Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum

Oklahoma City National Memorial and MuseumWhere were you on April 19, 1995?

If you’re like most people — myself included — you probably don’t remember.

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

If you’re like most people — myself included — you not only remember where you were but how the hours of your day progressed.

Only about six years prior to the terrorist attacks in New York City, there was a domestic terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, that killed 168 people and literally and figuratively shook the foundation of a major city in the United States.

Before I visited Oklahoma City, I admit that I was quite naïve about the Oklahoma City bombing. I knew it had occurred, but I was quite young and have no recollection of my circumstances on the day it happened. I also don’t remember much after the fact, though the name Timothy McVeigh was familiar to me. I think it’s safe to assume that, especially since the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, most people have all but forgotten about the Oklahoma City terrorist attack.

But there’s one community that remembers what happened on April 19, 1995, and that’s Oklahoma City. In fact, the city has constructed a hauntingly beautiful memorial and a well-organized, educational museum that capture the events leading up to the explosion, the chaos throughout the next hours and days, and the aftermath of trials, mourning and moving forward.

Oklahoma City National Memorial and MuseumThere are two parts to this site.  The first part is the museum, which takes a few hours to properly visit. I’ve found that museums that have a flow, a purpose and a story seem to have the strongest impact (like the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC), and this museum is no exception.

The museum starts out simple enough.

You learn that April 19, 1995, is a day like any other in Oklahoma City. Specific people are mentioned as going about their daily lives: This man is going to work; this mother drops her child off at daycare.

You learn about the neighborhood and the Murrah Building — just a run-of-the-mill government building where people are doing run-of-the-mill things to earn a living.

And then you’re ushered into a mock courtroom like the one that used to be across the street from the Murrah Building. You begin to listen to the proceedings that were taking place that morning when suddenly there’s an explosion, the lights go off and the walls shake. April 19 has just changed the face of the city.

From there the museum moves through a series of rooms — confusion and chaos in the minutes that followed the explosion, personal effects that blew out windows and were found in rubble, rescue and recovery efforts, stories from survivors, updates from around the world. And then time slows down as the next few rooms detail the investigation that followed the bombing and how the investigation and trials unfolded. This museum, like many of its type, leaves visitors with an important message: The community can rebuild and recover, but it can never forget … nor should it.

Oklahoma City National Memorial and MuseumAfter experiencing the museum, it’s important to take some time in the second part of the site: the memorial. I visited with a friend at night, and from the outside, there is a large wall with a single doorway. Once we walked through the doorway, all the sounds of the city melted away, and we were left in spooky serenity next to a long reflecting pool, a space that was once occupied by NW Fifth Street. On the eastern wall, 9:01 is carved into the stone above the doorway. Through the park is the reflecting pool with a field of 168 chairs representing lost lives that seem to float above the ground and a 90-year-old survivor tree, which stood through the tragedy of April 19. On the other side of the park is a second wall with 9:03 carved into the stone above the doorway. The pool, the chairs and the survivor tree represent the moment in time when everything changed in Oklahoma City, and it’s impressive how well this simple and poignant message is.

On one side of the memorial there is a fence that runs along the length of the road outside of the park. On this wall are wreaths, notes, articles of clothing, pieces of jewelry and other assorted mementos that people have left over the years to remember April 19, 1995. As I was walking along the fence, reading the notes, looking at the pictures and putting faces and names together, it dawned on me that it’s during times of incredible tragedy that the best seems to come out in people. Under normal circumstances, people shouldn’t be able to leave jewelry chained to a fence. In a typical situation, people wouldn’t carefully step around stuffed animals and shoes set up against a wall.

I’ve never given much thought to what happened on April 19, 1995, and my guess is that most people haven’t, though we’re quick to remember other terrorist attacks that have occurred in the United States and around the world. Now that I’ve visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, I’m much more likely to take a moment to pause and remember yet another day that notoriously stands out in the history of the U.S.

My experiences in Oklahoma City were made possible by the Travel Media Show, but all opinions are my own.

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Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum
JoAnna is a globe-trotting, idea-inventing, culture-collecting creativity connoisseur with big dreams and a desire to touch all seven continents. You can also find JoAnna at joannahaugen.com and at The 52 Letters Project.
Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum

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14 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    I was in middle school class!! lol. I don’t think I understood the magnitude of the event.

  2. Amanda says:

    I visited this museum/memorial with my sister last summer. It was an impromptu stop on a summer road trip, but one that I’m SO glad we made. I thought the museum was phenomenal, and did such a great job of getting its message across and telling the stories of those affected on that day. I recommend this to everyone I know who might be passing through Oklahoma City!

  3. Sophie says:

    Oddly, I was on a flight out of Oklahoma City that day.

  4. Abby says:

    Nice post, JoAnna. I was a senior in high school. Maybe New Mexico was too close to Oklahoma, but I remember it too well, and hearing the “Murrah Building” makes me sick to my stomach. You’re so right about it being an abstract day though… I don’t remember the weather, or who I was with. I know that I was IN NYC, and my dad IN DC (and working at the Pentagon ugh), but I remember the hours of September 11 and the next few days with unbelievable clarity. And oh, how I wish I could forget.

  5. Cam says:

    April 19 is Nicole’s Birthday… I had no idea it shares a date with this sad day in humanity

  6. Nice piece, and no, I don’t remember the 1995 date but remember 9/11 vividly just like you.

  7. JoAnna says:

    I get the feeling that a lot of people didn’t see it as a big event, but those in Oklahoma City definitely still look at it as a major disaster.

  8. JoAnna says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Amanda. I’m glad to hear that you’ve made the stop at the museum and that you enjoyed it. I thought it was really well done, and I recommend it to anyone stopping through.

  9. JoAnna says:

    That’s creepy! I can’t imagine what that must have been like!

  10. JoAnna says:

    Gut wrenching and terrible, wasn’t it? I hate sad moments in history.

  11. JoAnna says:

    Now you know. It’s a wonderful museum, if you ever have the opportunity to visit.

  12. JoAnna says:

    I think most people, regardless of where they were in the world, remember 9/11.

  13. Turtle says:

    Great piece. I often think about Oklahoma when I think about the way the US reacted after 9/11. There was such a backlash against the muslim community after the WTC attack, even though it was just a few radicals who committed the crime. But there was no similar backlash against white redneck Americans after Oklahoma.
    Both were terrible crimes and the people responsible deserved to be punished — but when you think about the two of them together it should influence the way you react.

  14. JoAnna says:

    I agree with you, Turtle. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this since visiting the OKC Memorial, and it seems like such a shame to me that we’ve forgotten this tragedy. Kids learn about the 9/11 attacks in school, but that’s not the case with Oklahoma City’s terrorist attack.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I really appreciate it.

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