Oklahoma City moves past its infamous bombing

The release of Michael Fortier Friday caused few ripples in the revitalized city, despite his role in the 1995 terror attack.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's hard for many in Oklahoma City to remember a time when they didn't know the names Tim and Terry, the two angry men who killed 168 people - and changed the city's collective consciousness - by parking a two-ton bomb of farm fertilizer and fuel oil in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in 1995.

But as time goes on, wounds heal, memories fade, and hearts soften. At some point in the past decade, Oklahoma City began to look forward instead of back.

That may be the reason why Michael Fortier's release from prison Friday after serving more than a decade for his role in the bombing sent relatively few ripples through the community.

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While it's painful to learn of his freedom, some say, their lives no longer revolve around the details of that April day. Their city, in many ways, has been freed from its own prison - through prayer and urban renewal.

"Oklahoma City is a different city, completely, than it was in 1995," says Bob Spinks, president of United Way of Central Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. "There is a lot of urban revitalization going on that has created excitement, lots of new venues downtown, and the economy has been doing well here. So all of this mitigates the Fortier news a little bit."

Indeed, Oklahoma City has flourished since the bombing a decade ago. In addition to a new federal building, there are two sports stadiums, a performing-arts center, a central library, a "River Walk"- style canal in the hip Bricktown district, and a trolley linking everything.

Officials say the bombing - at the time, the worst terrorist attack in US history - galvanized residents and created a sense of pride about the city. That, in turn, fueled the urban progress.

"It has been over 10 years and a lot has happened since then," says John Call, a forensic psychologist and president of Crisis Management Consultants in Oklahoma City. The fact that Mr. Fortier's release got very little attention, says Dr. Call, proved to him that the city's residents are in the latter stages of healing - having moved beyond emotional acceptance to reconstruction of their lives. "It's not something that's talked about anymore," he says.

That's not to say that the attack has been forgotten.

Take Jim Denny, for instance. His two children were in the building's day-care center when the explosion occurred and they still suffer from injuries.

But he is unaffected by Fortier's release. "I have absolutely no problem with him getting out of jail. He was a key witness in both [the Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols] trials and, according to the juries, he was the one that basically sewed up their convictions. I say, he's served his time and he should be allowed to try to put his life back together."

The government will not confirm whether Fortier and his family will go into the federal Witness Protection Program, and survivors and relatives of the victims were provided few details when they were sent notices of his release last week. "They didn't give us a lot of advanced notice, and won't tell us what is going to happen to him," says Ken Thompson, who lost his mother in the bombing. "So it's a difficult time for us." But, he says, "most people understand that without its star witness, the government would not have gotten guilty verdicts. So to some degree, he has paid his debt to society."

Fortier received a 12-year sentence in exchange for testifying against Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols, and has served 85 percent of it. He and his wife, Lori, had advance knowledge of the plot to bomb the federal building after McVeigh - an old Army buddy - stopped by their home in Kingman, Ariz., and told them about it, he testified in court.

He also helped McVeigh steal and transport weapons that helped finance the scheme and was shown the target. He has apologized repeatedly for not alerting authorities and said he did not think McVeigh would go ahead with the plot.

"I deeply regret not taking the information I had to the police," he said at the time of his sentencing. "I sometimes daydream that I did do this and became a hero, but the reality is that I am not."

That Fortier will have to live with what he did is of little comfort to those who don't want him out of prison.

"I thought I was about over my anger, and I found out Tuesday evening from the Bureau of Prisons that I have a long way to go," says Jannie Coverdale, whose two grandchildren died inside the federal building's day care. She was their primary caregiver. "I have tried so hard to get over this anger and now I find out that Fortier is going to be hugging his kids again - when he helped take ours away. How is that justice?"

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