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.
There 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.
After 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.