What We Talk About When We Talk About the Bombing

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.

5 Comments
  1. Thank you for this. Though sometimes I wish I could forget, I realize that we all need to remember. I appreciate your honesty and your description of the museum. I have yet to visit…I’m an Okie. I just can’t seem to make myself go yet. We’ve brought out-of-town guests to the memorial but haven’t gone into the museum.

    I was at home, sleeping in, on that day. My husband came in, turned the TV on, and showed me what was happening. I fell to my knees. After the initial shock, I grabbed the phone and for what felt like hours, tried to get a call to go through to someone, anyone, to tell me that my mom was okay. She worked 2 blocks away from the site. Finally, after what was realistically only probably 45 minutes, I talked to my aunt (her twin) and found out that mom was okay and that my dad was trying to find her to meet up. She initially thought that her building had been hit by a plane.
    I found out on the 4th day that I had lost someone. My babysitter from childhood worked in the credit union. She was my Sunday school teacher from the time that I was 4 years old. I played with her kids for years and it suddenly hit me that they no longer had a mom.
    Time does heal wounds and I know that someday I will muster up the courage to go inside the building and not just the grounds of the memorial. I don’t know when that will be but when the time comes, I have a question for you: are there lots of Kleenex boxes throughout or should I bring my own?

  2. Thank you for this article. I’ve never been to the museum but now will make a point to go. I’ve lived in central Oklahoma my whole life.

  3. Hey girl, great article! I was also 14 or 15 when it happened and I lived in Virginia. I remember I was home sick from school and couldn’t take my eyes off the TV. Still, it was something that happened WAY OUT THERE. I had no idea yet that I would move to Oklahoma in three years. While I was sad, scared and sympathetic, I certainly couldn’t empathize.

    Incredibly, I’ve been here 14 years now. I married an Oklahoman and I call this home. Despite it’s flaws, I love my city. I work in an agency that was housed in the Journal Record building 17 years ago. Many of my co-workers’ were injured in the bombing and carry scars that I see every day across the boardroom table. The names I see in my inbox every day are carved on the survivor’s plaque at the Memorial and today I listened to my boss tell the story of what happened to her that day. I couldn’t imagine going through that with these people that I work with, respect, admire and care about. But they did.

    Life has a funny way of reminding us that we are all connected. A terrible thing can happen to someone else, somewhere else but someday it may become a part of our landscape.

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  5. I also haven’t been to the Memorial museum. I was a second grader in school that day a couple miles from the bombing. My school was Catholic, Rosary school, and they pulled everyone into the Church and appropriately, I, guess, we prayed the Rosary for the rest of the day. My dad works downtown and was checking his PO box at the post office across the street from the Murrah building. He had locked his keys in his truck and was walking home to get his spare set; when he was two blocks away from the area, he was knocked to the ground by the explosion. He is a big and sturdy man. He saw the horror of the scene when he came back not too long later to get his truck and get out of there. I’ve never really thought about it before, but he had PTSD- that night, my aunt and grandma came over, and over dinner, said something that set him off. He was screaming at them downstairs as my brother and I hid, upstairs. So that was my April 19, 1995, as a seven year old. My brother and I were talking yesterday about how we thought all kids knew what buildings with their edifices ripped off looked like. When the Atlanta bombings happened in 1996, we assumed that kind of thing happened everywhere. I haven’t been back to the Murrah building/memorial area since my dad bought us kids donuts and took us to watch the controlled explosion that made the remains of the building implode. Symbolically, I think that was the end of the chapter for my dad. He opposed building a memorial. I wonder what he thinks as he drives by it as he goes about his workday. Someday I’ll ask. And someday I’ll visit… someday.

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