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Oklahoma City police chief, fire chief worked bombing 25 years ago

The bombing, and 9/11 in New York six years later, changed the public’s perception of first responders


In this March 18, 2020 file photo, visitors walk next to the reflecting pool at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in Oklahoma City.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File

By Berry Tramel
The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

OKLAHOMA CITY — Firefighter Richard Kelley heard the blast from his home in Bridge Creek, about 28 miles southwest of downtown Oklahoma City. Funny the things you remember. Regis and Kathie Lee had just come on the television.

Police officer Wade Gourley was home, too, in southwest OKC. April 19, 1995, was scheduled to be his first day back at work after he took a few weeks off to help with his newborn son. Gourley was in the shower and felt the whole house shake.

Within the hour, both were downtown. The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building sent first responders from all over the metro scurrying to Ground Zero. We didn’t much call them first responders back then. Not until the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11 did it really sink in that we have heroes among us, people who run into the fire when others are running out.

In the days that followed April 19, Kelley and Gourley would work long hours. They were tired. Inspired. Depressed. Heartened. Horrified. All the emotions all Oklahomans felt, only more so for those who were at Murrah ruins and dealt with the tragedy of 168 deaths.

Kelley and Gourley were not deterred. They’re on the job still. Kelley is the Oklahoma City fire chief, promoted in 2017. Gourley is the Oklahoma City police chief, promoted last summer. Both veterans of the bombing.

Raised in Ardmore, Gourley graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a police administration degree, worked in Chickasha a few months and joined the OKC department in 1989.

“I didn’t think I’d make a career of it,” Gourley said. But “when I started doing the job, I just loved it. When the bombing happened, my hunger for it became even more. I wanted to go out and make things better. I think it did solidify that this is what I was supposed to do.”

Kelley, who grew up in Moore, joined the fire department in 1991. He was a paramedic on the side — that’s how Kelley got downtown that morning; he jumped in the last ambulance leaving from EMSA’s Capitol Hill post on South Walker.

But the bombing drove Kelley toward a career track heavy on rescue. He trained on structural collapse and technical rescue.

“It also let me see the human side,” Kelley said. “How it’s not just about being technically proficient at what you do. It’s also how you treat people and how the community makes a difference. Made me appreciate what we have here.”

Kelley’s memories of those anguishing days after the bombing are not so much tied to his rescue and recovery efforts — he sorted those — but to the walks back to debriefing at the old Central High School. Kelley broke down one night when he passed by a praying pastor from Southgate Baptist, his parents’ church.

“Just those things, of seeing people there, it really connected and made it real,” Kelley said. “That was the toughest thing for me.”

Gourley most remembers the funerals. He was in the police department’s honor guard and worked many gravesites for the federal agents killed in the bombing, while also working his downtown shift.

“That was really difficult because that extended for weeks,” Gourley said. “To see those families, I can remember every one of those funerals, where they were, the things that were said. All of it really stuck out. Sometimes more than one funeral a day.”

The bombing, and 9/11 in New York six years later, changed the perception of first responders. Firefighters became even more heroic figures. But police officers, too, enjoyed an enhanced status.

Gourley remembers early in his career, after the Los Angeles riots and the Rodney King incident, being called names and bystanders throwing things while officers worked a situation. That changed after April 19.

The bombing “sort of wiped that all away,” Gourley said. “Everywhere we went, if we showed up on something simple … making a traffic stop … people would start off by saying, ‘thank you for what you do.’ I remember people being much more appreciative of us.”

Kelley recalls how visiting first responders talked of being treated like royalty.

“The job didn’t change,” Kelley said. “But it definitely opened everyone’s eyes. We’re fortunate in the fire service; our job is more helping people. I look at the same as police officers. Unfortunately, they may write you a ticket along the way. But we’re cut from the same cloth.

“We’re seeing it now with health-care providers. It’s a greater calling. Your job or your career is to help someone. That’s a big deal.”

Kelley knows there was some psychological fallout within the fire ranks. Some firefighters didn’t last.

“You can’t go through what happened there and what happened afterward and see things that people had to see and not have those lasting effects,” Kelley said.

Kelley knows the bombing took a toll on him. Married at the time with a young daughter, he eventually divorced. He’s remarried now with two more daughters.

Kelley said he would never blame the bombing for his failed marriage, but “the reality was, I did compartmentalize my personal life as I did my professional life. You try to put them in a box, move them out of the way. I think I did some of that. That coping mechanism I used, I used in my personal life, and that’s not a successful way to live or a good way to live.”

Gourley’s marriage survived — and he’s even a survivor of another infamous day in Oklahoma history. Gourley’s house in southwest OKC was blown away by the May 3, 1999, tornado.

Gourley is proud that he leads a department in a city that knows how to deal with crisis.

“I remember even as a young officer, within just 24 or 48 hours of the bombing, they had that thing completely under control,” Gourley said. “As troops, we were thinking, this deals looks like it’s bad, but it wasn’t just chaos.

“We had the May 3 tornadoes, we took those things that we learned with the tragedy of the bombing, we had our emergency response team that was much more developed, that a lot of us had been through … bringing order to chaos.”

Those enemies of chaos, the first responders who run not away from, but to trouble, are led in Oklahoma City by men who have come through the ranks of our most trying time.