Beware those sunny days.
Perhaps the most infamous of clear, blue skies was over Manhattan on September 11, 2001. But amidst a line of cloudy mornings, the sun came out over a smaller, American Western town on April 19, 1995. It started as an ordinary day, but at 9 a.m. a truck exploded, ripping apart a building and many lives in Oklahoma City.
I had the opportunity this summer to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and despite a several-hours drive from where I was, I couldn’t pass it up. So after driving through a downpour part of the way, I finally found myself in a place that has no business having any special significance whatsoever. But an angry, heartless monster made it so.
The museum tour begins when you step off an elevator, as if you are an average worker reporting for duty in the Murrah Federal Building on that fateful day, and you are greeted by a wall-sized photo of the city with the unassuming edifice near the bottom, beneath the towering skyline. Beyond the image, you step into a room that takes you through the details of life in the city and the country in 1995, as well as the typical goings-on within the building on a spring Monday. Across the same room are two windows that lead to a false perception of an unscarred city, the footprint of the Murrah out of sight to the south. Between the windows is life-sized screen capture from a security camera, five minutes before the world changed, showing a rental truck pulling up on the street outside. The camera itself now a part of the exhibit.
Nearby, a wall clock is permanently fixed at 9:00 AM. At that time, police training was beginning inside the building. A credit union opened. Twenty-one children were checked into America’s Kids day care on the second floor. Later in the morning, worried adults would mistakenly be told that those children were safe around the corner at the YMCA, which ran its own daycare. When pressed, an emergency responder claimed there were no children in the Murrah daycare. A grandmother replied, “I just dropped my babies off there.”
The daycare was gone.
Next you step into a small room recreating the space in which a meeting began that, for most of us, would have been too boring for C-SPAN 2. A family has applied for a permit and is getting a hearing at the Water Resources Board in a neighboring building. The meeting is tape recorded. The room is empty except for visitors, a cut-away table and chairs, and the very same tape recorder. Its recording is played, beginning with a formal introduction of proceedings, and ending with chaotic sounds and shouts to get out, after the very audible explosion shook the original room.
Exiting that room brings you into the main exhibit, where a television plays a news feed that ran moments after the incident. To the right is the damaged wall sign from the side of the Water Resources Board building, missing two letters and small pieces of others. To to the left is what remains of the “Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building” sign:
A F ED M R A
The shocking level of destruction hits you hard in the room at the end of this hallway, a small gallery filled with recovered artifacts from the site. A door bowed inward. House keys and other pocket items. Shattered coffee mugs. One window contains a display of office fixtures destroyed. A file cabinet drawer is flattened. Shrapnel is embedded in the front and side of a computer monitor. A mangled window blind drapes the carnage.
.Next, a video plays in a small theater surrounded by items belonging to some of the people on the screen. Then a set of computers allow you to explore the Stories of Survivors.
As news of the crime spread across the world, rescue and recovery began. The museum presents the operation in great detail. Another set of computers tell the tales of first responders. Later in the day, a storm moved through the city, and the remains of the building were visibly swaying in strong winds. In the days that followed, workers shored up the building to make it safe for rescuers.
A final set of computers tells the stories of the victims.
Again I found myself in a new museum without adequate time to see it all. From its website, I expected this place to be rather small, but it takes up two large floors in the old Journal Record Building. The lower floor details the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of the killer and conspirator of the bombing, and honestly I didn’t mind missing most of that. Among the haunting items on display, the next and last vehicle driven by the bomber, the one that was pulled over for having no back license plate:
But the criminal presentation began on the main floor, with a bizarre collection from the hotel he stayed in the night before the attack, including its blazing neon roadside sign, and the front door to the room he rented there:The shirt he was wearing at the time of his arrest:One of the last rooms in the museum has a grand glass picture window overlooking the memorial outside. The pavement of Fifth Street has been replaced by a reflecting pool, bracketed on either end by gates representing the minute life ended for so many, and the minute life resumed again for survivors, families, and rescuers. On the other side of the pool is the place where the building once stood.
I was blessed to have been there, fittingly, on Memorial Day.
The memorial and museum’s website: