I have to confess that when I found out that I was going to be visiting Oklahoma City, the only thing that came to mind was the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. That said, I didn't know much about the incident. While planning my visit, I was surprised to recall that the bombing happened in the mid-90's. I thought it was much more recent.
To put things in a personal perspective, I graduated from high school in 1995, just months after the bombing. The only news story that I have strong in my memory from that year is the O.J. Simpson trial. My senior year History and Government teacher used to bring a radio to class to listen to the trial. I remember him giving us busy work and letting us goof-off, so that he could listen to the trial. He definitely didn't prep us for the advance placement exams. I also remember being at Bard College and living in such a bubble, that I didn't know the outcome of the O.J. trial, until weeks after it ended. Although the Oklahoma City bombing was definitely huge news ( and certainly more important than the O.J. trial), any news took a back seat to my being a teenager and starting college.
This trip was short and I only had one full day to explore the city, so I decided that walking would be the best way to take in the sights. My hotel was less than a mile from the memorial and the weather was unseasonably hot for September. Hot and humid. I started my day of touring at 9am.
Just a block from my hotel, I found a bunch of painted statues. They reminded me of the angel statues in Los Angeles, where different artists decorated angels. However, in this case, the subjects of the statues were varied. They are like the angels in the way that they are decorated and that different artists worked on each statue. My favorite is "Tux the Penguin", which was sponsored by the zoo.
The architecture in Oklahoma City is a mixture of modern and historical buildings; new and old coexisting. I felt safe walking around and everyone was very friendly. Several people said good morning to me on my walk. Oklahoma City has a nice, welcoming vibe.
Fifteen minutes into my walk, I reached my destination.
I didn't take pictures of the actual memorial. It didn't feel right to take pictures. I saw several people taking selfies; which seemed extra wrong. Memorials are sacred spaces. Before walking inside the gates of the memorial, I put my phone on silent and slipped it into my purse. I wanted to fully experience this place of remembrance and reflection.
The memorial is flanked on either side by two gates with open walkways. One side has the time 9:01 and the other side has 9:03. The bombing occurred at 9:02 am, which is the center of the memorial. There is an expansive lawn with a silver chair for each victim, small chairs for the children. The Murrah Federal building had a daycare center and most of the children had arrived for the day when the bomb went off. One hundred and sixty-eight people lost their lives, nineteen of which were children. In front of the chairs is a large reflection pool stretching between the two gates. Recovered stone from the Murrah building was used to create a wall on one side of the memorial. The other side is open, facing the museum, which was a building that housed a local newspaper at the time of the bombing. Over thirty other neighboring buildings were severely damaged from the explosion.
I felt somewhat stunned as I walked around the memorial. Again, having not remembered much of the news surrounding the bombing, I had forgotten than so many people had lost their lives, including so many children. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the destruction. It's stunning in light of so many terrorist attacks that have happened since Oklahoma City. No where feels immune. No where feels safe.
At the top of the memorial there is a tree. I did take a picture of the tree, since although it is part of the memorial, it was away from the main part of the memorial and felt appropriate.
This American Elm is known as the "Survivor's Tree." It was in this location long before Oklahoma City was developed and they have photographic evidence of it being on a family homestead in this site over ninety years ago. It has shrapnel and damage from the bomb, but it managed to stay alive.
Next, I headed to the museum.
Although it is free to walk around the memorial, the museum entry was fifteen dollars. It was well-worth every cent and I would encourage anyone visiting Oklahoma City to make the museum a priority.
The museum is self-guided and arranged in a way that allows visitors to follow a set path that tells the story of the bombing. It starts with an introductory video featuring Broadway star and Oklahoma native, Kristen Chenoweth. The theme of the video is: "A Day Like Any Other." From there, I learned about the Murrah building, its namesake, and the different government services that were housed within. There are exhibits placing the bombing in the context of the time period and introducing Timothy McVeigh's interest in the Branch Davidian Complex siege, in which McVeigh blamed the government for the deaths of the compound members. McVeigh planned the bombing for the anniversary of these events in Waco, Texas.
To root visitors in the morning of the bombing, we were taken to a meeting of the Water Board. This meeting took place in an office close to the Murrah building and was recording when the bomb exploded. No one at this meeting was killed or injured, but the sound of the recording is deafening. This plunges us into the minutes after the bombing, with displays showing items recovered and pieces of the building warped. Local new reports are shown on television screens. It's intense.
Next, we hear stories from survivors. Stories of co-workers helping each other and trying to account for every one. Stories of fire fighters and other rescuers. The most horrific story was of a woman visiting the Murrah building to pick up a social security card for her newborn. She was accompanied by her mother, sister, and two children: all of whom died. The woman survived, but was pinned under a beam that could not be moved. She was saved when a doctor used a pocket knife to amputate her leg with no anesthesia. Another story that really got to me was of a little girl who was kept home from daycare the day of the bombing. She visited the site with her parents and was interacting with a rescue dog, when she was overheard asking the rescue dog to "Please find her friends." I was crying in the middle of the museum when I read that, it's heartbreaking.
The story switches to the hunt to find the bombers. Crazy enough, Timothy McVeigh was arrested thirty minutes after the bombing when he was pulled over for not having license plates. Furthermore, the arresting officer found a loaded gun and knife on him. He was still in custody when they figured out that he was connected to the bombings. The museum even has his getaway car on display. Displays feature the hunt for other suspects, such as Terry Nichols, who helped build the bombs, but who was not in Oklahoma City at the time of the attack. McVeigh was executed for his crimes, where as Nichols got a life sentence for every death without the possibility of parole. Also involved were married couple Michael and Lori Fortier, who knew about the planned attacks, but said nothing. They corporate with authorities in exchange for a lesser sentence. Lori was not charged and Michael served about ten years before going into the witness protection program. The Fortier's plea deal was a huge controversy.
The building that houses the museum also sustained damage during the bombing and to illustrate this, they sealed off a former men's restroom that had been destroyed in 1995. It is left just as it was after the bombing. It's amazing to see this time capsule and to imagine how much worse it was on the federal building.
The last part of the museum is dedicated to the victims. It's a single room with each victims photo in a shadow box with items that their family members chose to represent them. For example, it might be a toy or a cross. There are several Precious Moments figurines. One thing that really stood out to me in all of the displays, in all parts of the museum, is just how dated everything looks. In my mind, the 90's feel like they were just yesterday, but looking at all of the technology and artifacts made me realize that it was a long time ago. Many of the pictures of the female victims were "Glamour Shots." Remember those? So popular in the 90's.
Taking in all of these pictures is a heavy enough experience, but when I was there, a woman about my age came in with a man to show him a picture of her dad who had died. I think they might have been newly dating. It was a very intimate, incredibly sad moment. I left the room to give them privacy.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is such an intense and moving experience that I would say it's worth making the effort to visit Oklahoma City. The overriding message of the memorial is one of forgiveness, hope, and kindness; all things that we could use more of in this world.