Monday, September 12, 2011

Oklahoma City

I'm here in a place that I never expected to visit: Oklahoma City. I told one person today that it was like saying, "I'm going to Mars." You know it's out there and yet you never expected to be there in person.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get an early flight out here and spend some time seeing the city. And even though I know a lot about the world there's only one thing that I know about this city: The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995.

I must admit to feeling uneasy going to visit the memorial. 168 men, women and children were just going about their daily lives when 4000 pounds of explosives in a truck blew away a third of the building. I wasn't prepared for what I saw.

The plaza that surrounded the federal building was still there. Some modifications had been made, of course, but when you get to where the front doors to the building would have been you just stare out over this peaceful area enclosed on two sides by metal walls with 9:01 and 9:03 carved into them. The bomb detonated at 9:02am.

In between these metal barriers you see the Survivor's Tree, planted where the ruins of the building once stood. And while the tree is in the background, below you near a reflecting pool sit 168 chairs, each one with the name of a victim carved in it. What was really heartbreaking is that some of the chairs were smaller to represent children in the daycare center who perished.

I took pictures and respectfully silently asked for blessings on the souls of the victims, and on the survivors and family members of the victims as well. I was ready to call it a day...but I wasn't done.

The Museum of the Memorial is in the building that was adjacent to the federal building. The side facing the building was never repainted to honor the victims. I went in and visited the exhibits. I felt like I couldn't say I was really here unless I saw it all.

Now I'm pretty good at keeping my emotions in check--both a good and a bad thing--but I didn't expect what was coming next. The first part of the exhibit is the before, talking about the weather the day of the attack, what the city looked like, which buildings were around and so forth. As I walked into the next area, a museum guide stopped me and wanted to tell me what I was in for.

Next to the Murrah Federal Building was the Oklahoma Water Building, where decisions about water use in the state were made. On the morning of the blast, a family who wanted to drill a well to get spring water was in a routine hearing which started exactly at 9:00am. The guide told me that the room I was about to enter is where I would listen to that recording, which had the bomb blast on it at 9:02.

I thought I was ready. Then the doors closed and I was alone in this room set up like a hearing room with microphone and tape recorder. The tape begins and at 9:02 there was the explosion. What he DIDN'T tell me was that when the blast happens, the entire wall of the room lights up with 168 portraits of those who were killed. I was pretty upset, but I managed to hold it together and get out of that room. If their point was to shock and awe, they achieved it.

The rest of the museum was survivor testimony, pictures of the footage from that day as well as a lot of forensic data and details on the investigation, arrest and subsequent prosecution of Timothy McVeigh and his partner, Terry Nichols. I also saw the room honoring the victims, including one minister, and was glad to see that they included the roles of clergy who helped on-site and provided counseling to relief workers.

9/11 certainly had many more victims but this attack changed Oklahoma City forever. The blast was so huge that many buildings were structurally uninhabitable afterward, so they had to be razed. Security at all federal facilities was taken a lot more seriously in the aftermath. And of course, the survivors still question why they are alive and their friends perished.

I'm still a little screwed up from visiting the site and the museum, but I'm trying to shake it off. I'm glad I went to see it, and if you're ever in this part of the country you NEED to go see it. But like the Holocaust Museum in DC, be prepared to be uncomfortable.

With that visit out of the way, I can focus on the other things that have made Oklahoma famous: Wind whistling down the plains, Sooners, and surreys with a fringe on top. And get some writing done as well in the evenings.

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