The endless stream of headlights, some from funeral processions, others from drivers showing solidarity with rescue teams, will always be top of mind for me as we mark Monday’s 26th anniversary of the Alfred P. Murrah Building bombing.
It was a building that I often walked or drove by each day on my route from my newspaper’s offices in downtown Oklahoma City to the police station or city hall. Those 168 victims were likely strangers seen on the sidewalk, entering the building for another day in the office.
Norman lost many souls that day. A child’s classmate lost his mother. A fellow editor’s daughter was killed. County deputies lost a co-worker. The list goes on.
Although the Murrah bombing is classified as domestic terrorism, Oklahoma had had many tragedies over the years. Race massacres, tornadoes, plane crashes and floods. Here are three that are not always taught.
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In southeastern Oklahoma, companies recruited thousands of immigrants to work in the coal mines. They brought their families to better lives in America and entire communities were formed. They included Krebs, Coalgate, Wilburton, Stringtown, Hartshorne, Alderson and Lehigh, according to an account in “Oklahoma: A History” by W. David Baird and Danney Goble.
Before statehood, the mines were on Indian land outside the control of the federal government. Tribal governments provided little protection either.
On the night of Jan. 7, 1892, an explosion rocked the Osage Coal and Mining Company’s Mine No. 11 near Krebs. An inexperienced worker accidentally detonated stored explosives in the mine. By the time the smoke cleared, nearly 100 miners were dead and another 150 injured. A memorial was placed near the site more than 100 years after the tragedy, which touched nearly every family in Krebs.
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In the Rose Cemetery in Hobart, a single monument pays tribute to the 36 persons who died in the Christmas Eve fire in 1924 at nearby Babbs Switch schoolhouse.
The one-room schoolhouse was the site for the community’s Christmas party. More than 200 persons filled the building. Entire families were there in preparation for Christmas.
The Christmas tree at the front of the room was decorated with lighted candles. Presents were placed on the tree. A teenager dressed as Santa Claus began taking gifts from the tree and handing them out to the children. Flames ignited decorations, then the dry tree itself, the stage and eventually the entire building.
Families rushed to the school’s single, inward-opening door, which immediately became jammed. The windows were covered with metal screens to prevent vandals from breaking in. Entire families were wiped out. More than half of the victims were children.
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On the north side of Norman’s IOOF Cemetery, a solitary rose granite marker takes note of the April 13, 1918, fire at Central State Hospital that claimed 40 lives. The fire was believed to have started in a linen closet in Ward No. 14, where most of the men were sleeping.
The staff scrambled to wake the patients and move them to safety. More than 300 patients, including those in adjacent buildings, were evacuated. In all, three dormitories and a dining hall were destroyed.
Only one family claimed the body of their relative. Others were buried in pine boxes in a mass grave on the edge of the cemetery property. After a determined search led by Norman firefighter Jim Bailey, the location of the mass grave was believed to have been found and the marker put up.
The back side of the marker lists the names of nearly 40 men who perished that night.