Members of California Urban Search & Rescue Task Force 3 take a team picture on their last day of operations at the Oklahoma City bombing site, May 1, 1995, left. Also pictured is legendary firefighter Chief Ray Downey, right. Photos courtesy of the Menlo Fire Department and Joe Downey. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
On the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols carried out the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil before 9/11. The so-called Oklahoma City bombing against 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 McVeigh had packed a truck with nearly 5,000 pounds of explosives and targeted the federal building because it was full of government employees. Shortly after the rest of the country received news about the attack, President Bill Clinton phoned Oklahoma City Gov. Frank Keating and offered to help 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 just shy of 1,000 people each, maybe 900, and he said ‘we’re on it, we’re going to get the urban search and rescue teams from all over the country’ and one of the teams mercifully for us was Ray Downey’s team from New York,” Keating told the NBA in 2020.
In the days that followed, more than 12,000 first responders scrambled to participate in relief and rescue operations, including 11 Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban Search & Rescue teams.
FEMA’s Urban Search & Rescue program consists of 28 advanced task forces strategically placed throughout the country to respond to catastrophic events involving collapses of heavy steel, concrete, and wood frame structures.
“The reason why they started it was that the local fire departments and first responders were overwhelmed during the  Loma Prieta earthquakes in California,” Joe Downey — Ray Downey’s son — told Coffee or Die Magazine in 2021. “At the time, my father was the captain of Rescue 2 in Brooklyn, and he was very experienced with collapse operations.”
Ray Downey, a legendary firefighter known to his peers as the “Master of Disaster,” responded to every major disaster nationally, from hurricanes and earthquakes to terrorism incidents, his son said.
“He was the national representative for 28 teams in the country,” Joe Downey said. “He was the chief in Oklahoma City for the Urban Search and Rescue program.”
For the 16 days following the bombing, Ray Downey acted as the ground force commander and assisted in recovering the remains of the 168 bodies buried in the rubble.
Keating realized the heavy toll the attack took on the first responders, and he paid a special visit to the site. He brought along one of two handcrafted rosaries made from clothlike material, which he had received in the mail from a group of nuns in Bavaria.
“Hey Ray, are you a Catholic?” Keating asked, spotting Downey on the pile of rubble.
“Is the Pope a Catholic?” Downey quipped, and the pair shared a laugh.
Keating offered the small gift to Downey, and “Ray wore it around his neck and under his shirt every single day from that point on,” according to the NBA.
“It had a huge, profound impact on him […] and I’m just happy I had something from those nuns in Bavaria 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 his father up at the airport, he noticed that what his father had seen in Oklahoma City had had a lasting impact upon him. Just six years later, Ray Downey managed all of the New York City Fire Department’s Special Operations Command and oversaw the 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, it fell on top of him. Downey died alongside eight other task force members who had responded to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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