The forgotten role played by urban search and rescue after the Oklahoma City bombing

On the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols performed the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil before 9/11. The so-called Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building claimed the lives of 168 people – including 19 children – and injured more than 600 others.

In the aftermath of the attack, the FBI determined that McVeigh had packed a truck with nearly 5,000 pounds explosives and targeted the federal building because it was full of government employees. Shortly after the rest of the country received news of the attack, President Bill Clinton phoned Oklahoma City Governor Frank Keating and offered to help him with assets and reinforcements.

“I don’t know who did it or what happened, but we need help because the OKC fire department and the police department were barely 1,000 people each, maybe 900 , and he said ‘here we are, we’re going to get the urban search and rescue teams from all over the country’ and one of the teams, luckily for us, was Ray Downey’s team from New York”, Keating told the NBA in 2020.

Immediately after the explosion, FBI personnel were dispatched to the Murrah building to begin the painstaking process of collecting evidence, even as firefighters and other first responders worked to recover victims and stabilize the area. A Maryland Collapse Relief Team, bottom right, was one of many across the country offering aid after the bombing. FBI photo.

In the days that followed, more than 12,000 first responders rushed to assist in relief and rescue operations, including 11 Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban search and rescue teams.

FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue program consists of 28 forward task forces strategically placed across the country to respond to catastrophic events involving collapses of heavy steel, concrete, and wood-framed structures.

“The reason they started was that local fire departments and first responders were overwhelmed during the [1989] earthquakes of Loma Prieta in California, ”said Joe Downey – the son of Ray Downey – Coffee or Die Magazine in 2021. “At the time, my dad was the captain of Rescue 2 in Brooklyn, and he was very experienced in collapse operations.”

Ray Downey, a legendary firefighter known to his peers as the “master of disasters,” has responded to every major disaster nationwide, from hurricanes and earthquakes to terrorist incidents, his son said.

“He was the national representative for 28 teams in the country,” Joe Downey said. “He was Oklahoma City’s chief of the urban search and rescue program.”

Ray Downey
Ray Downey was the national representative for urban search and rescue teams. Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, he and 11 urban search and rescue task forces came to the aid of Oklahoma City. Composed by Coffee or Die Magazine.

For 16 days after the bombing, Ray Downey acted as commander of ground forces and helped recover the remains of the 168 bodies buried in the rubble.

Keating realized the heavy toll the attack had taken on first responders and he made a special visit to the site. He brought one of two rosaries, handcrafted from a cloth-like material, which he had received in the mail from a group of nuns in Bavaria.

“Hey Ray, are you Catholic?” Keating asked, spotting Downey on the pile of rubble.

“Is the Pope Catholic? Downey joked and the couple shared a laugh.

Keating gave the small gift to Downey, and “Ray wore it around his neck and under his shirt every day from then on,” according to the NBA.

“It had a huge and profound impact on him […] and I’m just happy to have something from those Bavarian nuns to give him because it meant a lot to him for the rest of his life,” Keating said.

Joe Downey later said that when he picked up his father from the airport, he noticed that what his father saw in Oklahoma City had a lasting impact on him. Just six years later, Ray Downey led the entire New York City Fire Department Special Operations Command and oversaw rescue operations at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Downey ran straight into the cloud of smoke, ordering people out of the towers. When the second tower collapsed, she fell on top of him. Downey died alongside eight other members of the task force who had responded to the Oklahoma City bombing.

Read more : How the New York Rangers honored the FDNY’s ‘disaster master’ after 9/11

Brandon D. James