By Patricia Waldron – Everyone has a story for where they were April 19, 1995. Some people were close enough to hear the explosion; others were called by friends and family or heard about it on the news. One of my friends was at work at the State Health Department over a mile away, and the shock wave broke all of the windows in the Vital Records Office. A woman I met at a wedding was in Oklahoma on a spring break mission trip when the explosion happened. A co-worker had dropped her car off at a mechanic near the Murrah Building and then later found out at work that her car was inside the cordoned-off investigation area. She didn’t see her car for three months. When people tell these stories, often in small groups, they exchange a part of their history; a significant point in their life.
The unlucky ones lost friends, acquaintances or family members in the explosion. The lucky ones carry around stories of close calls: a father who worked in the building but had a meeting across town; a child in the daycare who stayed home sick; a mom who had an appointment at the Murrah Building but ended up getting lost. These stories are told with a solemn sense of wonder – of cheating death, and the tiny miracles of coincidence.
When I hear these stories I can’t join in because I don’t have one of my own. I can’t quite pinpoint where I was when it happened, but I know I was fifteen and living in New Hampshire, where I grew up. Though I could find Oklahoma on a map, I didn’t know much about the state at the time, and never thought I would move here later in life. My memory is hazy, but I seem to remember that I was riding in a car when I heard. The radio announcer reported the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma: over a hundred deaths, the worst terrorist attack in our history. I thought I had misunderstood. A federal building in Oklahoma? Shouldn’t that be in DC?
I sounded like an awful, tragic event, but it was so far away. The importance of it couldn’t quite pierce the bubble of my teenage self-absorption.
I didn’t often think about the bombing until I moved to Oklahoma in 2006. During my first April as an Oklahoman I saw the news coverage and heard about the museum and the marathon. “Oh yeah, the bombing. That happened here. I almost remember that.” It seems like each April a communal state of mourning spreads through the people. The stories come out and are quietly shared. Each April, I offered quiet sympathy.
But I’ve been in Oklahoma for over five years now, and I suppose that it’s time that I had more to offer than empathy. I decided to finally go to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. People have recommended it as a tourist attraction dozens of times. Every time my parents come to visit, someone will tell me to take them to the Memorial. When I list it as one of our sight-seeing options they always decline. “That sounds like such a downer,” they say, “we’re on vacation!” For a long time, I tended to agree with them, but I think it’s time that I went. When people share their stories of April 19th, I feel like I owe them more than just mute sympathy. I will never have my own story, but at least I’ll be able to offer some understanding of what they experienced and what they have lost.
I went to visit the Memorial this week. The museum itself is thoughtfully and logically laid out. As I progressed through the exhibits, the displays simulated the emotional journey that many people took the day of bombing. The Museum starts with business as usual in the Murrah Federal Building on April 19th, and then conjures up the surprise of the initial explosion and the quick transition to horror and disbelief. They detail the rescue response and the reactions from the outside world. They also describe the criminal investigation and prosecution of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. One of the last displays is a haunting room filled with the photos of the bombing’s victims. There are other small rooms with desks and computers where you can hear the stories of survivors and of the friends and relatives of people who died in the explosion.
Particularly disturbing to me are collections of lost shoes, sets of keys, watches and glasses – personal detritus sifted from the broken concrete and ruined office furniture. As I blink back tears I am selfishly relieved that I don’t have a personal connection to the bombing. My childhood distance from the event helps insulate me, and I managed not to break down in tears in front of the other visitors.
I was heartened by the shows of support made by people nationwide, and especially by school children from out of state. But I wonder, “Where was I when everyone was sending in origami cranes and letters to Oklahoma City?” I was too old for crayon drawings, but surely one of my teachers must have talked about the tragedy and the significance of the event. Did it happen over spring break week? Is that why I can’t remember talking about it in school?
The Museum is quiet on the day that I go, and I wonder who their average visitor is. I assume that all local schoolchildren must visit the Museum at some point in their lives. Do some survivors make a yearly pilgrimage? Are vacationers or people in Oklahoma City for business their main audience?
Curious, I asked a tour guide. “We get people from all over the world but we don’t get too many people from Oklahoma,” she said. “I think it’s just too hard.” I can understand what she means. I didn’t experience the tragedy first-hand, but I’m fighting back tears throughout the visit. My stomach is upset and I feel nauseous for hours afterwards.
However, the tour guide encourages local Oklahomans to come see the Museum, even if the trip evokes feelings of anger and sadness. “You’ll be proud of the tribute that they’ve created,” she says. I have to agree with her. The Memorial and Museum is a meaningful tribute to the victims of the bombing. The park area outside is especially beautiful, and each tree and rock bears an additional layer of symbolism and meaning. There is an undeniable sense of peace that pervades the outdoor memorial.
One aspect of the museum that took me by surprise, but probably shouldn’t have, was a small kiosk located in the first exhibit. It was entitled “Where were you on April 19, 1995?” The kiosk provides visitors with a computer monitor and keyboard so they may enter their own personal story of where they were when it happened. Again, it struck me that this is where everyone’s story starts. It’s the jumping off point that allows fellow Oklahomans, and anyone who was affected by the bombing, to share stories and find commonalities in their experience. Many of the stories are from places in Oklahoma, but some are from all over the world.
Another museum employee said to me that she’s seen the Memorial affect people very deeply – even visitors from far away. She says that some people are surprised by their emotional reaction and she believes that people, even outsiders, are so affected because no one would expect a terrorist act to occur in Oklahoma. If it happened here, then it could happen in any state or country.
And perhaps that’s why all bombing stories start with “Where I was when the bombing happened” because the storyteller wasn’t at the bombing, but could have been. It could have happened in New Hampshire. It could have happened anywhere.