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Remembering the bombing: the Oklahoma City National Memorial

In most American cities and towns there has been more remembrance of the September 2001 terrorist attacks than the April 1995 bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. In fact, those boarding an airplane or entering a Federal administration building are now considered a reduced terror risk if they show a valid driver’s license - even though that’s exactly what Timothy McVeigh used to rent a truck and to drive it to a parking space alongside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

In between renting that truck and driving it to the Federal building, Timothy McVeigh loaded the truck with explosives. The bomb detonated at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. The explosion destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, damaged several nearby buildings, and resulted in the deaths of 168 people.

The Field of Empty Chairs is now located where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood; granite salvaged from that building was used for the perimeter of that part of the memorial. The 168 empty chairs are aligned in nine rows corresponding to the nine floors where each of the victims worked or was visiting. Nineteen children in the day care center were killed in the blast, and 19 smaller chairs commemorate those young victims.

Part of the east wall bordering Robinson Avenue survived the blast. Salvaged granite from the lobby was laid on what is now known as the Survivor Wall, and the names of more than 600 survivors are inscribed on that granite.

A reflecting pool is north of the Field of Empty Chairs. The Gates of Time on the east and west sides of the pool bear the inscriptions 9:01 and 9:03. At 9:01 a.m. everything seemed normal in Downtown Oklahoma City. At 9:03 a.m. Oklahoma City had changed.

The Journal Record Building survived the blast with minimal damage and is now the site of the memorial museum. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board building was also nearby, and because its April 19 hearing which began at 9:00 a.m. was transcribed a recording of the explosion is among the museum items.

In addition to the hearing, the museum exhibits include a background on terrorism, a history of the site, the subsequent chaos and survivor experience, the rescue and recovery, and the process of bringing Timothy McVeigh to justice. The exhibits also honor the 168 victims with photographs, personal artifacts, interactive computers which provide biographies, and funeral excerpts.

Oklahoma City and San Antonio are both off of Interstate 35 and are about 7 1/2 hours away by automobile, so it is possible to visit both the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the Alamo on the same trip. The attack on the Alamo resulted in the deaths of 189 defenders, more fatalities than in the Oklahoma City bombing. But the Oklahoma City National Memorial will create more of an emotional response than the Alamo.

General Santa Anna’s army had assembled 4,000 troops at the Alamo the day before the attack, so the Texans knew their fate might be waiting while nobody in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building thought an explosion was likely. The women and children at the Alamo were spared, unlike the occupants of the Oklahoma City bombing site. And the list of soldiers who died defending the Alamo consists of names only, perhaps relatives of a visitor and a couple of recognizable American historical figures. The photos of the Oklahoma City bombing victims make the lives lost more identifiable.

The fence intended to protect the ruins of the federal building soon became a receptacle for the outpouring of sympathy and moral support, and part of the fence remains as visitors worldwide offer signs of hope for recovery.

Surrounding buildings have their own commemorations of the bombing. Before the federal government utilized the block between Robinson Avenue, Harvey Avenue, Northwest Fourth Street, and Northwest Fifth Street (which is now the reflecting pool) for the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, it was the site of a Catholic grade school associated with Old St. Joseph Cathedral, which is across Harvey Street. Stained-glass windows, artwork, and other artifacts at the church were destroyed or damaged, and the history of the cathedral engraved outside that building includes a segment on the bombing. The Post Office across Harvey Street was built in 1997 and what ironically is the wall furthest away from the bombing memorial carries a message about Oklahoma City surviving the tragedy.

Many Americans give more thought to the East Coast terrorist attacks in 2001 than to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. But those with friends and family members in Oklahoma City have vivid memories of the hours between the time they learned of the damage and the time they learned that their loved ones were safe – or that the plans they had as of 9:01 a.m. that day would never come to fruition.

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