Friday, April 2, 2010

Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

15 years ago this month I was on a business trip to Oklahoma -- Tulsa to be precise. On April 19th, I had finished with my business, made my way to the airport about Noon, and that's when I learned about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City earlier that day. People throughout the airport were huddled around TVs and the place was quieter than usual. I'm not sure anyone understood the true level of destruction and loss of life... I know I didn't. Many of us were still making business phone calls while keeping one eye on the story. News video from the scene showed a building still standing, albeit with a third of it collapsed.

I had a similar feeling early on in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center... an airplane had hit the building... I didn't know how big or type of plane... wasn't clear if it was accidental or intentional... and just assumed that the fires would be extinguished and the building repaired and life would go on. But in a flash, when I saw, live, the second plane hit the other tower, some of those questions became instantly crystal clear: We were under attack! And later that morning, when first one tower collapsed and then the other collapsed, our lives truly changed forever. Someone had found a way to topple two of the largest towers in the world. International terrorism had found its way to the safe and secure USA.

Until 9/11, the largest act of terrorism and the greatest resulting loss of life was the April 19, 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. In the days that followed the real scope of what had happened became more clear. So many lives were lost, including 19 small children in a day care center on the second floor of the targeted building. What a waste, what a senseless act, what twisted mind could have devised such a thing? And when we found out it was US citizens, some who had served their country in the military, it became even harder to understand.

I wasn't prepared for what we found at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum during our explorations on Wednesday. I hadn't expected to relive that day so intimately... listening to the explosion on a recording of a business meeting taking place just across the street... listening to 911 tapes... police and EMS radio chatter, early news reports... the first close-up video from a news helicopter. At 9:01am, everyone was having just another normal morning, going through their routines, having a second cup of coffee... just a normal morning. By 9:03am, just two minutes later, everything had changed. Many were dead, many more injured. The affected area was far larger than you'd think... buildings blocks away were hit with flying debris, windows blown out causing more injuries.

The Museum takes you through the day, minute by minute, and then through subsequent days and months. You experience it from a number of different perspectives... the victims, the rescuers, the police and investigators, the news people, the government, and the bombers themselves. There are countless artifacts and photos and videos that suck you in, make you feel like you're there. It's very well done and very effective.

The outside Memorial is built on both sides of the street that once ran in front of the Murrah Federal Building. It's like a cross between a quiet park and a cemetery. The block is contained within two large 4 story high bronze-clad "gates" -- the east gate is the 9:01 gate that represents the innocence of the City the moment before the bomb, and the west 9:03 gate represents the the moment after the bomb when we were changed forever, and the hope that grew out of the horror in the days, months, and years following.

That one block long section of 5th Street, where the Building once stood, is now closed and part of the Memorial. Where the street used to be is city block-long reflecting pool. On the adjoining hillside in the footprint of the building is a Field of Empty Chairs... one for each of the 168 victims. They're arranged in rows that represent the floor that person was on at the time of the blast. Each chair, made of bronze, stone, and glass, is similar, but unique... no two are alike... and they're softly illuminated from below at night. The children's chairs are smaller. Very effectively, these empty chairs remind us that these people are no longer with us... but at the same time, they are very much with us.

Directly across the street from Murrah Federal Building was an American Elm tree that took severe damage, had it's leaves stripped bare by the blast, and absorbed significant amounts of shrapnel and debris. Yet today, it still survives. Called the Survivor Tree, it represents the resilience of life and the human spirit.

I was surprised at the large number of people at the Memorial and the Museum on a regular Wednesday afternoon. It's good to see, 15 years later, that the memories of that horrific event are still remembered and, it can only be hoped, a lesson can be learned about the senselessness and the terrible impact of violence... to prevent this from happening again.

We were both moved to tears by the visit. I highly recommend the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum to everyone -- it's a "must see". If you're anywhere nearby, stay an extra day, do whatever you have to, but make a visit and spend a few hours remembering and reflecting. I think you'll be glad you did.

A little quiet right now...
Thom