I worked then, too (imagine that!) as an insurance secretary at a family practice office. It was a good job, and I liked it. The office was located not too far from our house, also far from the base. I think people don’t always realize that Oklahoma City is actually a big city, space-wise …. spread far and wide. If you live on the northwest side of town, or in any of the suburbs on the northwest side of town ….. it’s a long stinking way to the southeast suburb-side of town, where the base is. Close to a forty minute drive, much of it ON the highway. (If you don’t believe me, let anyone who makes the commute every day show you their gas bill lately!!) And of course, downtown would be pretty much smack in the middle.
The doctor’s office, like I said, was about as far northwest as you could get at the time. It was a stand-alone building, located behind a strip mall that had a grocery store in it. In between the back of the grocery store and our building was a narrow alley where the 18-wheelers would back up to make their deliveries to the grocery store.
(Trust me, I really am going somewhere with this story.)
One morning, I was sitting in my
A few minutes later, our phones started ringing.
Oh, in case I haven’t mentioned the date …… it was April 19, 1995.
Considering we were miles and miles from downtown and still felt the blast from the Murrah bombing, I can only imagine how much worse things must have gotten, the closer people got to the blast site. My mom worked a few blocks away and honestly thought a plane had crashed into their building. A girlfriend of mine worked across the street from the Murrah building with one building in between. She was running late for work that morning and was in her car in the parking lot when the bomb went off. The windows of every car in the parking lot exploded around her, but hers did not. She can only guess that perhaps the vibration of her still-running engine absorbed the blast. Regardless, she was only a few days away from starting her maternity leave, so she put her car in reverse, drove home, and never went back.
One of my co-workers lost a sister, and one of my school friends lost an uncle. Several of the patients at our family practice clinic were survivors, and we treated a few of them for minor injuries sustained, but nothing grave.
And that, really, was as close as I got. Not that I wasn’t impacted --- my gosh, I can’t imagine anyone who lived anywhere near Oklahoma City who wasn’t impacted by what happened, and by the rescue efforts that took place in the days afterwards. The human interest stories that came out it, and the stories of heroism and bravery, and sadness and loss …. personally, the memory of exactly where I was when the bomb went off is as vivid to me as the moment I heard Princess Diana had died in a car accident …. Or heard about the Challenger explosion …. Or (if I really want to date myself) the moment I heard President Reagan had been shot (eighth grade pre-algebra class, if you must know.)
Although I will never forgot those terrible days, and the stories of death and loss and faith and hope and miracles that came out of that time, and how I sat in front of the television, crying at the images of everyone killed ….. I guess my point is that I didn’t suffer any loss personally. Pretty much everyone knows someone who knows someone who was affected or involved in one way or the other …. Pretty much everybody can come up with a connection to the incident, whether it be a person who was “supposed” to be in the building that day, or a friend who had been downtown the day before, or a person who has a co-worker who has an aunt whose uncle’s brother’s best friends’ wife’s babysitter had been driving down that very street earlier that morning!!! ---- but none of those stories involved me personally, and I never wanted to be a hanger-on. You know who I’m talking about? Those people who seem to get off on finding a connection for themselves, no matter how small, to some crisis. Those people bug me. Which is perhaps why I had never made it a point to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial on any of my visits home in the following years. I had *heard* about the Memorial Site, and certainly had it on my list of “places to visit now that I’m back home”. I just hadn’t made it a priority yet, because I didn’t feel like the tragedy had affected me personally.
What a mistake that was.
When our friends from Georgia were here visiting last week, I wanted to give them a bona-fide OKC tourist experience, so the Memorial Site was tops on our list. After all, it’s the top visitor attraction in the state, with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Even better, I have a friend who works there personally, and she agreed to meet us downtown and show us around the site. Although there is a 30,000 sq foot museum, we agreed the kids might not understand or enjoy it (although “enjoy” is of course not the right word) as much as the adults, so we decided to just tour the outdoor site.
Maybe it was actually seeing the one hundred sixty-eight chairs set up on the lawn where the building used to be; one chair for each of the victims --- large chairs for adults, small chairs for children. Maybe it was seeing the names inscribed on each of the chairs and knowing those people murdered were fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandmothers, friends, co-workers, a rescue worker ---- including two women who were pregnant. I realize that as far as numbers go, it’s a lot smaller than the loss of 9/11. But can you really compare numbers, when death is this tragic and unnecessary?
Maybe it was getting to visit the memorial with our very own personal tour guide, who was able to tell us about the site, and the stories and meaning behind the monuments, and the stories behind some of the victims and survivors as well.
It was definitely amazing. The care that goes into this place is unbelievable. Although there is some evidence of maintenance work taking place, well, it’s simply proof that the people behind the scenes refuse to let anything get sloppy or be kept in less than perfect condition. The site is beautiful and pristine; grounds are mowed weekly, early in the morning before too many people are present (the outdoor memorial is open 24 hours a day) and the grass around the 168 chairs is trimmed by hand, with clippers, every week. It’s like Stacey said, “You don’t think we’re letting anyone near those chairs with a weed whacker, do you???”
The story of the Survivor Tree is heart-warming; its presence inspiring. The building that was next to the Murrah building is now the museum …. Its pockmarked walls and bent fire railing a stark reminder of the violence that took place that day. Every window that is black is a window that was blown out in the explosion …. Best I could tell, that was every window.
It’s a reverent place, and restful, but one of hope. At least I felt that way. The grounds are beautiful. Always with an eye out for potential backgrounds for photos, I asked Stacey if it would be inappropriate to bring a camera for a portrait sessions --- apparently I’m not the first person to think that, as she said they see lots of photographers on the grounds. They’ve even had weddings at the Survivor Tree.
While I am sure there are some families who might find it too painful to visit, I would hope most people can see for themselves the care and respect and dignity that is present.
And I would wish the people of New York City could have the same thing.
As soon as the kids are back in school and I have a free day, I’m going back. To tour the museum and to hear one of the first-person accounts that take place every Friday until Labor Day.
Because even though “it didn’t affect me personally”, just visiting the memorial affected me as a person. I’m only sorry it took me so long to discover what an inspiring place it is.