I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial for the first time on the twenty-second anniversary of the bombing – it was late in the day on April 19, 2017. The official commemoration ceremonies took place in the morning, but as evening fell, many people were still milling around. My sister and brother-in-law, residents of OKC, were my guides.
The Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest terror attack on American soil before September 11, 2001. It is still ranked as the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. The bomb blast, which destroyed the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, claimed 168 lives and forever changed the face of Oklahoma City. A stunned nation reacted in shock and horror.
On the fifth anniversary of the bombing, April 19, 2000, the Oklahoma City National Memorial
was formally dedicated. It is located in the downtown section of the city where the Murrah Federal Building once stood. The Outdoor Symbolic Monument honors the victims, survivors, and rescuers, whose lives were changed forever by what happened on that tragic morning. The open-air structure is interpreted by the National Park Service and can be visited 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The design of the Memorial focuses on three fateful minutes, which ticked away on that ordinary Wednesday morning in Oklahoma City: 9:01 a.m. - the last minute before the bomb detonated; 9:02 a.m. - the exact time of the explosion; and 9:03 a.m. - the aftermath when the recovery began. During that brief three-minute interval, a rented Ryder truck, loaded with fertilizer and diesel fuel, exploded in front of the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 men, women, and children, and injured over 600 more. Timothy McVeigh, a disgruntled Gulf War veteran with a grudge against the government, detonated the homemade bomb, which he had built with the help of his army buddy, Terry Nichols. McVeigh was executed for his crime in 2001, and Nichols was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Visitors enter the 3.3 acre site through one of two massive bronze gates which frame the Memorial. Called, the “Gates of Time,” they provide a doorway into a tragic moment in the history of Oklahoma City and the nation. The eastern gate represents the last minute of peace and tranquility before the explosion rocked the city. It is lighted on the inside with a time stamp, 9:01. The western gate at the opposite end of the Memorial represents the aftermath of the bombing and the first efforts of rescue and recovery. It is time-stamped 9:03.
The space between the two Gates of Time symbolizes the exact minute when the bomb exploded – 9:02 a.m. It is also “sacred ground” since so many died here.
The center section of the Memorial is dominated by a large reflecting pool in which a thin layer
of water flows over black granite from east to west. It sits where NW 5th Street once ran on the north side of the Murrah Federal Building. It was here that the Ryder truck loaded with explosives was parked.
The inverted images of the Gates of Time and the surrounding landscape are reflected in the shallow pool. Visitors who look into the moving water see a reflection of themselves and the strange new reality, which a single moment of violence brought to a city and a nation.
Lined up on the south side of the reflecting pool are 168 chairs made of brass, stone, and glass. The Field of Empty Chairs sits within the footprint of the demolished federal building. The chairs represent the empty seats at the dinner tables of the victims. Each chair has a name on it, and they are arranged in nine rows to symbolize the nine floors of the federal building. The position of each person’s chair indicates where they worked or where they were when the bomb exploded. The chairs of the nineteen children who died in the blast are smaller than the others and are a poignant reminder of the innocent life lost on that tragic day.
On the twenty-second anniversary of the bombing, many of the chairs were decorated with flowers, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, and other mementos left by grieving relatives and friends. Some of the chairs were almost completely covered, and the smell of flowers was in
The empty chairs look north across the reflecting pool to the Survivor Tree, a large, 100-year-old American elm, which once stood in the parking lot of the Murrah Federal Building. The explosion stripped the tree of its branches, and the trunk was scarred by fire and embedded
with glass and other debris. Everyone thought it was dead. However, about a year after the blast, workers and visitors to the site began to notice new leaves sprouting from the shattered trunk – miraculously, the old elm had survived!
The “Survivor Tree,” now healthy and strong, has become a focal point of the Memorial and a poignant symbol of rebirth and renewal. Each year, seeds from the tree are collected and planted, and young Survivor Trees are growing in many locations in Oklahoma and across the country. The inscription on the deck surrounding the Survivor Tree reflects what this ancient elm tree has come to stand for:
“The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”
A small portion of the original wall of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building still stands. It is located east of the Field of Chairs. The Survivor Wall contains the names of more than 600
men, women, and children who were injured by the blast but survived their ordeal.
Another feature of the Oklahoma City National Memorial is a section of the original 10-foot-tall chain link fence which surrounded the site in the aftermath of the bombing. For years, people left flowers, stuffed animals, and notes in the “Memorial Fence” to honor those who died on that April morning. During construction, a 210 foot section of the original fence was moved to the “healing side” of the Memorial, and it is still a place where people attach mementos and tributes to the victims of the tragedy.
A visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial is a moving experience. It can hardly be called
a “tourist attraction,” and yet people from across the country and around the world are drawn to this spot where so much death and destruction has been transformed into a place of peace and beauty. Perhaps the words inscribed over the doorways on the Gates of Time best sum up what the Memorial means to those who enter:
“We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”
Notes: The Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum is located just north of the memorial site. It tells the complete story of April 19, 1995, and contains numerous artifacts and exhibits. Unlike the Memorial, which is always open and free, the Museum has regular hours, and charges an entrance fee ($15 for adults).
Across the street from the western Gate of Time is a sculpture called “And Jesus Wept.” The large white statue of Christ with his head bowed stands with his back to the Memorial. His right hand covers his face to hide his tears. In front of the statue is a wall with 168 gaps in it, each representing a life lost in the explosion. The words from the New Testament, “and Jesus wept,” are engraved on the base. The statue was erected by St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the oldest parish in the city. The nearby church was extensively damaged by the explosion and closed for two years while repairs were being made.
The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon takes place every year in April near the anniversary of the bombing. Called “A Run to Remember,” it commemorates the tragedy of April 19, 1995, and honors the memory of the victims. It also raises money for the Memorial and provides additional support for all the families affected by the tragedy. Next year, the marathon will be run on April 29, 2018. It will be the 17th annual “Run to Remember.”
Both Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols have connections to the Thumb. Nichols was born in Lapeer, Michigan, and graduated from Lapeer High School.
McVeigh visited his army buddy, Terry Nichols, in the early 1990’s. They stayed at the home of Nichols’s brother James in Sanilac County’s Evergreen Township. It was there that the two army veterans experimented with bomb making.
During his stay in the Thumb, McVeigh was incensed by the federal government’s fifty-one-day siege of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas. On April 19, 1993, authorities attempted to end the standoff with a final assault on the buildings; but a raging fire engulfed the compound, and seventy-six men, women, and children inside lost their lives. On the exact date two years later, McVeigh set off an improvised truck bomb in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City as an act of revenge.
I looked back in my journal for 1995 to see if I wrote anything about the Oklahoma City bombing:
April 19, 1995: “A bomb blew up in Oklahoma City – federal building destroyed.”
April 21, 1995: “Federal agents surrounded a house on M-53 near Decker – connection with the Oklahoma bombing. I never thought any American would have done this….”