Today I want to share my experience at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum because today marks 23 years since the bombing on the federal building in Oklahoma City.
First of all, I want to let everyone reading know that talking about tragedies like this one on a public forum can be challenging. My intentions are to share an important moment, no matter how tragic, in my city’s history with the utmost respect and sensitivity. It’s not to glorify evil or minimize the pain of all those affected. I hope it does the opposite–glorify the response of this community and minimize the chances we ever forget the impact this event had on thousand of lives.
My first memory of the Oklahoma City bombing was in 6th grade. On the anniversary, my teacher told us his memories of the events that day. He said he was teaching out more than 20 miles from the federal building and he still heard the explosion.
Sometime around 6th grade, we went to the memorial with our class. I remember, distinctly, sitting in the beginning part of the museum where they play a recording from a court proceeding not far from the federal building that caught the blast on audio tape.
After this experience, I think I was more aware of this tragedy that my city overcame when I was just 10 months old. As I grew, I learned more about the landscape of America at this time and how people I knew were affected by the bombing. If you hang around Oklahoma City for a day, I guarantee you can find someone directly affected by it. My dad was downtown at the courthouse when it happened. When I got my current car, the salesman from Houston told us that his wife was a child in the daycare. It will be years until these stories are scarce. Dozens of years.
I’m from a suburb of Oklahoma City, but now I’m living just a stone’s throw from the museum and memorial as a true Oklahoma City resident. I felt, with the anniversary coming up, it was necessary to go back as an adult since this was now truly my community.
I am obsessed with documentaries on the decades that you can watch on CNN. I always watch them when they’re on, and I really like the miniseries on the 90s. It does a great job of painting the landscape in America that led up to the bombing. I think having a background before going to the museum is extremely helpful. Several events, like OJ’s trial and the siege of the Waco compound, make the Oklahoma City bombing less of a random event. Unfortunately and disgustingly, we can have a better understanding of the mind of someone who would commit this crime. A crime deemed by many revenge for the murder of David Koresh’s Davidians in Waco and a message to the federal government.
If you don’t have any historical context before your visit, don’t worry. The museum sets it up perfectly. You’re greeted by videos, newspaper clippings and timelines for reference. In this first part of the museum, the stage is set for what you’re about to see–lost shoes, car keys, mugs, paperwork, rubble and articles of clothing.
The most unbelievable part of this experience is how you feel like you’re walking through the rubble yourself. It’s terrifying and ghastly and emotional.
The museum pairs video footage of the live news at the time with excellent sit-down interview footage. Everyone from the First Lady of Oklahoma at the time to survivors to children of victims to rescue workers and news anchors get a moment to add their piece to the puzzle of this event. Videos and artifact displays guide you through a rollercoaster of emotions and events like you are back at ground zero.
One of the most emotional parts for me was seeing photos of rescue workers taking a break after searching and rescuing survivors. You see they are processing what just happened, and the emotion is all on their face. Some even have their head in their hands as they slid from work rescue mode to human compassion mode. Some have rescue dogs with them, and even the rescue dogs look stunned and dejected.
One thing that surprised me about the museum was how much of it was dedicated to Timothy McVeigh. From a huge outdoor motel sign where he stayed plotting the attack to the car he was pulled over in to the shirt he was wearing in his mug shot, there is a lot of McVeigh in the museum. The museum doesn’t shy away from telling the whole story–including the trial and development of the memorial.
Seeing McVeigh’s business cards and handwriting in person was surreal and scary. Looking at the steering wheel he gripped and the shirt he wore made me feel closer to evil than ever before. In these moments, you realize how destructive fellow man can be and how little we are aware of the grave dangers around us every day.
Thankfully, the experience doesn’t end here. The faces of the victims and videos of the amazing generosity of Oklahomans and fellow Americans is nothing if not bittersweet. I can’t imagine the feeling of being devastated and thankful at once, which is what many survivors and family members felt. I got a small taste of it when I visited the museum, but I still can’t and don’t want to even imagine the extremes of both feelings.
This experience makes me so proud of my city and the people that live here. It makes my stomach hurt and my heart pound in fear of what those people felt in their last moments and the reactions of their families when they found out. It makes me long for eternal joy with a Creator who has defeated evil. It makes me forget my judgment and prejudice and love my fellow man.
Once I went through the museum, I visited the memorial. The memorial grounds is quiet and serene. It gives you the sense that those 168 people are there, silently guarding the area. You see remnants of a tragedy that transports you back 23 years. Like a time capsule.
If you lost a loved one in this tragedy, I am more sorry than you ever know. You are strong for continuing and fighting for justice when many wouldn’t be able to keep going. I hope you find comfort in this museum and memorial, and peace knowing that you will never be alone. For hundreds and thousands of years, God-willing, the memory of the lives lost in Oklahoma City will be alive.
“You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes. If anybody thinks that Americans are mostly mean and selfish, they ought to come to Oklahoma. If anybody thinks Americans have lost the capacity for love and caring and courage, they ought to come to Oklahoma.” – President Bill Clinton, during the prayer service for bombing victims in 1995.
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Holly Hoehner has her bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Oklahoma. She considers herself more of a Russell Westbrook than a Kevin Durant and enjoys learning about and participating in the digital age, blogging about anything that comes to her mind and creating witty Instagram captions. Holly was raised a die-hard Sooner fan in Edmond, OK.