Remember the Oklahoma City Bombing - My Family Travels

The Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995, commemorated at the site, honors the city’s lost residents…

There is that clock.

A mundane white clock with black trim and numerals, outstanding in its ordinariness. It is the kind you have seen in every sterile office building, behind a counter or on a wall keeping watch over a labyrinth of cubicles.

This clock is frozen at 9:02 and 37 seconds.

It marks a passage in history, the day Oklahoma City changed forever. Indeed, it marks a time when the United States changed forever. After April 19, 1995 at 9:02am citizens of the United States realized that if Oklahoma City wasn’t safe, what place was?

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum (800/542-4673, 405/235-3313), on the site of the bombed and destroyed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, is not a fun place to visit.

It is a pleasant place, with stories of courage and hope that maybe bomber Timothy McVeigh and co-planner Terry Nichols are the exceptions, not the rules. It reminds us of the firefighters and police officers who risked their lives to save others, and the innumerable volunteers who continued to bring life-saving supplies even after no more were needed.

A reflecting pool occupies what was once N.W. Fifth Street, which bordered the Murrah Building’s front entrance. It was about two thirds along the pool from the south that McVeigh parked his truck bomb. “Like a sonic boom, except at least 100 times louder,” said survivor Cathy Jean Coulter.

Museum docent Katelynn Nix was 15 miles away in her first grade class. Nix recalls, “My classroom was decorated with Clifford the Big Red Dog and our morning was just getting started. All of a sudden there was a big noise that sounded like thunder and the lights went out. The windows shook and we could see a plume of smoke coming from downtown. I had no idea what a bomb was or the effects of what had just happened. I know now that many people died during that moment as I sat innocently in my classroom. And it has stayed with me ever since.

“Now 16 years later I volunteer [here] once a week. By volunteering, I can share my story but also watch the faces of those visiting, knowing that they are getting just as much out of the experience as I do every time I’m there.”

Witness Accounts of the Oklahoma Bombing

Nix was not the only person on the periphery to witness history on a day that started so normally. Inside the Oklahoma Water Resources Board Building across the street from the Murrah building, it was business as usual. Roy Wikle and three family members had a 9am meeting to discuss selling groundwater from his property.

As per usual for that type of meeting, it was recorded. The audiotape is played for visitors early on the museum tour. Promptly at 9am, hearing examiner Lou Klaver begins the business of water rights negotiations. Two minutes later, the truck bomb explodes. This is its only known recording of the bombing, and it is our cue to enter the rest of the museum.

The first galleries recall the bombing’s immediate aftermath: confusion, chaos, and the realization that the ear-busting burst of sound was not a tornado or a boiler explosion. Glass from the Murrah Building fell for ten minutes like rain in an Oklahoma thunderstorm. Some survivors still carry shards of glass in their bodies.

The black and white clock stuck at 9:02, symbolizing the time when everything changed, sits amid a broken folding chair, metal slats and other rubble.

Key chains, single shoes, a crumpled calendar and a smashed telephone represent victims’ lives. U.S. Department of Transportation employee Rick Tomlin was on the phone with his wife Tina when the bomb hit. The line went dead. She never spoke to him again.

A Day of Infamy for Oklahoma City

Suddenly Oklahoma City, little heard from outside the American prairie states, was in the headlines of newspapers and on television screens across the world. In Israel, no stranger to terrorist attacks, the front page of the daily newspaper Ha’aretz featured side by side photos of the mangled Murrah Building and what has become an iconic image of a firefighter cradling year-and-a-day-old Baylee Allman. A copy is posted here.

Rescue attempts, both successful and not, are recounted here, and one reads that Oklahoma City broadcasters implored viewers and listeners to bring blankets, food and boiled water, then within a half hour or so, told them to stay home — the rescuers had enough. The spirit of charity became known as the “Oklahoma Standard.”

While the investigation merits its own galleries, it doesn’t dominate the museum. McVeigh’s motivation isn’t even mentioned. Wreckage that helped identify McVeigh’s truck, an axle with a vehicle identification number, and a license plate, are here. The tale begins with the bomber’s serendipitous capture and extends through the trial that would ultimately place the name Timothy McVeigh alongside those of Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth and Sirhan Sirhan in the annals of evil.

Honoring the Oklahoma Bombing Victims & Survivors

More motivating is the Gallery of Honor, a memorial rotunda with photos and personal artifacts of most of the 168 victims. 168 is not merely a number; these were real people. Surviving family members were asked to submit a telling item from their loved ones’ lives to be placed in a shadow box by their photo. There are angels and Bibles. There are identification cards; Murrah employee and part-time fitness instructor Karen Carr is represented by her business card reading, “Fit Feds.” There are a stethoscope, a charm bracelet, a Barney soap dish and a child’s palette and paint brush.

Deborah Gomez, said of her mother Margaret Goodson who died in the bombing, “I didn’t put anything in her box at the memorial… I wanted the empty box to represent the emptiness in our lives because my mother is no longer with us.” Boxes of tissues are supplied on a bench in the Gallery of Honor to dry anticipated tears from visitors.

Outdoors in Downtown Oklahoma City, A Memoriam

The 168 are also remembered outdoors in a field of empty chairs. The glass base of each chair is marked with a victim’s name. Clint Seidl, seven years old at the time his mother died, said “It would make me proud if someone got tired and they could maybe sit in my mom’s chair. I’d probably walk up and say, `Hi. I’m Clint Seidl. This is my mom’s chair.’”

Meanwhile, then names of over 800 survivors are inscribed into the only remaining wall from the Murrah Building. One singular survivor stands in its own setting. A 90-year-old American elm growing in a parking lot across from the Murrah Building withstood the blast, but not without inhaling pieces of shrapnel and glass. Every year the facilities and grounds crews collect seeds from the tree and plant them. The elm became known as the Survivor Tree, emblematizing the spirit and resilience of Oklahomans.

Trip Planning Details for Oklahoma City

Visiting the site of a past tragedy, known as Dark Tourism, has become an essential part of many families’ travels because it provides a positive opportunity to recall, explore, and try to understand many horrible events. And to pay respect.

In Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum is open daily (Monday-Saturday 9am to 6pm; Sunday noon to 6pm) except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The outside memorial is open year round, daily, 24 hours a day. National Park Service rangers are on the site daily.

Admission is free for the outdoor memorial. The Museum charges $12 per adult,  $10 for seniors (62+), those with military with ID, ages 6-17 and college students with ID.

Oklahoma City has many lodging options in all price ranges. The Hampton Inn – Bricktown (405/232-3600) at 300 East Sheridan has doubles for $149-$189/N with hot breakfast included.

The Quality Inn (405/632-6666) at 7800 C.A. Henderson Boulevard has double rooms with two double beds from $65-$74, with a continental breakfast included. The Colcord Hotel (405/601-4300), the first skyscraper in the city, dates to 1910 and is a charming boutique hotel. Located at 15 North Robertson Avenue, the rooms cost from $179 (double) to $309 (family suite).

Click here to read more about family activities in and around Oklahoma City.

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