- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

HERINGTON, Kan. (AP) - In an instant, the explosion rocked a city, killed 168, injured 680 and grabbed the attention of people around the world.

As CEO of Herington Hospital at the time, Bill Peterson remembers hearing news of the terrorist attack some 225 miles south of his Dickinson County hometown. But he learned in a hurry what it means when someone mentions living in a small world.

It seemed in no time at all that Herington became a bullseye in a national probe of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, in downtown Oklahoma City, The Salina Journal (http://bit.ly/1yI3Thn ) reports.

On the 20th anniversary of the bombing, Herington may appear much the same, Peterson said, but the town of 2,500 is different.

“Herington changed that day,” he said.

Folks in Herington don’t talk about it much, said Ron Strickland, who has been city manager since 2007.

He was the Enid, Oklahoma, traffic control supervisor in 1995.

“That was a sad day,” Strickland said. “We sent some equipment down (to Oklahoma City) to help with traffic control.”

Herington connection

Tim McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, was stopped within 90 minutes after setting off a Ryder truck loaded with explosives in front of the Murrah Building. His co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, was in Herington.

Nichols lived four houses down from D.J. and Virginia Neuberger. A truck driver, D.J. remembered Nichols waving at him and his son riding a bicycle down the street. The Neubergers’ son played football occasionally with Nichols’ son.

But the couple is not fond of those memories.

“When your kid does something bad, you don’t talk about him. That’s the way it was with Nichols down here,” Virginia said. “It really put a damper on the town 20 years ago.”

As authorities honed in on Nichols, Peterson said he could remember the day Herington changed - on Friday, April 21, 1995.

It was total disbelief

“The biggest feeling was total disbelief,” said Peterson, now a minister serving St. Paul Lutheran Church in Herington and Hebron Lutheran Church in nearby Burdick, where he grew up. A Herington resident for 40 years, he considers it his hometown.

“We were all so saddened and sick by what had happened in Oklahoma City and that our community was being named in that,” he said.

“You couldn’t fathom it. The town turned into a town we didn’t know very quickly.”

Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and national news media swarmed the town.

“We lived in a town with a weekly newspaper and were not used to having that kind of an identity,” Peterson said.

It’s a patriotic town

Herington has its share of military presence, both veterans and active duty, D.J. Neuberger said. He’s a member of the American Legion Post 12, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1281 and the Disabled American Veterans.

“It’s a patriotic town,” Neuberger said.

“I never had any idea that (Nichols) and McVeigh were building bombs.”

Nichols turned himself in without incident, and he was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in 2001.

National attention was unsettling in Herington, Peterson said.

A well-known man from the town died that week, he said, and the visitation was at a local mortuary, but the distractions made it difficult to grieve the loss and honor the man’s memory.

A call came to Peterson from a college roommate, living in Connecticut, who heard the news about Herington while in California on a business trip.

“He almost wrecked his car,” Peterson said.

Humor a survival skill

Also known as a speaker who would don clown garb and share messages of “finding humor in difficult situations,” Peterson shared some funny memories during his performances about those days in Herington.

“Finding humor is a survival skill,” he said.

But Peterson also felt the sting of anguish.

“I remember driving down Walnut Street near where Nichols lived. There were little robot things out. They evacuated some homes,” he said. “I couldn’t believe all this was happening.”

If there was a bright side, said Peterson, 64, it was the performance for law enforcement, firefighters and other local officials.

“I was amazed how our public safety people were able to handle something that was not like anything we were used to here,” Peterson said. “They did a marvelous job.”

A ‘sneak day’ to OKC

Roughly two weeks after the bombing, Herington High School seniors took their “sneak day” and visited the bomb site in Oklahoma City on their way to Dallas, in a Herington school bus. Other visitors also made the connection.

“It wasn’t the best experience,” he said. “(Students) were very self-aware, or even perceived that people were looking at them.”

Before the bombing memorial was finished, about a year later, Peterson and a friend made the trek to the solemn place. They were standing with a couple of others, one from Oklahoma City and another who said he had helped on the day of the bombing, but had not been back until then.

The man asked Peterson where he was from.

“It was the first time I hesitated, but I did say ‘I’m from Herington.’ And he said, ‘Well, it isn’t your fault.’ I appreciated that,” Peterson said. “That’s not how we want to be remembered or thought of. It’s a lesson for all of us to not generalize, or make blanket statements about people or places.”

Innocence taken away

Just more than six years later, Peterson felt something similar as he watched the television reports of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, he was preparing to give a humor presentation at the Kansas State Fair.

“I called the state fair office and they canceled,” Peterson said. “They agreed that there are some days when humor isn’t appropriate. I sort of equate that to the Oklahoma City bombing. It was a day when some of our innocence was taken away.”

___

Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, http://www.salina.com

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