The most well known attraction in Oklahoma City is also the most tragic – the National Memorial and Museum highlights the bombing of the Murrah Federal building on April 19, 1995 which killed 168 people and injured almost 700. At the time, it was the biggest terrorist attack in the history of the U.S. If I was to make a list of the top ten museums I have visited during this trip this would be on the list. It is an exceptional memorial and museum. One word kept going through my head as I wandered the museum exhibits, “powerful.” The museum really brings to life the horror of this day and the aftermath for the citizens of Oklahoma City, a very sobering place and a not to be missed visit. The original message in photo above was written by a rescue worker and is on the building where the museum is now located.
A visit here encompasses two experiences, the memorial and the museum. I checked out the memorial first which is the former location of the Murrah Building. Where the building once stood is now a field of empty chairs arranged in nine rows that show where victims were working or visiting when the bomb exploded. There is a chair with the name etched of each person killed.
The reflecting pool was once NW Fifth Street in front of the building and at each end are the “Gates of Time.” The 9:01 East Gate depicts the innocence before the attack and the 9:03 West Gate marks when healing began.
The museum is located in the former 80 year old Journal Record Building which sits across from the reflecting pool and field of chairs. Prior to the bombing, this building housed a newspaper office, Masonic lodge and insurance company. It survived but needed repairs and renovation before opening as a museum in 2011.
The museum has a large number of interactive exhibits and one of the first sets the stage for the attack. I sat in a room with other visitors and listened to the only audio of the blast which was captured at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board Meeting located in a building across from the Murrah building. The meeting had begun on time at 9:00 a.m. with introductory information provided until 9:02 when the explosion could clearly be heard followed by exclamations from board members. Side doors of the room where I sat then opened and myself and others filed out to explore the many exhibits filled with photos, artifacts and information about the confusion and chaos that followed. The force from the bombs collapsed almost half of the Murrah Building and destroyed nine other buildings in the vicinity. Twenty-five other structures were also seriously damaged and across the downtown, 312 buildings had shattered glass and other damage. Below is a photo showing the destroyed half of the building.
The museum has artifact displays brought out from the building including the rubble in the photo below filled with office remnants like a phone, reference book and personal items like an umbrella and shoe. In the next photo you see a battered file cabinet and computer monitor.
Perhaps the saddest part of the bombing were the 19 children killed in the day care located on the second floor. Below is a photo of a small shoe that was found on site.
One of the more interesting things I read was how location in the building could determine who lived or died. Just stepping away from one’s desk to the bathroom or copy machine before the blast could change the outcome. As the signboard pictured below shows, one employee survived while others near by did not.
Another factor that turned out to be a life saver was a change in work schedule that kept some workers away from the building for appointments or other responsibilities. As I wrote this I thought about my own work schedule before retirement. I am not a morning person and usually got to work about 9:00 a.m. which means if I was an employee at this building I would have just been getting myself situated at my desk when the bomb exploded. Or if I was a few minutes late, I might have been walking in the main door when it was going off.
There were many exhibits about rescue operations and the heroes who spent days combing the wreckage, bringing out survivors and finding the dead. I read in one account that more than 12,000 people took part as well as specially trained dogs. On May 1, after a few weeks of searching, rescue operations ceased and on May 25 the building was demolished. The most enduring symbol was the photo of a firefighter carrying out little Baylee who had just turned one year old. She did not survive. A sculpture was created depicting the event.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, army veterans and perpetrators of the crime were angry at the U.S. government and wanted to bomb a federal building. The incident at Waco where 80 members of a religious cult died when the FBI stormed the compound is the incident believed to have set the pair off. The April 19 date of the bombing was the second anniversary of the Waco standoff. McVeigh drove a Ryder rental truck from Kansas and parked in front of the Murrah Building with explosives made out of all things, fertilizer ingredients. In one account I read that McVeigh chose the Murrah Building because he believed federal agents in Oklahoma City had a connection to Waco and the building was an easy target. McVeigh was arrested shortly after the bombing in his getaway car (above) which is exhibited at the museum. He was stopped by an Oklahoma state trooper because his car did not have a license plate. He was then arrested for driving without plates and illegal possession of a firearm. In 2001, McVeigh was executed and co-conspirator Nichols was ordered to serve a life sentence.
After I was done with the exhibits, I took the above photo inside the museum looking out at the memorial and downtown Oklahoma City. What a great visit – although it has been many years since the bombing, I am so glad I was finally able to visit this special place.
Thanks for checking in! In my next post an update on our current stay in Northern California and family fun during the Christmas holiday!