April 19, 2022

The Oklahoma City Bombing

The Oklahoma City Bombing

April 19, 1995. Timothy McVeigh bombs the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.


Cold Open

It’s morning on April 19th, 1993 in the Mount Carmel Compound outside of Waco, Texas.

David Thibodeau, a member of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians, stares out the window and listens to the heavy winds rattle the wooden walls of the building.

Thibodeau is terrified and exhausted.

He and the Branch Davidians are engaged in a 51 days standoff with the federal government. The clash began when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms arrived with a warrant to search the compound for illegal weapons.

A gunfight ensued, killing four government agents and six Davidians. 

Now the government has surrounded the compound, and negotiations have been tense. But as Thibodeau looks outside today, he knows the standoff is about to come to an end.

Thibodeau sees modified tanks rolling toward the compound. He listens as an FBI negotiator on a loudspeaker tells the Branch Davidians that this is their last chance to surrender. But Thibodeau knows their leader, David Koresh, won’t stand down, and he fears the worst.

Then at that moment, tear gas canisters shatter the windows, and roll across the floor. Thibodeau covers his face as best he can, but the tear gas is choking him, and his eyes are burning.

Then Thibodeau feels a blast of heat on his face as the room catches fire. He doesn't know if the government started the fire or if the Davidians did. But he doesn't have time to think about it.

Thibodeau is afraid the building will crumble around him. So he runs through the flames and heads for the exit.

He rushes past a burning staircase just as it collapses. And he hears the screams of people upstairs, trapped on the second floor. But he can't help them. He has no choice but to keep running.

He stumbles outside, and falls to the ground, coughing and gasping for air.

As he crawls away from the burning compound buildings, Thibodeau is safe. But not everyone will be so lucky. By the end of the siege, nearly 80 people will die, including more than 20 children. Only 9 Branch Davidians will survive.

After the initial shootout with the Branch Davidians, the government surrounded the compound and called for the people inside to evacuate the building, but David Koresh, the religious group's leader, refused. Finally, after nearly two months, federal agents got the order to force the Davidians out with tear gas.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the government claims they gave the Davidians ample warning. They also argue that the Davidians themselves lit the fires inside the compound that took the lives of dozens of people. But not everyone agrees.

On April 19th, 1993, Timothy McVeigh watched the events in Waco unfold on television. McVeigh, whose distrust of the federal government started at a young age, will come to see the raid in Waco as a personal call to action. And on the two-year anniversary of the Waco siege, McVeigh will engage in one of the deadliest acts of domestic terrorism in American history, when he bombs the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19th, 1995.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 19: The Oklahoma City Bombing.

Act One: McVeigh’s anti-government feelings grow

It’s May 1993 in Kingman, Arizona.

Twenty-five-year-old Timothy McVeigh sits at a kitchen table at his friend’s house reading about Waco in an extreme, right-wing magazine. McVeigh’s blood boils. He spends every hour of every day delving into conspiracy theories about Waco. And the more he reads, the angrier he gets. McVeigh’s friend, Michael Fortier, can see that McVeigh is livid. The two men know each other well.

They first met in the army and bonded over their extreme views on gun rights and their shared belief that the government they served had become a bully to people all over the world. Since they left the army in 1991, Fortier has allowed McVeigh to live with him and his wife from time to time. Fortier has got to know McVeigh well, well enough to know that when he is worked up like he is now, a rant is forthcoming.

And sure enough, when Fortier walks into the room, McVeigh throws down his magazine and launches into his tirade. McVeigh says Waco isn’t a unique incident. He brings up the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho. There, the government shot an unarmed man and killed his wife and son. McVeigh says it's only a matter of time before the government does this again; unless someone does something to stop them. Fortier doesn’t disagree, but he thinks McViegh’s just blowing off steam.

For a while, it looks like Fortier might be right. McVeigh spends much of 1993 the way he always does: traveling the country, attending gun shows, and selling firearms and merchandise. But for McVeigh, the money isn’t the main draw. On the gun show circuit, McVeigh has found a small group of like-minded people whom he calls his “fellow patriots.” McVeigh especially likes talking to Roger Moore, a wealthy retired businessman who now sells “exotic” ammunition.

McVeigh’s conversations with Moore often turn conspiratorial. They discuss the rise of what they call the New World Order, a shadowy authoritarian one-world government that they believe will soon destroy individual freedom. Eventually, the two men strike up a friendship. And Moore invites McVeigh to his sprawling ranch in Arkansas, where he’s amassed a trove of weapons that could be used in the fight against the New World Order. But McVeigh is more concerned about a different enemy: the United States Government.

Throughout the spring of 1993, McVeigh attends more gun shows, and he starts to talk more openly about using some of his heavy-duty firepower to attack federal agents, specifically those “bastards at the ATF”, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, one of the arms of the federal government that is most responsible for the Waco siege. By the summer, McVeigh is fixated on seeking retribution for Waco. His anger becomes so extreme and overt that it starts to make Roger Moore uncomfortable.

Moore comes to these gun shows to sell ammunition and make money. And he feels McVeigh’s ranting about killing federal agents is bad for business. And in September, the growing tension between the two men reaches a peak at a gun show in Las Vegas. There, Moore catches McVeigh standing at his table, spouting off about Waco to a police officer. After the officer leaves, Moore chides McVeigh, and things quickly devolve into a shouting match. A representative from the gun show breaks the two men up, and McVeigh is told he’s no longer welcome on the floor.

McVeigh decides that Moore, and the rest of the gun show crowd, are not “true patriots”. Instead, he comes to believe they’re nothing but phonies. So by early 1994, McVeigh resolves to take real action; even if he has to do it alone.

Feeling angry and isolated, McVeigh builds his first bombs. The explosives are small at first, but McVeigh is experimenting and honing his skills. Soon, he begins searching for potential large-scale federal targets. But he keeps his plans a secret from everyone, including his friend Michael Fortier.

But McVeigh tells himself all manner of stories. In his mind, he crafts a hero’s narrative; a fiction in which he is no different than the American revolutionaries who stood up to the tyranny of King George. Later, he’ll imply that he’s no different than Luke Skywalker who fought in Star Warsto bring down the Deathstar. McVeigh convinces himself that if he strikes a blow against tyranny, everyday Americans will rally to his cause.

By the fall of 1994, McVeigh decides he’s nearly ready to fire his opening salvo against the federal government. He hasn’t yet settled on a target, but he knows he’ll need money to fund his project. So McVeigh will turn again to Roger Moore, a man he once considered a patriot and friend. But he won’t ask Moore for support. Instead, he’ll take what he needs by force.

Act Two: McVeigh designs his plan; builds his bomb

It’s early on November 5th, 1994 at Roger Moore’s ranch in Arkansas.

Moore walks into the kitchen, yawning. As he pours himself a glass of orange juice, he does his best to fight off the sleep. Moore isn’t a morning person. Still, every day, he forces himself to get up early and feed the horses, something he still needs to do this morning. So after he finishes his drink, he shakes himself awake and heads outside.

As Moore approaches the barn, he stops cold when he hears a voice behind him say “lay on the ground”. Moore turns to see a masked man in camouflage aiming a pistol-grip shotgun directly at him. Without blinking, Moore hits the dirt. The gunman tells him to crawl back into the house, and Moore obeys.

Once inside, the gunman binds Moore’s hands and ankles and throws a coat over his head. In the darkness, Moore listens as the gunman makes several trips in and out of the house. Finally, the gunman pulls the coat off his head and warns Moore not to follow him. The gunman flees with cash, valuables, and a collection of weapons that includes pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

Later that day, Moore files a police report. Moore says he doesn’t know for sure who’s responsible but there’s only one person who might want to rob him: Timothy McVeigh. Moore says the gunman was much shorter than McVeigh, who stands over six feet tall, but he’s convinced that the perpetrator must have been working at the direction of McVeigh.

And Moore is right. Terry Nichols, one of McVeigh’s friends from his army days, pulled off the heist at McVeigh’s request. Like Michael Fortier, Nichols shares many of McVeigh’s anti-government beliefs. And also like Fortier, Nichols has often provided a home for McVeigh, welcoming his old army buddy at his family farm in Kansas. But as close as they are, Nichols will later claim he was in the dark as to McVeigh’s true intentions. Nichols will assert that he had no idea McVeigh intended to use the money he stole to commit an act of domestic terrorism.

Still, by November of 1994, McVeigh’s plan is clear; at least to him. After the Moore robbery, McVeigh purchases the materials he needs in order to strike at the federal government. He’s identified what he believes is the perfect weapon: A rental truck turned into a bomb, powerful enough to bring down a building. 

As Christmas of 1994 approaches, McVeigh lets Fortier in on his plan. The two men drive to Oklahoma City where McVeigh cruises by the Alfred P. Murrah Building.

McVeigh tells Fortier that the Murrah Building has everything he’s looking for in a target: it houses offices for federal agencies including the ATF. Additionally, he believes the structure’s glass front will easily shatter from the power of the explosion. And crucially, enough people work at the Murrah Building to generate a large body count. McVeigh insists a high death toll is necessary to send a strong message.

McVeigh does not tell Fortier that the Murrah Building has a popular daycare center inside. McVeigh will later claim he had no idea the daycare existed, but many will find that impossible to believe.

Fortier tells McVeigh outright that his plan is “stupid.” Not long after their trip to Oklahoma, McVeigh asks Fortier to help him build his bomb, and Fortier refuses. Furious, McVeigh accuses Fortier of being “domesticated” by his wife. And soon, the two men have a falling out and they go their separate ways. 

Without Fortier by his side, McVeigh calls on Terry Nichols for more help. Nichols will later claim he was reluctant, saying that the only reason he went along with the plan is because McVeigh threatened his family. Regardless of the truth, what’s clear is that Nichols plays a central role. In April of 1995, Nichols gets in his vehicle and follows McVeigh to Oklahoma City. Once there, McVeigh parks the getaway car at the end of an alley, removes the license plate, then rides back to Kansas with Nichols.

Later that month, on April 18th, 1995, McVeigh rents a Ryder truck and drives it to a storage unit near Herington, Kansas where he’s amassed his bomb-making materials. Terry Nichols is supposed to meet him there, but he’s nowhere to be found.

McVeigh starts loading the truck on his own, furious that his friend is absent. But eventually, Nichols does arrive. He tells McVeigh they should take a minute to talk things over, but McVeigh’s not interested. He orders Nichols to get to work.

Once the truck is loaded, Nichols gets in his vehicle and follows McVeigh to a nearby lake. From this remote location, McVeigh starts the process of mixing nitromethane fluid with ammonium nitrate fertilizer in fifty-five-gallon drums, while Nichols measures out the amount of fuel oil needed for the bomb. After several hours, the drums are ready and McVeigh and Nichols’ work is done.

McVeigh climbs into the truck and drives to a motel parking lot where he’ll spend the night. The next morning, he’ll wake up and set out for Oklahoma City where he’ll put his horrific plan into motion.

Act Three: The Bombing

It’s 8:50 AM on April 19th, 1995 in Oklahoma City; two years after the Waco raid.

McVeigh sits at a red light, calm and focused. He puts in a set of earplugs, and the outside world falls silent. The light turns green. McVeigh drives the Ryder truck to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and parks in a delivery zone. He gets out, walks to the back of the truck, and after lighting the fuses, he walks away from the scene.

As McVeigh disappears behind a nearby YWCA building, he picks up his pace. For a moment, he worries his bomb isn’t going to detonate. But then, just after 9:00 AM, he hears a deafening explosion that momentarily lifts him off the ground. Even through his earplugs, he can hear the shattering glass, twisting metal, and falling debris.

McVeigh makes it to his getaway car and drives off. He gives little thought to the people inside the Murrah Building. Instead, he tells himself that this is exactly what the Feds did in Waco, and they deserve it.

Less than two hours later, McVeigh drives down the highway about 60 miles north of Oklahoma City. But at 10:20 AM, a State Trooper pulls him over for driving without a license plate. McVeigh is armed, but as he steps out of the car, he doesn’t shoot or resist arrest. He’ll later say he has no problem with state police, only federal agents. And though he’s arrested for a minor offense, it doesn’t take the police long to realize McVeigh is the Oklahoma City Bomber.

At trial, McVeigh is accused of killing 168 people, including 8 federal agents and 19 children. During the proceedings, his friend Michael Fortier testifies against him. Fortier is sentenced to twelve years in prison and fined $200,000 for failing to warn authorities of McVeigh’s plan. Terry Nichols is found guilty on one count of conspiracy and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter. He is sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Then on June 2nd, 1997, Timothy McVeigh is found guilty on eleven counts, including for the first-degree murder of eight federal agents. On June 11th, 2001, McVeigh is executed by lethal injection. His is the first federal death penalty carried out since 1963.

Despite his hopes, McVeigh’s actions did not rally everyday Americans to his cause or make him a hero in a fight against tyranny. Instead, the country scorned his name and mourned with the people of Oklahoma City. In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy, the local and national community banded together and moved forward. The former site of the Murrah Building is now home to a memorial that receives visitors from all over the country. It stands as a place of honor and remembrance for the lives lost in the tragedy that occurred on April 19th, 1995.


Next on History Daily. April 20th, 1862. French biologist Louis Pasteur invents a process of using heat to kill harmful bacteria and names it after himself “pasteurization”. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.