personnel, as well as a large number of citizens. Citizens and emergency personnel joined together and entered the bombed structure, forming human chains to locate and remove trapped survivors and victims. In fact, throughout this rescue effort, the large outpouring of citizens and agency volunteers astonished veteran rescue workers.

The strong State and Federal Government presence in Oklahoma City helped the response-and-rescue effort. For example, immediately following the explosion, the Oklahoma City Fire Department set up an Incident Command System (ICS) to manage the intensive search-and-rescue mission and massive influx of federal, state, local, and voluntary agency resources (Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, 1996). Also, working together, the local police department, the county sheriff, and state and federal agencies handled traffic and security. By 9:25 a.m., 23 minutes after the blast, the State Emergency Operations Center was operational and included representatives from the state departments of public safety, human services, military, health, and education. Soon joining these agencies were the National Weather Service, the Civil Air Patrol, and the American Red Cross (ARC).

Within an hour and a half of the bombing, President Clinton announced the signing of Emergency Declaration FEMA-3113-EM-OK under title V provisions of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act [PL 93-288]. This signing and declaration of emergency gave the Federal Government primary responsibility to respond to the disaster and authorized full reimbursement for all eligible response missions performed by state and local government.

President Clinton's declaration that Oklahoma City was a federal disaster area automatically triggered ARC to act as the lead agency in providing food, shelter, first aid, relief supplies, and welfare information. Approximately 665 rescue team members were sent immediately by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Oklahoma City.

The swift response in Oklahoma City of public and private agencies at all levels of government demonstrated how critical it is for those agencies to work collaboratively in responding to the crisis created by a mass-casualty incident. This type of planning and coordination is just as critical to identifying and meeting the needs of victims.

Victim Support Services

The needs of victims and family members immediately following the bombing were acute and urgent. Some of the support services that were mobilized to assist victims came in the form of the Compassion Center (later becoming Project Heartland), the Resource Coordination Committee (Unmet Needs Committee), and crisis intervention.

Compassion Center

The Compassion Center (the Center), a family assistance center, was operational by 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of the bombing. The Center, initially set up by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Oklahoma Funeral Directors Association, provided approximately 20 funeral directors to greet families and gather predeath and antemortem information (American Psychological Association, July 1997). By the next day, April 20, the American Red Cross was operating the Center serving victims and families. The Center also was supported by the hundreds of local clergy, police and military chaplains, and mental health professionals from across the Nation. Other agencies sharing support responsibilities for the Center included the county sheriff's office, the Oklahoma National Guard, the Salvation Army, Tinker Air Force Base, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Center was located in the First Christian Church in downtown Oklahoma City because of its proximity to the bombing site, the size and floor plan of the building, and adequate parking for about 1,200 vehicles.1

Immediately, the Compassion Center put policies in place to limit media intrusion upon those who wanted privacy, while allowing access to the survivors and family members who wanted to speak with the press. Mental health care and ARC public affairs specialists briefed individuals before interviews, escorted them to interviews, and debriefed them afterward to reduce the possibility of retraumatization.

The Center was a place to exchange information. First, the families themselves provided detailed information, photographs, and medical/dental records to identify loved ones who were still missing. Second, as a humanitarian effort, the Center provided information about emergency services, mental health counseling, security, and comfort for victims and surviving family members. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and a liaison from the Governor of Oklahoma provided twice daily updates to the victims' families on the rescue-and-recovery efforts. The "family room" set up in the Center protected relatives from the additional trauma of media intrusions. The family room also offered special areas where people could receive messages, eat meals, and use donated long-distance phone services.

During its 16 days of operation, the Center served thousands of victims, survivors, family members, and rescue workers seeking news, information, and solace. Daily, some 400 mental health professionals participated in support, death notification, and staffing mental health services at the Center (Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, 1996). Within 48 hours, a need for a child mental health specialist on the death notification teams was recognized. Following the death notification, parents and other family members often had questions about what to tell their children, how children at various ages might react, and how to manage their own grief in front of their children (American Psychological Association, July 1997).

As stress and work took their toll on rescue personnel, crisis intervention on their behalf became necessary. When rescue workers switched from saving lives to retrieving bodies and body parts, separate staff were provided to offer stress management services. More than 12,000 volunteer and professional rescue personnel were involved in the rescue operation. Compassion Center staff also recognized that many media representatives were becoming secondary victims experiencing long work hours, competing intensely for stories, and undergoing prolonged exposure to the bomb site, shattered survivors, and stressed rescuers.

When the Center closed, Governor Frank Keating named the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) as the lead agency to coordinate and conduct mental health crisis response services. The Center became Project Heartland on May 15, 1995, and was supported by grants from FEMA and the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). Project Heartland continued to provide an extensive array of victim services.

Resource Coordination Committee (Unmet Needs Committee)

Recognizing the need for an umbrella group that would pool information and help coordinate funding for victim services, approximately 20 agencies convened in May 1995. Known both as the Resource Coordination Committee and the Unmet Needs Committee, the group quickly grew to encompass 80 agencies. Representatives met weekly to determine and help fill unmet victim needs stemming from the bombing. This group continues to meet 5 years later to review requests from victims, survivors, family members, and disaster workers and allocates a decreasing supply of funds.

From its beginning, the Committee focused on filling service gaps—many services concerned financial and leave benefits and the many needs created by the bombing that insurance did not cover including shattered windshields, car repairs, babysitter costs for children whose center was destroyed, and eyeglasses. In response to a flood of inquiries about access to benefits and legal entitlements, the Attorney Liaison from the U.S. Attorney's Office worked closely with the Committee and numerous victims throughout the first year to find attorneys who could provide pro bono legal counseling and troubleshoot benefit problems with agency bureaucracies.

Crisis Intervention

Federal authorities immediately recognized the bombing's traumatic impact on surviving victims, family members, rescue workers, allied professionals, and the community-at-large. By the end of the first day, April 19, 1995, OVC placed a nine-member crisis intervention team on the ground in Oklahoma to work with both the victims and the people responding to the disaster. The team, composed of professionals from across the country, met with victims and trained law enforcement officials, emergency services personnel, clergy, medical professionals, and school officials.2 Other Federal and State agencies sent personnel to provide assistance.

Death Notification and Recovery of Remains

The difficulty in recovering and positively identifying the bodies of the bombing victims delayed official death notifications to the families. In addition, the need to collect evidence from the bodies and conduct autopsies meant that families experienced further delays in the release of the remains and the ability to proceed with funerals. These delays were unavoidable and not unique to the Oklahoma City bombing case, but it was critical that victims' families received adequate explanations for delays in notification and the release of bodies, including information about the legal requirement to conduct autopsies in all homicide cases. When some families objected to the autopsy process, counselors explained the importance of the autopsy in collecting important evidence and in answering any questions families may have in the future about the cause of death. In addition, as many surviving family members looked back later, they regretted taking the advice of several officials who recommended that they not view the bodies of their loved ones.

Quote from American Psychological AssociationFor some families, the fact that the official death notifications took place at the Compassion Center created an additional hardship. Some families indicated they would have preferred to be notified in their homes. Other families objected to the practice of designating funeral home directors to notify families rather than using clergy to handle this responsibility. The presence of funeral home directors at the Compassion Center and priests arriving to give last rites was disconcerting to many family members who were still waiting for news of their loved ones. As in other mass-casualty events where significant destruction to the bodies of victims happens, unidentified or "common" body tissue results. In the case of Oklahoma City, families waited until December 1999 for a memorial service and interment of the common tissue due to a judicial order delaying burial until attorneys settled legal evidence questions and until the victims had the opportunity to voice their intentions about how and where the remains were to be buried.3

Donations of Services and Supplies

In the aftermath of the bombing, the donations for victims and rescue workers from organizations and individuals were overwhelming. Donations poured in from fellow Oklahomans and from citizens across the Nation. Citizens donated approximately $14 million to the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund. Storage and inventory control of the massive amounts of contributions left at drop-off locations became a major logistical problem. Nearby streets were crowded with private cars, commercial tractor-trailers, pickup trucks, and other vehicles loaded with goods ranging from wheelbarrows to football helmets. ARC received $15 million for its relief work with the bombing victims (Kriner, April 20, 2000). Later, special purpose funds—such as the fund for victims' travel to Denver—also attracted generous contributions from private citizens, corporations, and a huge range of organizations, large and small.

The creation of the Murrah Fund by the state legislature was necessary to allow the Oklahoma Crime Victim Compensation Program to accept public and private donations that would assist the victims and provide additional flexibility to the program to pay lost wages and cover grief counseling for family members of the victims. In addition to using $129,363 in state funds to assist victims with medical and mental health expenses, funeral and burial costs, and lost wages, the compensation program received $100,000 in donated funds from the Iowa crime victim compensation program and supplemental federal grants totaling roughly $70,000 from OVC. In total, the special Murrah Fund received more than $300,000 in funding to help compensate the bombing victims.

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Responding to Terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyond October 2000