On April 19, 1995, I was student teaching at Mason Middle School in Mason, Ohio; I heard about the bombing in Oklahoma City as I was driving across a bridge on my way home. Matt was on his very first alert in Montana, meaning he was underground in a capsule, managing nuclear missiles. It was not a great day to be doing that job officially for the first time for him, and it made for some difficult "teachable moments" for me—how do you explain to a roomful of middle schoolers what happened when we weren't even sure at the time what had happened? It's hard to believe that today marks 21 years since that truck exploded.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 sometimes obscure the devastation that occurred that day in Oklahoma City.
168 people were killed.
Almost 700 more people were injured.
324 buildings and 86 cars in a 16 block radius were damaged or destroyed, not just the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building—all in the name of anger.
Anti-government hatred is a very real and frightening thing.
I've lived my entire life without a reason to be in Oklahoma City until February, when we were there for gymnastics—so, not knowing if I'd ever be back, I decided we would take a little side trip on our way out of town and visit the National Memorial. It was a little colder than we expected (though truly, when are Dillows adequately prepared for any given weather conditions?) and I wanted to get home before dark, so we only walked through the outside portion of the memorial; there is a museum, too.
The memorial is built on the ground where the federal building once stood; the "Gates of Time" are engraved with 9:01 and 9:03, the moments immediately before and after the bombing, while the reflecting pool symbolizes the actual attack.
The one remaining wall of the building still stands on the far corner, and is incorporated into the memorial itself. The majority of deaths were people inside the federal building, but a few people died just outside the perimeter, too.
Like the Pentagon Memorial, the victims are honored with seats; here they're meant to represent the empty seats at the families' tables. The full-size chairs are for adults, while the small chairs are for the children—19 of them—who were killed in the building's childcare facility. [Aside: this article from last year's 20th anniversary about the six children who survived is well worth reading.] The chairs are organized by who was on what floor of the building at the time of the blast, and the name of each person is etched on his or her respective chair. Three pregnant women were killed, and their unborn children are included underneath their mothers' names.
This fence, on the western edge of the memorial, was erected as part of the initial recovery but in the years since, has become a place for people to leave things in memory and in honor of the victims. To say it is a sad fence would be a vast understatement.
While not part of the official National Memorial, across the street is a smaller memorial corner built by St. Joseph's Old Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Oklahoma City that was nearly completely destroyed. The brick wall is missing bricks to symbolize those killed, and the statue of Jesus has its back to the site were the building stood.
The National Park Service was out in full force the morning we were there, and caught us early to see if Gracie would be interested in completing the Junior Ranger program (her second one—she was sworn in last year in Selma, too). He was great to talk with, and was thrilled that we made the time to come out before heading home. His job must be one part joy to serve his country and talk with so many people, and one part sorrow for the reason why.
The building that now houses the museum was once The Journal Record's offices; the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism operated here until 2014, training thousands of police officers across the country in counter-terrorism measures as well as providing a central location for research. It lost its federal funding in 2014 and was forced to close. The tree that sits in front of the Journal Record Building is known as the Survivor Tree; it's an American Elm tree that is around 100 years old. It sustained quite a lot of damage in the bombing, and was chopped down to almost nothing in the investigation since it was full of embedded debris after the explosion... but it continued to bloom each year and is now a protected symbol of the heart of Oklahoma City. There is a big system of underground piers on which the structure surrounding the tree is built so no further damage can occur to the roots, which apparently run very deep. There is also a Survivor Tree Seedling Program, which distributes hundreds of seeds/saplings to Oklahoma nurseries and beyond each year—it's estimated that hundreds of trees claiming the Survivor Tree as their origin grow around the United States now.
Which, when you think about it, is one of the most powerful memorials of all.