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Message From the Director

This bulletin considers the response of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Oklahoma following the domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 19, 1995.The recommendations in this bulletin to medical examiners and coroners come out of the Oklahoma City bombing experience, the experiences and recommendations of the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner’s Office, and the experiences and practices of the National Transportation Safety Board in responding to accidents.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) is publishing this bulletin to assist medical examiners and coroners in their work with surviving families of crime victims.Whether the loss of life is due to a mass-fatality event like the Oklahoma City bombing or to a homicide, OVC recognizes that medical examiners and coroners face great challenges. In addition to taking care of the body of the deceased and collecting evidence, medical examiners and coroners need to know how to work sensitively and effectively with the victim’s family members. In this bulletin, OVC offers medical examiners and coroners information, guidance, resources, and lessons learned about working with families of crime victims.

The Murrah Building was a 9-story, steel and concrete building that housed 18 agencies and businesses—15 federal and 3 nonfederal. During normal working hours, more than 500 people were in the building. After the explosion on April 19, the first call to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner came from the Oklahoma City Police Department, which estimated that more than 700 people may have been killed. Ultimately, nearly 800 people were injured and 168 were killed.

After a mass-fatality event, the medical examiner’s office faces an enormous challenge. Critical decisions about many issues and concerns must be made quickly. A primary responsibility of those who respond in the aftermath of a mass-fatality event is providing care, services, and information to the victims’ families and friends.This bulletin describes how the Medical Examiner’s Office tried to meet the needs and address the concerns of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and their families.They began by determining what was important to the victims’ families.

The Oklahoma response emphasized compassion while imposing structure on a chaotic situation. Under any circumstances, the tasks of gathering accurate and timely antemortem information and providing death notifications are difficult.These tasks were particularly difficult in the midst of the chaos the bombing created. Large numbers of distressed victims, families, and friends had gathered and were anxiously seeking information.The news media arrived in a frenzied response to the bombing.Very quickly, an overwhelming number of donations and volunteers arrived that needed to be screened. A central organizing body was needed to handle the situation.

Soon after the bombing, the Oklahoma City family assistance center, called the Compassion Center, was established to provide families a secure and controlled area in which accurate notifications could be made and information exchanged.The Compassion Center was also an appropriate place for collecting antemortem information from the victims’ families and friends.This information was helpful in making identifications and in developing a missing persons list.The Compassion Center staff had to consider many difficult issues and develop sensitive, effective solutions. Some examples include how to compassionately release information to families, work effectively with the media, and sensitively inform the families about the search process and results.

Additional acts of terrorism involving U.S. citizens since Oklahoma City have shown that each act of terrorism presents unique challenges specific to the mass-fatality event itself and its victims. Each mass-fatality event teaches new and important lessons for responding to future mass-fatality events and victims. For example, the complexity and scope of the Oklahoma City bombing clearly emphasized the need for all communities to form an effective crisis response plan. In addition, OVC wants to ensure that all those who work with mass-fatality victims and families in the future have the information and training to work with the victims and their families effectively, compassionately, and sensitively.This OVC bulletin hopes to help achieve this by reporting the lessons learned in Oklahoma City while helping victims’ families during the long, difficult recovery process. Families of victims need help during each stage of the recovery process. Each family must receive the death notification of their loved one.The family will hear about and sometimes participate in the identification of their loved one’s body, personal effects, or belongings. Finally, the family will claim their loved one’s body, personal effects, and belongings to take home.

OVC hopes that the information in this bulletin proves helpful to medical examiners and coroners as they work with the families of crime victims. Whether the death is the result of a large-scale, mass-fatality event or a single homicide, the medical examiner or coroner will likely interact with the victim’s family. OVC offers medical examiners and coroners information and OVC-funded services, including victim compensation and assistance, to benefit family members.

John W. Gillis, Director


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Providing Relief to Families After a Mass Fatality
November 2002
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