Thursday, January 29, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY: THE MURRAH FEDERAL BUILDING BOMBING MEMORIAL

At 9:02 a.m. on Wednesday, April 19, 1995, a huge explosion ripped into the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. It was one of those days when most Americans were glued to their TVs, much like the day in 1986 when the Challenger exploded or the day in 2001 when terrorists flew two planes into the Twin Towers in New York City. The bomb, originating in a vehicle parked on the street, hit at a time of maximum damage, a time when everyone was likely at work and the daycare center in the building was full. Not only did the blast rip away a full third of the Murrah Building, but it also damaged another 324 buildings in a 16-block radius. In all, 168 people were killed and more than 680 others were injured.

We parked our car across the street from the memorial near this incredibly moving display erected by St. Joseph's Catholic Church. Christ stands with his back to the scene of the devastation, facing a wall with 168 niches representing the voids left by the victims.
Directly behind Him is the entry into the bombing memorial site.
To His left is part of the chain link fence that has become a wall of remembrance, little scraps of paper, toys, knick knacks, and photos tucked into the spaces--an American Wailing Wall.

At His feet, at the base of the sculpture, the shortest verse of the New Testament provides the title for the memorial.
It is a gut-wrenching way to start a tour of such a sad, sad place.

The entrance, a large bronze wall that looks like a mausoleum
. . . is inscribed with words of remembrance and reverence:
A long reflecting pool is just inside the door, and at the far end is an identical door, a book end to match the one we came through.
The wall at the far end has 9:01 engraved above the entrance, "the time of innocence" just before the blast at 9:02.
The gate we entered has 9:03 engraved above the opening, one second after the blast and, as a description at the site notes, "the moment recovery began."
I guess that makes this shallow reflecting pool that long, long minute in between.
The pool stands where there was once a street, and from some angles, it still looks like a street, a look enhanced by the black granite that forms its bottom.

I was unprepared for the emotional impact of this place, and like the statue of the Christ outside the walls, I could not hold back my tears. On the south side of the reflecting pool, where once the Murrah Building stood, now stand 168 straight-backed chairs, each bearing a victim's name etched in the glass base. The chairs represent the empty places at the family dinner tables in the victims' homes (reminding me of the song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables from Les Miserables). There are 19 chairs that are much smaller than the others; they stand for the children in the onsite daycare center who were killed that day. Three unborn children died with their mothers, and their names are etched on their mother's chair beneath her name. 
The chairs are placed in nine rows to represent the nine floors of the Murrah Building. Each person's chair is in the row that corresponds to the floor on which he or she died, and five chairs on the western end represent those who died outside the building or in neighboring buildings. The chairs are also grouped according to the blast pattern, with more chairs clustered in the areas where the building was most heavily damaged.
We were there on Friday, December 19th, less than a week before Christmas, and the wreath on each chair made the visit that much more poignant.
The straight, upright rows brought to mind the American Cemetery at Normandy:
Anyone who wants to sit down and meditate or pray is allowed to choose any of these seats. They are meant to be used if treated with respect.
Large pine trees growing around the perimeter stand as sentries:
On the other side of the pool is the building that once housed the offices for the local newspaper, the Journal Record. Now it houses the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. That magnificent elm tree in front of it, which is known as "The Survivor Tree," is nearly 100 years old.
The only shade tree in the Murrah Building parking lot, it was just 150 feet from ground zero. Most of its branches were ripped off, glass and metal from nearby cars were embedded in its trunk, and it was blackened by fire. Originally it was thought to be dead, but during the spring a year after the bombing, green shoots appeared on its branches. These words are inscribed on the inside of the low wall that surrounds the tree: The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.

Each year, seeds from the Survivor Tree are gathered and planted. The resulting saplings have been distributed all over the country. There is even one growing on the White House lawn.

The entrance to the museum is being renovated, but there is a lovely children's courtyard in front that includes some of the 5,000 hand-painted tiles that were sent from children all over the United States and Canada after the bombing


As visitors walk into the museum, they read these words and see themselves mirrored behind them:
We started our tour in the brand new exhibits on the third floor, which had just been open for a few days. Very effective interactive displays with excellent audio and visual components place visitors in the center of the city on the fateful day.
Guests are ushered into a conference room where for several minutes they listen to an actual recording of a meeting of the city water board that took place there on April 19, 1995. The recording is suddenly interrupted by a deafening explosion, and even though we knew it was coming, Bob and I both jumped. Sounds of complete chaos ensue.

The doors open and guests file out of the conference room and into spaces that show scene after scene of complete devastation and panic.

One display shows a photo of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral prior to the blast. We had just visited it earlier that day:

About one-third of the building was completely gone after the blast, and what was left was ravaged by fire and filled with debris from the explosion:
There are tapes of survivors talking about their experiences. Some show the parents of the children in the building telling of that agonizing day and their attempts to come to terms with it all.

Detailed exhibits about the rescue and clean-up operation highlight the courage and heroism of the firemen and policemen.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of fire captain
Chris Fields cradling one-year-old Baylee Almon,
one of the 19 children who died that day.
The picture was taken by banker and amateur
photographer Charles Porter
The museum provides extensive information about the capture and trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. McVeigh, the mastermind, had a hatred of the federal government based on the handling of the Ruby Ridge incident in northern Idaho in 1992 and the Waco seige  in Texas during 1993. He carried out the attack on the two-year anniversary of the Waco event. In the end, Nichols was sentenced to life in prison and McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in 2001.

One room in the museum is dedicated to the victims. There were written biographies as well as these photo tributes. Many of the photo boxes included a little figurine, a baby shoe, a piece of jewelry, a Bible verse, some cosmetics, or something that represented that person. The little pacifier on the middle picture on the right was almost too hard to look at as I thought of my own babies, and I struggled to fight back tears.
Another area displays some of the things that have been left on the memorial wall outside. The items are periodically gathered up, cataloged, and stored:
Large windows provide a sweeping view of the park:
This may well be the most painful memorial I have ever visited, and as such, I have mixed feelings about it. There was just so much, and at times I was on sensory overload. It was all very well done, but the museum operated on the premise that more is more. After the haunting simplicity and quiet of the outdoor exhibit with its pool and empty chairs, the relentlessness of the museum felt harsh. Perhaps that was the point. But does the intensity ultimately promote some kind of healing, or does it extend and magnify the grief? Only the families and friends of those remembered here can answer that question.

2 comments:

  1. The trees in the outdoor memorial outline the building itself. I liked all of the detail in the museum. It was an amazing source of information on what happened: visual thru pictures and videos, recordings, written, interactive displays. I agree that it was intensely emotional. I was emotionally drained when we left.

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  2. Wow. What an emotional experience. What a horrible event.

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