168 bronze and glass chairs, arranged in 9 rows, stretched across the green field.
My fiance Andrew and I drove up to Oklahoma City the day before, a Friday, and spent an endless, tiring day at the car dealership where Andrew negotiated the purchase of used BMW. I fidgeted in the vinyl covered chairs in the customer lounge, read books and checked my email.
The dealership offered free sodas and I spent the afternoon wandering between the bathroom and the soda machine. Engrossed in the book I was reading, I knocked a full cup of ice and cola onto the floor then sat there as the puddle crept toward my feet. Andrew found paper towels in the men’s room and mopped up the mess while I glanced to see if anyone else in the sparkling showroom had noticed.
We went for a test drive in the car, a 2009 BMW 128i series in Montego Blue, a color so electric brilliant I felt a small static shock walking up to it. I settled in the passenger seat and watched the highway exit signs flash past, too quick to read. After the purchase I followed in my SUV as Andrew drove back to our hotel. The bright blue sedan weaved through stodgy trucks and cars like a songbird.
The next day we visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
The chairs represent the empty places at dinner tables for each of the 168 people who died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. There are nine rows, corresponding to the nine floors of the building. Each chair is positioned according to the floor where each of the lost perished. There are five chairs in a separate row, symbolizing the five victims killed outside the building.
Two gates flank the memorial grounds. The East Gate displays the time 9:01, just before the bomb went off at 9:02 am that day. The West Gate displays 9:03, the time immediately after, when healing and rebuilding began.
A reflecting pool covers the area that once was the street in front of the building. The bomber drove a rented truck down NW 5th street, past the tall apartment building, and parked in front of the doors on the north side of the building.
The granite walkway surrounding the field is constructed in part from rubble salvaged from the site.
The field outlines the footprint of the Alfred P. Murrah building. The jagged outcroppings in the south wall are parts of the original building. The only walls remaining are on the east end of the memorial, where slabs of granite bear the names of the more than 1,000 who survived that day.
The Rescuer’s Orchard represents the more than 12,000 people who responded that day, many within minutes of the explosion. One nurse, Rebecca Anderson, lost her life in the aftermath as she collapsed while rescuing survivors. The bronze and glass chair etched with her name stands with the five others in the row at the end of the field.
At the east end of the Rescuer’s Orchard stands the 100 year old American Elm known as the Survivor Tree. It stood in the gravel parking lot directly in front of the Murrah building. Damaged in the blast and surrounded by burning cars, the tree was expected to die, but it recovered.
“The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.” Inscription surrounding the Survivor Tree.
We walked around the grounds outside until the hot afternoon summer sun urged us into the air conditioned museum.
Inside the museum we watched video interviews with survivors, investigators, and rescuers. Glass display cases held items gathered from the site — eyeglasses, car keys, shoes, toys, and pens. One case held a dress worn by one of the survivors, a small tear the only damage to the fabric. The same case also held a plastic baggy bulging with bits of cloth pulled from the body of another survivor. Their location when the bomb went off determined the extent of their injuries. A trip down the hall to the restroom or a chore at the copy machine literally meant the difference between life and death for some.
We, the visitors, gathered in a small room and sat on a padded bench pushed against the wall. Across from us a tape recorder enclosed in a clear case sat on a wooden table. It was easy to imagine the people gathered there that day, shuffling papers and scooting closer in the government issued straight back chairs that front the table. We listened to a taped recording from the Water Board Hearing held that day. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board building, located directly across from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, was damaged in the blast and demolished. The taped meeting, a record of the events from that morning, was preserved.
A female voice on the tape announces the time and date for the record, 9:00 AM on April 19, 1995, and calls the hearing to order. The plaintiff, a man seeking a permit to sell water from his land, speaks up to confirm his presence. Fluorescent lights buzz above us as the voices on the tape drone on with the minutia of a government proceeding. We, the audience, know what is coming. I hold my breath and count off the seconds, my heart rate accelerating as I think surely it is past the time. I anticipate the blast, but when it comes I jump. The roar of sound and the frightened cries of the people on the tape do not resemble any special effects I have ever heard. The screen behind the table holding the tape recorder lights up with the images of the 168 lives lost that day.
We left the memorial and walked four hot concrete blocks to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ~ Pablo Picasso
Jesus wept. John 11:35
We napped in the air conditioning of our hotel then returned to the memorial that evening.
The memorial grounds are open 24 hours and are lighted at night.
We strolled through the rows of chairs in their ghostly light. A group of people, a mother with short dark hair and her two teenage sons, stopped us to ask about the chairs.
“There are nine rows. They stand for the nine floors of the building and the chairs are placed according to where each victim was that day,” I explain. My voice carries over the still night air, rising as I grow absorbed in my description of the field and what we learned that morning at the museum. I wave my arms at the gates and tell about the reflecting pool that covers the street where he parked that day. I do not mention that the last three bodies were not recovered until May 27, 1995, 38 days after the bombing. We are standing on sacred ground.
“The smaller chairs are for the children who died in the blast.” My voice drops with this last.
“Children?” the woman asks.
“There were two daycare centers in the building,” I answer. The woman nods. The teenage boys stand silent and still. I do not tell her that several of the children had to be identified from latent prints lifted from their homes.
“You should come back tomorrow to the museum,” I add and she agrees.
At the West Gate there is 200 feet of the original chain link fence that enclosed the bomb site. The fence is preserved so that visitors can leave items for remembrance. Periodically the tokens are removed and stored at the museum, which now holds more than 60,000 of these items.
We left Oklahoma City on Sunday and I followed the blue BMW until I lost sight of the car amid the flow of traffic headed south. Monday morning I returned to work, drank my coffee, chatted with coworkers, sent emails, made copies and visited the ladies room. A day like any other day.
For more information on the history and the site:
© 2018 Terrye Turpin