Beyond 9:03

Oklahoma City marks a time for remembrance
Matt Photo 3

 

Morning dawns in Oklahoma City. In the stillness, the reflecting pool stretches as long as a football field, mirror-still and darker than night. The only sound is water, gently flowing where once was a busy stretch of NW 5th Street. 

Less than an inch deep, the sheet of water moves imperceptibly, like time itself, revealing neither source nor destination. Pushed by unseen pumps, it cycles through and spills over the rim, disappearing into a thin channel before reentering through gaps between a thousand black granite tiles below.

 

And so it has been for 20 years, the water flowing to soothe wounds caused by the blast that occurred just feet away at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995.

 

A Space for Memories

 

The Oklahoma City National Memorial beckons visitors to reflect on the resilience of a community attacked by a man who detonated a 4,800-pound homemade bomb in the back of a Ryder truck, destroying a nine-story structure, killing 168 people and shattering and rebuilding a nation’s very notion of itself.

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The Survivor Tree following the 1995 bombing. 

 

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The Survivor Tree as it stands today. 

Dedicated in 2000 on the fifth anniversary of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing, the memorial is framed by the monumental Gates of Time. Once golden bronze, they have since weathered to a somber, dark patina. Standing sentry over the sanctified space where so many died, the gates announce the mission of the memorial: 

We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.

 

The gates are marked with two stenciled cut-outs: 9:01, the moment before, and 9:03, the moment after the nation’s deadliest act of domestic terrorism. 

 

The moment between, the moment of the blast, remains unuttered, represented by the pool itself. 

 

As the soft dawn glow begins to blush pink, birds begin tentative songs in the pines and the water reflects a landscape of remembrance: the amber glow of the gates’ backlit numbers, the circle of lighting illuminating the Survivor Tree and surrounding pathways, the frosted bases from the Field of Empty Chairs, lit from within, before they blink off in unison in the morning gray.

 

The Flow of History

 

This year’s commemorations marking the 25th anniversary of the attack will mark 9,130 days of recovery.

 

On April 19, 2020, at the moment that family, friends and officials gather at the podium near the reflecting pool for the reading of the names of the 168 who were killed, 219,100 hours will have passed since the 9:01 that marked the last hour before the attack.

 

After the initial tick to 9:03 — the moment after — there was a 9:04. A 9:05. A 9:06. In all, 13,146,000 additional minutes have passed in the relentless river of time.

 

On that day in Oklahoma City, two opposing forces made the clock stop, if only for a moment.

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The Great Seal of the United States.

 

Polarization in Preservation

 

Among the artifacts preserved in the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, two in particular represent a cataclysm of world views that fueled the tragedy. One is a vintage white T-shirt. The other, a battered metal disc.

 

Preserved under glass is the shirt, worn by the bomber at the time of his arrest. Entered in evidence at his trial, the front shows an image of Abraham Lincoln on a wanted poster above the Latin phrase his assassin is said to have shouted after firing into the back of the president’s head: Sic semper tyrannis – Thus always to tyrants.

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The Murrah Federal Building following the 1995 bombing. 

On a higher floor, also protected by glass, is another item with a different Latin phrase, part of a battered metal emblem that had been part of the Murrah Building. Pierced by shrapnel, the pockmarked and dented Great Seal of the United States was pulled from the rubble and put on display as a symbol of resilience against the lawless. Its battle-scarred eagle clutches an olive branch in the right talon, and a quiver of arrows in the left. From his beak flows a banner with a very different Latin maxim: E pluribus unum: out of many, one.

In Oklahoma City, it is the call for unity that won the day. 

Rise Up

On the fifth anniversary of the attack, in the shadow of the newly installed glistening Gates of Time, President Bill Clinton dedicated the memorial with remarks that concluded:

“The great writer, Ralph Ellison, who was a native of this city, once said, ‘America is woven of many strands. Our fate is to become one and yet many.’ On April 19th, 1995, our many strands became one – one in love and support for you, and in our determined opposition to terrorism …We may never have all the answers for what happened here, but as we continue our journey towards understanding, one truth is clear: What was meant to break has made you stronger.”

And it did. The event stirred what Lincoln himself called the better angels of our nature, bringing forth the grit, determination, resilience and can-doism that has hallmarked this land and its people for generations. 

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Aerial view of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, left, with First Church to its east and downtown Oklahoma City to the south. 

Political disagreements that had stymied the city’s progress were set aside. Common ground was established. Rebuilding began. The phrase “Oklahoma Standard” was coined, imbuing Oklahomans with a sense of pride in their ability to bond together in the city’s darkest hour.

Worldwide, imagery of the bombing shifted from bloodied victims and the shattered hull of the Murrah Building to symbols of recovery: an e pluribus unum effort of volunteers from around the state, the nation and the world, offering gifts of time, talent and teddy bears, and blue ribbons worn in solidarity.

A newly united city kicked the long-delayed first phase of MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects Plan) into high gear and passed another version, and another. 

The bombing became part of our DNA, remembered in reverent tones and recast as a triumph of hope and resilience. The memorial has expanded its reach, serving as an international center for education against terrorism and intolerance and sponsoring events from a marathon run to seminars that continually honor each of those lost. Its updated logo features the bright green outline of the Survivor Tree in its early stages of recovery, now enveloped by a darker green silhouette of the lush, expansive tree it has become. Its ability to not only survive but to thrive represents the evolution of the city that surrounds it.

Since its arrival in 2008, the city’s long-hoped-for NBA team has brought new staff and players to tour the memorial and hear its stories. To commemorate the 25th anniversary, the Thunder unveiled uniforms of charcoal and bronze, hallmarked by stylized Gates of Time rising out of the white rectangle of the reflecting pool. Among the features inside the jersey: a blue ribbon overlaid with April 19, 1995. On the belt buckle of the shorts, the Survivor Tree rises from a streak of blue, celebrated as “a living symbol of resilience.” 

The museum gift shop celebrates the theme of hope, offering glass-blown Survivor Tree Christmas ornaments, sweatshirts with uplifting sayings and books about a community that not only survived but became stronger. 

And yet – and yet. It still hurts.

 

Cri de Coeur

A section of chain-link fence, originally used to cordon off the destroyed Murrah Building, remains on the 9:03 side of the monument. A quarter-century after the blast, mementos continue to be left in remembrance and condolence.

 

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On the wall of the old Journal Record Building, now the home to the museum, an angry shout of graffiti remains. Its foot-high letters from Team 5’s first responders, scrawled with determination and defiance in the days of rescue and recovery, read:

 

We Search for the Truth.

We Seek Justice.

The Courts Require It.

The Victims Cry for It.

And God Demands It!

 

As the letters faded over the years, mellowed by the elements, the decision was made to make sure the message is never lost. 

 

The work has been re-spray painted three times: by Gov. Frank and Cathy Keating and family members, who retraced the original on the night Timothy McVeigh was sentenced in 1997; and by Team 5 members redoing the outline before the Oklahoma City National Memorial opened in 2000, and again in 2018.

Coda; Reprise

Night falls in Oklahoma City. In the dusk, the reflecting pool mirrors a landscape of remembrance: the Field of Empty Chairs, shadows from their straight bronze backs stretching across the lawn like elongated versions of the Gates of Time; the newly lush Survivor Tree, long branches stretching skyward; the twinkling skyline with buildings unimagined a quarter-century ago. 

The chain-link fence outside the gate has a new teddy bear, left with a tapestry embroidered with the 23rd Psalm, recited at the funerals of the fallen: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

 

As the last rays of the day touch the 9:03 gate on the 25th anniversary, the lights will again flicker on in unison, illuminating the pathways, the tree, the stenciled numbers of the gates and the etched names in the bases of the empty chairs. 

 

As silence returns, the sound of gently flowing water is heard once more, revealing neither source nor destination. The heavens slip into darkness as the city rests before the 9,131st day of recovery.

 

REBUILIDING WITH BROKEN PIECES

 

The Murrah Building sat amid a row of stately brick churches that marched toward downtown on Robinson Avenue.

 

Oldest of them all was First United Methodist Church. The congregation embraced its claim as the first to hold services in Oklahoma City on April 21, 1889, the first Sunday after the Land Run. Calling themselves simply “First Church,” the Methodists soon constructed a wooden outpost for services, and in 1904 completed a grand Romanesque building on the same site.

 

On the day of the bombing, the church became an FBI command post and morgue as rescue teams brought bodies to the lobby and investigators worked amid debris. In the sanctuary, the grand chandelier had plummeted into the pews. Stained glass littered the floor. Although only one person was injured, the church complex sustained $3 million in damage.

 

After the dust settled, First Church members methodically picked through the shattered remains of their landmark stained-glass windows. Amid the jagged shards lay one remarkable find: the center of the old Good Shepherd window. 

 

It had survived intact, without a chip or scratch. The section, more than one foot square, depicted the face of Jesus, eyes lowered as he watched the sheep that had surrounded him in the west wall window that had faced the blast. The fragment was later fused into a window that is now the centerpiece of a chapel nestled between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall. 

 

The window features the new motto for the congregation, forged in the wake of 9:03: “The Lord takes broken pieces and his love makes us whole.”

 

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