Oklahoma City: 10 Years Later
Torment lingers in OK City
Congress left us high and dry, families say

By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
Published April 17, 2005

OKLAHOMA CITY -- What is the value of an American life claimed by terrorists? The answer, it turns out, depends on where and when you die.

Congress gave the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks generous federal compensation payments. Most ended up millionaires.

Congress gave the families of victims of the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing a two-year reprieve on their federal income taxes. Some ended up losing their homes.

The families of victims of future terrorist attacks may get nothing at all.

For all the nation's focus on homeland security and the probability that the United States could someday be struck again by terrorists, the vexing question of what would happen afterward--whom the government should try to make whole--remains unasked.

And the lesson of Oklahoma City remains unlearned.

"Everybody thought that all the people from the bombing were taken care of," said Tim Hearn, who quit a promising college basketball career to return home and care for his four younger siblings after his mother was killed in the bombing. "That's how the media made it look. But it wasn't nothing like that. We're living day by day."

The site where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood was long ago covered over by a striking memorial. A modernistic--and blast-resistant--new federal building stands defiantly across the way. The scarred downtown has been sleekly remade.

But 10 years after the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured 842 others, the shock waves are still radiating outward.

Families in poverty

Despite more than $40 million in donations that streamed into Oklahoma City in the days after the bombing to help the victims, more than 60 families of modest means were thrown into such poverty as a result of deaths or injuries that they must still rely on charities to meet their basic needs. Another 70 victims are still receiving psychiatric care.

Theirs are not the stories most likely to be heard this week as the nation momentarily returns its attention to this heartland city in solemn commemoration of the bombing. Instead, the ceremonies at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, titled a National Week of Hope, will focus on "stories of life moving forward."

It turns out, though, that while the Sept. 11 attacks were vastly more devastating in both human and economic terms, the Oklahoma City bombing was a more intimate crime. Officials here estimate that more than one-third of the 1 million people in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area knew someone who was killed or injured in the bombing.

The Oklahoma City attack also struck a more vulnerable population. While the World Trade Center towers in New York were gleaming icons of American prosperity occupied largely by office workers, executives and stockbrokers, the Murrah Federal Building was a dowdier destination, a place where workaday government employees served working-class constituents.

Yet in a state buffeted throughout its history by oil booms and economic busts and Dust Bowl droughts and killer tornadoes, deep religious faith and unblushing middle American values seem to have guided many Oklahoma City bombing victims to a quiet acceptance of their fates.

How else to explain the equanimity of a man like Hearn, 37, whose life was upended by the death of his mother, Castine Deveroux, 49, an employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I think the reason why we went through the situation is to get close to God," he said. "We had a lot of evil in our life. The devil was in this house a lot of times. But we always found something positive out of everything."

Concerned about what would happen to his siblings, Hearn gave up his basketball scholarship at the University of New Mexico to move back home to raise them.

Through the years, the family weathered the deterioration of their inner-city neighborhood and the struggle to hold on to their modest house on the small income Hearn managed to earn selling custom-made hats.

When the bills became overwhelming, Hearn sought help from one of the principal charities designated to help bombing victims, the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Red Cross, which assisted with some mortgage payments.

Hearn has accomplished his main goal--keeping his family together. But he's not sure how much longer he can provide for everyone. He believes, like many here, that Congress should compensate the Oklahoma City families just as it did the Sept. 11 families.

"I felt like my mom worked for the government and she died for the government and they should have stepped in and helped her kids," he said.

It is a faint hope.

Sept. 11 compensation

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress swiftly approved a $7 billion compensation package for the victims, whose families received an average of $2.1 million each. But every time the issue of compensation for other terrorism victims has been raised since then, lawmakers have ducked.

In 2002 and 2003, Congress declined to reopen the question of compensating victims of past terrorist attacks such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1998 bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

Lawmakers have refused to provide any budget funding for a terror victims compensation fund that Congress itself voted to establish.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted one hearing to examine a Bush administration proposal to set a standard compensation award for future victims of terrorism. Then it promptly dropped the matter.

Nor did Congress examine the critical conclusions of the man who oversaw the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington, D.C., attorney who was the fund's special master and decided the amount of each multimillion-dollar award, questioned the fairness of Congress' instruction to replicate the tort system and base compensation on the lifetime earning potential of each victim. That decision ensured that the richest survivors received the most.

"The system . . . fuels divisiveness among the very people you're trying to help," Feinberg said. "The fireman's widow comes to me and says, `My husband died a hero, why am I getting a million dollars less than the banker who shoveled pencils for Enron on the 103rd floor?'

"I think that if you do it again," Feinberg added, "I would urge a flat payment."

Congress' decision to compensate the Sept. 11 families "set an incredible precedent that will be very powerful if a large event like this happens in the future," said Lloyd Dixon, an analyst at the RAND Institute for Civil Justice in Santa Monica, Calif., who conducted a study of Sept. 11 compensation issues. "But the bottom line is: There really isn't any ongoing strategy at this point of how we're going to deal with compensation if this happens again."

The lingering equity questions have embittered many Oklahoma City families, who wonder why Congress left them to rely on charities or struggle with insurance claims. A few attempts by Oklahoma City families to file liability lawsuits--against the government and the manufacturer of the fertilizer used in the bomb--were dismissed before they ever got to trial.

"`You don't count,'" is how Randy Ledger, an Oklahoma City survivor, says he and other victims of the attack interpreted the snub from Congress. "`You're just a bunch of redneck hicks down in Oklahoma.'"

Ledger, 48, a custodian in the Murrah building, suffered multiple skull fractures, brain damage and hearing loss, and has two chunks of glass embedded so near his spine that surgeons are reluctant to operate. Other shards periodically still work their way out through his skin.

After 10 years, he is still battling the federal Department of Labor over a worker's compensation claim.

"There's just a lot of plain anger," Ledger said, "because we got shafted."

Not the same

The Oklahoma City bombing was no Sept. 11, of course. The singular horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a collective national desire to respond were among the principal motives cited by lawmakers as they sped the victim compensation package through Congress.

"Vengeful philanthropy" is the description Feinberg used to describe the compensation package.

"I completely agree with the victims in Oklahoma City, or the USS Cole, or the Kenya bombing: `Why not us?'" Feinberg said. "If you're looking at the victims, I don't know why not you. If you're looking at the impact of the tragedy on the American psyche, I think 9/11 stands in a very unique category with Pearl Harbor, the American Civil War and the assassination of President Kennedy."

There was also an urgent economic imperative: The nation's troubled airline industry faced collapse under the potential weight of thousands of Sept. 11 lawsuits. Congress averted that crisis by offering victims generous compensation in exchange for their surrendering the right to sue the airlines.

"At the time, the entire economy of the United States was teetering on the brink," said Larry Stewart, a compensation expert and former president of Trial Lawyers Care, a national pro bono program set up to assist Sept. 11 victims. "In that mix there was also such an outpouring of sympathy for the victims that we were able to tag sympathy onto the airline rescue."

The Oklahoma City victims also lost out in Congress for reasons that had more to do with their political naivete and lack of clout than the merits of their claims.

Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, said victims of the Murrah building bombing did not think to seek federal compensation at the time of their loss. "It just never was a subject of discussion in the immediate aftermath of the bombing to make victims rich," Keating said.

Feinberg believes Oklahomans suffered because of their essential prairie stoicism--the same "Oklahoma spirit" for which they were lauded in the aftermath of the bombing, when Oklahomans demonstrated extraordinary decency, humility and bootstrap resiliency.

"I really do think that the character of Oklahoma is different than the character of New York," Feinberg said. "New Yorkers are in your face. We want compensation for something that wasn't our fault. But Oklahomans thought, `Hey, we run risks for the last hundred years out here. There's always something. Life is filled with misfortune.'"

Lobbying for equal treatment

Kathleen Treanor was one victim who didn't accept her fate. Treanor lost her 4-year-old daughter, Ashley, and both of her in-laws, who had taken the child with them on what was to have been an ordinary visit to the Social Security office inside the Murrah building.

After the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund was created, Treanor, 41, formed a group called Fairness for OKC to lobby for equal treatment for Oklahoma City families.

"Why did they single out one terrorism event and not take care of all terrorism events?" Treanor said. "Honestly, if you think about it, isn't the United States more culpable for the homegrown terrorists than for the outside terrorists?"

But Treanor got nowhere. Her calls to the offices of Oklahoma's senators and representatives were shunted off to junior aides. The news media failed to notice.

And when she signed up with a lawyer from St. Louis who came calling, promising to pull strings in Washington in exchange for 25 percent of any compensation Oklahoma City families might receive, it was the coup de grace. Skirmishing over the fees for the trial lawyers eventually scuttled Senate discussions of compensation for Oklahoma City victims, and the matter died.

The St. Louis lawyer, Charles Polk, was indicted last month on 23 federal counts of bank fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and theft from his legal clients. The charges include Polk's Oklahoma City scheme.

Some $18 million of all the charitable funds donated to Oklahoma City victims remain, including enough money to fulfill a promise to provide a college education for each of the 219 children who lost one or both parents in the bombing.

Most of the rest was distributed directly to bombing victims like the Hearn family, whose cases were assessed by a committee of charities that weighed each individual request for help.

Early on, local officials responsible for distributing the funds made a strategic--and controversial--decision not to try to compensate every victim individually. Instead, the goal was to provide temporary assistance to get those most severely stricken back on their feet and hold the rest of the money in trust for longer-term medical and psychological needs.

But choosing that approach over lump-sum distributions meant that bombing victims with some means had to rely on their own resources to get by, a decision that angered many.

"The perception of people unfortunately is that you need to give people money and that money will make them feel better," said Nancy Anthony, executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, the city's umbrella charity.

"Well, it probably does make them feel better. But heroin makes them feel better for a short time too. . . . But it's the services that really help them go forward. That's what we really focused on: What services do we need to put in place for people to help them begin to turn their lives around and go forward?"