Mystery of the University of Oklahoma “Suicide Bomber”

Hinrichs1On September 20, 2014, I attended a nationally televised college football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown, WV.  I spent some time in the visitors section of Milan Puskar Stadium.  This gave me a unique opportunity to comprehensively speak with several fans who attended a game nearly 10 years ago in Norman, Oklahoma.

I wanted to hear their thoughts and perceptions regarding exactly what happened during an October 1, 2005 contest between Oklahoma and Kansas State.  I’ve written about this in the past, but some of these eye-witness accounts renewed my interest while giving me a greater understanding of what transpired that fateful night.

On the day in question, at 7:50 pm (shortly before halftime), a 21 year old student named Joel Hendrichs blew himself up while sitting on a bench next to the George Lynn Cross Hall.  This happened 173 yards from Memorial Stadium.  There were no other injuries or fatalities.

Campus-MapAn investigation later revealed that he was carrying a backpack filled with 2-3 lbs of TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide).  In the realm of explosives, TATP is generally regarded as a fertilizer substitute, kind of a poor man’s ammonium nitrate.

The FBI eventually concluded that it was an isolated incident.  Although there was rampant speculation that Hendrichs may have been a “Muslim sympathizer” or had extremist political motivation, the FBI ruled out the likelihood of terrorism.  Hendrichs apparently acted alone.  A sold out crowd of 84,501 was in attendance.

Keep in mind this was 2005.  Cellular technology was widespread, but consumer smart phones did not exist.  Major interactive social media platforms like facebook were barely on the map.  Other real-time, popular modes of communication, such as Twitter, were not yet in existence.  This incident occurred two years before the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre which spawned the mandate for the government requirement of campus emergency mobile alert systems.  These campus-wide alerts fall under the domain of the 1990 Clery Act which calls for timely, widespread notification of imminent danger or emergency situations on campus.

This begs the question — what if something similar happened in the year 2014?  Would they utilize the campus text emergency alert system?  Would they disseminate a message via twitter or post a message on the official university facebook page?  Safety and security issues involving large, confined crowds offer a precarious dynamic.  So what’s the protocol?  Has it substantively changed in lieu of the expansion of social media combined with improvements to stadium wireless connectivity?  Could citizens and stadium attendees access such real-time information?  Would they share it?  What about the role of the local news media?  Would they temporarily suspend the game?  Would they evacuate the stadium as a precautionary measure?  Would they make an announcement over the public address system?  Under what circumstances is it acceptable to “leave everyone in the dark?”  What if there had been an additional “suicide bomber” and they had taken no demonstrable action?

These are ALL valid questions.  They’re all centered around the 500 lb. elephant in the room — the fact that almost everyone in the stadium has an active cell phone that’s capable of transmitting and receiving false information.  This one variable has dangerously leveled the playing field, particularly in the graded stands.

Oklahoma administration officials opted to let the game continue.  However, they did not permit fans to exit the stadium at halftime.  This was inconsistent with standard game day protocol.  With roughly 6 minutes left in the game, an announcement advising fans that certain exits had been cordoned off was delivered over the Memorial Stadium public address system.  No mention was made of a bomb threat emergency or the individual fatality.  Incident command chose to suppress specific information.

Just for the record, I believe University of Oklahoma officials and emergency personnel acted admirably and made the correct decision.  They handled a challenging situation quite well.  Admittedly, this was a tough one.  There are few superior answers to such a bizarre incident which naturally lent itself to shock, confusion and frantic rapid response.

Regarding the Hendrichs self-detonation, here are some of the notes I took away from my recent conversations on September 20, 2014.

When asked to describe the sound, a man specifically referred to it as “loud crackling boom.”  “It’s the kind of noise you hardly ever hear.”  Another person likened the sound to a “bridge demolition.”

One individual told me, “They didn’t let us out at halftime.  That was when we really knew something was up.  Because everybody was walking around asking the same questions.  What happened?  Why won’t they let us out?  What was that thunder noise?”

Everyone I spoke with referenced an “uneasy trepidation” and “taboo confusion.”  That seemed to be the consensus.  Rumors of a bomb or IED (improvised explosive device) were rampant.  Good news travels fast, but I can assure you, bad news travels much faster.

One person told me (I’m paraphrasing here), “I remember the game was high scoring and I think that helped actually calm the crowd down a bit.  The action on the field helped distract the fans’ attention from the rumors.  I mean, even if somebody killed himself, there’s not much you can really do about it anyway.”

I’ll readily concede that I have far fewer resources than the University of Oklahoma, their police department as well as the FBI.  But I do think there’s some fairly obvious conjecture.

First, who on earth heads out on a Saturday night with a backpack full of explosives and ventures next to a packed college football stadium?  I cannot read the mind of Hendrichs but this behavior certainly has an air of malicious intent.  It’s not normal behavior.  But then again, neither is blowing yourself to smithereens.

Journalist Mark Tapper echoes my thoughts.  What better place to detonate a bomb guaranteed to both kill and maim many, as well as incite terror and possibly a stampede that would kill and injure more people?  My guess is Hendrichs was kept from reaching his target by a premature detonation.  Add the proximity of the Micro-Biology building and you may have the potential for a kind of bio-bomb that could have guaranteed utter chaos in and around the stadium.

According to the nonprofit 501-C3 organization suicide.org, in 2005, there were 32,637 suicide deaths in the United States.  Here’s an interesting question for the FBI investigative team — How many of those deaths were the result of a TATP self-detonation?  My hunch would be zero.  That alone should raise a big red flag.

I can’t speak to why this historical event unfolded.  I also can’t speak to Hendrichs’ motivation.  But there is one overlooked aspect to this story which piqued my interest.

One month before the University of Oklahoma incident, an event of mammoth proportions occurred as the war in Iraq was churning full throttle.  On August 31, 2005, the Al-Aaimmah Bridge stampede in Baghdad claimed the lives of 953 Iraqis. This was the worst human stampede of the decade (in a war zone no less).

baghdad bridge stampedeThis story never really registered in the American news media.  It was covered and then dropped.  Why?  Well… because Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf states on August 28-29.  Our nation’s disaster completely dominated the news cycle.  The continuous hurricane coverage lasted for weeks.

If, and I’m just speculating… if Hendrichs was familiar with the Baghdad bridge stampede and the least bit sympathetic to those who perished, is it possible he thought about creating a stampede of his own?  I’m not a psychiatrist but I think a graphic story like the Al-Aaimmah stampede might resonate in the head of someone characterized as mentally unstable.  Taking into account the fact that stadiums are obvious, high value soft targets, is it possible he had broader intentions?  Could it have been a retaliatory lone wolf-style failed attack?  At the absolute least, I think all of this rises to the level of “more than just an unusual coincidence.”  If no one from the FBI investigative team didn’t at least raise the possibilty of a stampede, I’d be forced to conclude that the entire team was excruciatingly incompetent.

While I try not to engage in conspiratorial thinking, I do think its reasonable to conclude that he may have drawn inspiration and motivation from the Baghdad bridge stampede.  Seriously, picture a stampede with a thousand fatalities on New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge and the East River.  Would the media cover a story of that nature?  I expect they’d devote more time and resources than a brief news blip.

The lack of media coverage for the Hendrichs story was reminiscent of a 2010 incident in which a disgruntled man, Joseph Stack, flew his single-engine plane into the IRS office in Austin, Texas.

 austin texas plane crash

Stack and IRS Manager Vernon Hunter were killed.  Thirteen others were injured.  One would surmise that a story of this magnitude might linger for a while.  But it was hastily reported and quickly disposed of.  I suspect this is part of a larger “clandestine gentleman’s agreement” between the government and the media so as not to glamorize such incidents that could impact our national security — ones that might encourage copycats or “give people ideas.”

stackSo once again, why were these breaking news stories dropped so abruptly?  Well, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking – and I’m not really faulting the media or even the government for that matter.  This would appear indicative of rationally justified, unwritten FBI policy.  Criminal investigations usually involve connecting the dots.  However, with the Hendrichs case, our national security may have been better served by NOT connecting the dots.  Or it might have been a case of “we do not wish to connect the dots.”  The less said, the better.  Not everything is black and white, particularly in the realm of asymmetric national security issues.  Sometimes exposing the truth or even engaging in mere speculation can have unsettling ramifications.

Here’s why I wrote about the Hendrichs story.  It epitomizes the “fine line” of exactly “how far we should go” when informing the general public about matters of stadium safety and security.  Would I advocate telling fans about the possibility of an individual parachuting into the stadium throwing hand grenades?  Of course not.  What about the possibility of hovering drones dispensing sarin gas?  Of course not.  What about someone pulling up next to the main gate and spraying machine gunfire?  Of course not.  Why?  Because all of these fear-mongering scenarios fall within a reasonable level of recognized comprehension and known feasibility.

But should we tell them about the looming prospect of an artificially generated stampede?  OF COURSE.  That’s a resounding yes.  Why you ask?  Because there is a generic, discernible inevitability that something resembling it will one day occur.  At a minimum, it will one day be attempted.  Therefore, the underlying principles of the artificially generated stampede need to be available for public consumption.  The general public has a fundamental right to be cognizant of the modern, technological equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.  There is no “grey” area.  You either tell people or you don’t.

Many people ask me why I write so extensively about this subject.  My answer is simple.  It’s because the case must be made for telling people the truth about obsolete emergency evacuation protocol.  Everything hinges on awareness.  Since it will one day be a matter of government policy (much like forest fire prevention), I consider it vital to put this information in the public domain.  Every article I write helps to build the case and achieve that specific goal.  The alternative is to stand idly by and simply wait for a tragedy to occur, possibly one of unspeakable magnitude.  I believe the latter option is morally unacceptable.