BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two years ago the Indiana city of Terre Haute learned its federal prison would hold the system's only death chamber. Back then residents couldn't envision what is happening now. The world's media is heading to town to cover the first federal execution in almost 4 decades, the death by lethal injection of Timothy McVeigh, mastermind of the Oklahoma bombing. Some of the media have already arrived in advance of the May 16th execution. Reporter Tom Rogers was among them to see how the city is taking it.
TOM ROGERS: As the editor of the Terre Haute Tribune Star Max Jones has met many of the first wave of reporters to come to town to write profiles of the city in advance of the McVeigh execution, and he's heard his neighbors critique them.
MAX JONES: They just expect that somehow we're going to be made out to be a sleepy, one-horse backwater cornfield of a town, and-- you know the - some people find a lot of charm in that. [LAUGHS] Some people don't like to see the commun--they'd like rather to see the community portrayed as a progressive bustling portrait -- that wouldn't be a fair--interpretation either! So-- you know we are what we are.
TOM ROGERS: What Terre Haute is is an unwitting backdrop to the end of one of American history's most painful and high profile crime stories. It will test people's patience. School is canceled May 16th. Virtually every police officer in Vigo County will be on duty, and protesters will be huddled into two city parks and then bused to the prison in the wee hours of the morning. The media will have shuttle buses too -- as many as 1500 reporters and crew may who up. The good news is they'll also bring expense accounts. That means business for Terre Haute.
RAOUL DAVID: [...?...] take it home with you?
RAOUL DAVID: Yeah!
RAOUL DAVID: Yeah!!
TOM ROGERS: Raoul David tends the meat counter of his small market on the outskirts of town. You can see the sprawling penitentiary out the front window in the distance. David plans to be open all night before May 16th selling ice, sandwiches and soda as protesters and reporters mingle just inside the prison grounds.
RAOUL DAVID: I'm just a businessman. I take care of my business. I'm interested in my business. I'm not interested in the others.
TOM ROGERS: And you just happen to be across the street.
RAOUL DAVID: Accidentally I, I was - happen to be across the street from it.
TOM ROGERS: While it may help the store, the attention to the execution has at least one of David's customers wanting to tune out.
RAOUL DAVID: Tell me about it. [LAUGHS]
WOMAN: It's starting! Man, I need to ask off of work that day; my kid's out of school. I would have to go 23 miles out of my way to get to day care.
RAOUL DAVID: What?
WOMAN: That day, on the 16th. I am just - Ohhhh!!
TOM ROGERS: Business owners admit they'd rather make money on something less distressing than the McVeigh execution, and the president of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, Rod Henry, says those owners should not be apologetic about it! They're simply serving the media the same way they serve their customers every other day of the year. What angers Henry are the execution tee shirts in the window of a downtown tattoo parlor. One includes a mockup of a newspaper called The Hanging Times, and a picture of McVeigh with the headline Die, Die, Die.
ROD HENRY: You know we actually think probably we'll have more problems with the image from the tee shirt than we will from the actual event, but it's sad to think that people are trying to exploit, you know, opportunistic, you know -trying to make a buck-- and they, they cite the example of well, if the inns are going to make a buck, if the restaurants are going to make a buck, the gasoline stations -- then we should be given the chance too. That's developing a carnival atmosphere.
TOM ROGERS: It's hard to say if any stigma against Terre Haute will linger after the reporters leave. Rod Henry of the Chamber of Commerce is confident it won't.
ROD HENRY: How many people today remember where the trial was held? But-- you know you're always going to remember where the bombing took place, but are you really - are people going to really remember that Denver, Colorado is where the trial took place and are they going to remember that Terre Haute, Indiana is where--closure was brought - at least on this part.
TOM ROGERS: In the meantime, though, the hotels are booked; the parking spaces are arranged; and the temporary satellite dishes and cell phone towers are going up in Terre Haute, and residents like Max Jones of Tribune Star are bracing themselves.
MAX JONES: It will be somewhat of a spectacular sight I think when you start moving almost every major news organization in this country and perhaps in the world suddenly setting up a central headquarters [LAUGHS] on this site. It, it, it will be something'll capture attention, and at that point I guess there's a potential for some sort of community backlash against the media attention.
TOM ROGERS: The crowds haven't arrived yet, and the city is taking it in stride for the moment. The last time Terre Haute had a brush with widespread media attention it was far different. It was 1979 when an Indiana State basketball star named Larry Bird finished his college career. For On the Media I'm Tom Rogers in Terre Haute, Indiana.