1993 attack on federal building in Topeka recalled
By STEVE FRY
The Topeka Capital-Journal
TOPEKA -- Terry Lee Morrow's nightmares tied to the Aug. 5, 1993, attack by a gunman lobbing bombs on the Frank Carlson Federal Building and U.S. Court House are always the same.
"I have many nightmares where I come awake in a cold sweat with a 9mm Ruger in my face (and gunman Jack Gary McKnight) pulling the trigger," Morrow said Sunday during an interview.
Courthouse employees Diane Ortiz Reynolds, Michelle Tunnell, Rachel Lyle and Connie Hamilton, some of whom have lingering trauma from the attack, were on the fourth floor of the courthouse during the incident and remember it well.
Monday is the 20th anniversary of the assault, in which court services officer Gene Goldsberry was killed by McKnight, and others were wounded by gunfire or shrapnel or injured as they fled McKnight. McKnight was a convicted marijuana grower who was to be sentenced Aug. 5, 1993, to a probable 10-year prison sentence. He rigged his car to explode in Topeka and a pickup truck to blow up in Jefferson County, where he lived.
Morrow was shot three times by McKnight during the attack and played dead for hours. For some of that time, McKnight sprayed gunfire on the fourth floor of the courthouse and tossed homemade pipe bombs.
Morrow said the Sunday interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/11HFRR8 ) was the first time he has talked at length with a reporter about the attack on the courthouse.
Morrow rode the elevator to the courthouse's fourth floor to attend a friend's court hearing, then walked to the security station manned by Goldsberry. It was 9:35 a.m.
Morrow was stepping away from Goldsberry when he heard two thumps, then the explosions as two powerful bombs detonated.
McKnight fired eight shots, one striking Goldsberry in the head and three hitting Morrow in the right elbow, left wrist and the tip of a little finger, Morrow said. The shot in the elbow exited that arm and re-entered Morrow's right side and exited at his navel, Morrow said.
Morrow felt his blood flowing and thought he was going to die.
"I said, 'God, don't let me die,' " Morrow said.
Morrow was face-down, and Goldsberry was lying on top of him. As McKnight walked past the wounded men, Goldsberry moved, and McKnight shot him again, Morrow said.
"When he shot Gene again, that really made my heart just go crazy," Morrow said, saying it felt as though his heartbeat was "lifting me off the ground."
Morrow said he feared the gunman could hear his rapid heartbeat.
McKnight continued firing the pistol and throwing bombs, then entered the clerk of the court's office.
"People were running and screaming," Morrow said.
At one point, a law enforcement officer apparently called a phone in a clerk's office. McKnight picked it up and said: "I came to die. You want me, you come find me," Morrow said he recalled.
McKnight threw a pipe bomb in Morrow's direction.
"God, don't let me die this way," Morrow prayed as he saw the bomb. It fell a few feet from Morrow, then exploded, and a piece of metal hit his knee.
Why wasn't he injured worse by that explosion?
"I believe God covered me, God protected me from that," Morrow said. "It was like a shield, a wind that protected me."
McKnight threw a second bomb, which struck something in the office and bounced toward McKnight.
It exploded, mangling McKnight, who shot himself with what Morrow said was a shotgun.
About two hours after he was shot, Morrow heard a law enforcement officer say he could see two dead bodies, referring to Goldsberry and Morrow. Morrow wiggled a finger to signal he was alive.
Morrow was treated for his wounds for seven days at a Topeka hospital.
For about 18 months after the attack, Morrow said he couldn't sleep at night and would pray in a special room in his home, then fall asleep at 6 a.m. exhausted.
"It was bad," Morrow said.
Tunnell and Reynolds refer to their courthouse co-workers as their "court family."
"Usually every Aug. 5, we talk to each other. 'It's Aug. 5. We love you,' " Reynolds said. Reynolds now is a civilian employee in the U.S. Coast Guard offices.
"I still feel very close to them," said Tunnell, now an administrative law judge with the Kansas Office of Administrative Hearings in Topeka.
On the day of the attack, Reynolds was working as a docket clerk in the clerk of the U.S. District Court when co-worker Cherryl Masters spotted McKnight walking toward their office.
" 'Oh, my God! He's got a gun,' " Reynolds recalled Masters saying.
The two women and Wayne Correll, court deputy clerk, quickly retreated to a supply room at the back of the office.
Reynolds climbed onto some file shelves to flee McKnight, but that wasn't far enough.
"There were bullets coming through the wall," Reynolds said.
"Let's get the hell out of here," one of the three said. Correll showed them how to get into the suspended ceiling.
Reynolds was the first into the ceiling, and she moved a short distance so she was over another office area. But it was dark above the panels and difficult to see. She stepped onto a panel, fell through the ceiling, struck her right side on a desk and fell to the floor.
"My first thought was, 'I hope he didn't hear me'," Reynolds said. "It was really quiet."
Courthouse workers remembered they heard exploding pipe bombs followed by quiet, then gunfire followed by quiet, then more explosions or shots and quiet.
"We didn't know whether he was going from desk to desk shooting people," Reynolds said.
Reynolds heard a large explosion below the fourth floor, which apparently was McKnight's car, which was rigged with explosives, blowing up in a lot adjacent to the court building.
The car burned, billowing a plume of black smoke into the downtown sky.
After she was injured, Reynolds, a busy young mother, said she became mad because she was unable to enroll her children in school as she was supposed to that day.
After several hours, she called 911.
"Is someone coming to get us?" Reynolds asked the call taker. But law enforcement officers didn't know whether more than one attacker was in the courthouse and were concerned more explosives might be rigged to detonate in the building.
The 911 operator asked Reynolds to describe what she could see. A police tactical team eventually arrived to rescue Reynolds, Masters and Correll.
Reynolds had three broken ribs, and Masters had broken several toes and injured her feet when she also fell from the suspended ceiling.
When the attack started, Lyle, Hamilton and a third employee entered an office, locked the door and shut off the lights.
"We pretended we were in a closet," Hamilton said.
The three remained in there for seven hours, but "there was no sense of time," Hamilton said.
Years later, Lyle showed a manila file folder in which a large piece of shrapnel had punched a hole through it.
Hamilton also has a remembrance of that day. She has a court document stained with the blood of a wounded co-worker, who fell through the office ceiling.
"I just can't bring myself to throw it away," Hamilton said.
Stress surfaced after the attack. Some court workers were bothered by ringing phones, loud noises, a general unease and claustrophobia when flying in commercial airliners.
Not long after the attack, Hamilton was in bed when fireworks unexpectedly started exploding, and her husband saw her scrambling under the covers to escape.
"I'm still very aware of my surroundings," Tunnell said. "I am one who takes security very seriously."
Tunnell was a law clerk for Magistrate Judge Ronald Newman, whose office suite was punctured by shrapnel from pipe bombs and gunfire. Some bullets punctured several walls.
Tunnell said it makes her very nervous to know a bullet will pass through wall after wall after wall.
"I just know when you're anyplace these days, there is still the potential for a bullet to come through," Tunnell said.
When Tunnell moves into a new office, she looks to see how she would get out of it or plan to barricade the door with a bookshelf, then get away from the door.
Large sporting events where Tunnell doesn't know how much security is present bother her. If a fight breaks out among spectators, she leaves.
To this day, courthouse employees are alerted when nail guns are going to be used in courthouse projects.
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com