Steve Lewis: On the morning of April 19, 1995, an ex-Army solider named Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
A powerful bomb was inside the vehicle. It was made out of a deadly cocktail of fertilizer, racecar fuel, and other chemicals. McVeigh got out of the truck, locked the door, and headed toward his getaway car. He ignited one timed fuse and then another.
At precisely 9:02 a.m., the bomb exploded.
Within moments, the surrounding area looked like a war zone. A third of the Murrah Building had been reduced to rubble. The blast incinerated dozens of cars and damaged or destroyed more than 300 nearby buildings.
Just outside the city limits, FBI Special Agent Barry Black was sitting in his car tracking a fugitive, when he heard the explosion. Black switched on his radio and immediately heard fellow agents on the other end. Speculations of a gas main break or maybe a plane crash.
Switching channels, Black reported what he was hearing and seeing to his supervisor. Not long after that call to his boss, Black would be re-directed from his fugitive case to the site of the explosion.
Twenty-five years after the deadly bombing that took the lives of 168 people, now-retired Special Agent Barry Black provides us with his firsthand experience investigating the Oklahoma City case, known as OKBOMB, in this episode of Inside the FBI. You’ll hear the challenges he faced during the investigation and his perspective on how such a tragic event helped shape the FBI’s approach to investigating domestic terrorism today.
I’m Steve Lewis, and this is Inside the FBI.
Late that tragic April morning, Black linked up with fellow investigators and first responders at the Murrah Building to figure out what happened and assess the damage.
Barry Black: So, I arrived on scene. I got as close as I could without getting into the debris field and started doing what we’re trained to do, which is an initial assessment to try to determine if it was a bombing or in fact a plane crash or a gas main explosion. And of course the large crater and the debris field are immediate indications.
Lewis: Black’s experience as a special agent bomb technician came into play as soon as he had boots on the ground. That was going to be essential while he worked with evidence response teams to identify and collect critical pieces for fellow investigators.
The technology at the time played a major factor in how the evidence was collected and managed.
Black: There are a lot of moving parts that you have to consider. Again, technology then was not what it is today. So, nobody really had cell phones. So it took some time to have computers brought in, so we could just manage the volume of data we were expecting.
It’s management as it used to be before the digital age. So, before digital photography, this investigation incorporated 238,000 wet film photographs. Well, when you remembered seeing something, you had to be able to find it. So, again, information management is critical.
One of my jobs was to track evidence as it was sent, well, from the point of collection—who collected it, what zone it was in, made sure it got into the evidence system. And then as critical pieces were identified, it would be sent to the Laboratory. Once it gets to the FBI Laboratory, it goes to disparate sections, whether it’s toolmarks, or fingerprints, or hairs and fibers. So, we had to track where it was in that analysis process. So, as those reports came in, we could send the reports out to the people that needed them to kind of make sense for the case.
So just managing all the information, just the sheer volume of information, was a real undertaking.
Lewis: One of the crucial pieces of evidence that Black found early on in the investigation was a badly damaged rear axle. He jotted down its vehicle information number on a piece of paper, which was used to trace the part to the Ryder rental truck used to detonate the bomb.
Employees at the auto body shop where the truck was rented helped the FBI put together the composite drawing of the man who rented the car. He used a fake name to rent the truck, but when agents showed the composite sketch around town, local hotel employees had his real name: Timothy McVeigh.
Black: And again, you look at the Boston [Marathon] bombing and how that information was publicized. We rely on the media and input from the public, of course. In the case of the Boston bombing, we had digital images, you know, of people of interest. That technology just didn’t exist in 1995. So we relied on a sketch artist. But we did publish those sketches, which generated thousands of leads, as to, you know, “I think I may know who that is.”
Lewis: In the end, Black and the OKBOMB task force conducted more than 28,000 interviews. They followed more than 43,000 investigative leads and collected nearly three-and-a-half tons of evidence.
Piecing together all this data, led to the charges that ultimately resulted in McVeigh’s conviction and execution and a prison sentence for his accomplice Terry Nichols.
Black: This was absolutely a group effort, you know, I was there doing my small part like everyone else. There were I think 1,400 people ultimately assigned to this case, worked I believe, 840 days. So it was a massive investigation with a lot of moving parts.
Lewis: The Oklahoma City bombing introduced a frightening new concept for the United States: homegrown terrorism.
Until the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the country hadn’t witnessed an event of this magnitude, let alone one carried out by American citizens. After the bombing, the FBI shifted its priorities. We expanded the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces nationwide and our programs at the Hazardous Devices School, which provide training to our federal, state, and local partners.
Black: The FBI does a great job of proactively intercepting information and preventing a lot of really horrific acts of terrorism, which is one of our focuses. The advent of the Joint Terrorism Task Force is a perfect example.
The FBI certifies all of the non-military bomb technicians in the country at the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School. So, the bomb techs work very closely with our state and local partners and include our military partners as well.
Lewis: Not only did the FBI start providing law enforcement bomb techs with clearances to share equipment and information with them, we also focused on ramping up our investigative technology and procuring more specialized equipment for the field.
Black: And because of the first World Trade Center attack and the attack here and subsequent events, the volume of specialized equipment we have available now in the field is much more readily available.
There was a bombing at the University of Oklahoma in 2005. We ended up using a special type of mass spectrometer that had never left our Lab before. One of our scientists flew it out. Now every field office has at least one. So, we’ve taken the lessons learned from these unfortunate events to ensure that our response is more rapid in the field.
Lewis: Although Black retired from the FBI in 2019, he’s continued to share the story of his involvement with the bombing case and task force.
Along with speaking engagements, Black leads tours with the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum’s First Person: Stories of Hope Program. Several items collected by FBI investigators during the case are on display at the museum. Black donated some of his own equipment and artifacts, like the hard hat he wore, his FBI field jacket, and the note with the VIN he wrote down from the truck’s rear axle. The museum, built on the former site of the Murrah Building, honors victims, survivors, and first responders affected by the bombing.
Black: Well this is a unique place. The FBI has partnered with this facility to make sure what happened here is remembered. We have engaged in an agreement where a lot of the displays, which still belong to the FBI, are available for the public to see. This is a beautifully done place, in my opinion, and it shows that there’s some resilience, and you can recover from even horrific events such as this.
Lewis: Along with donating his time and artifacts to the museum, Black’s firsthand experience has provided a unique perspective for the American public. He leaves behind a legacy that the FBI and the military, law enforcement, and first responders continue to grow from.
Thanks for joining me as we remember the Oklahoma City bombing 25 years later.
To see a photo of Special Agent Barry Black and to read more about his perspective on the OKBOMB case, visit fbi.gov/okc25.
This has been another production of Inside the FBI. I’m Steve Lewis from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks again for tuning in.