Monday, April 18, 2005

In Oklahoma, a Week of Remembrance

The New York Times
April 18, 2005
In Oklahoma, a Week of Remembrance

OKLAHOMA CITY, April 17 - The newest exhibit in the big museum here - the crown jewel, really - is a length of steel about eight feet long, ugly and twisted, its bulbous center rent by a nasty gash.

"This is the prime piece we waited for," said Kari F. Watkins, executive director of the museum, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, pausing amid preparations for ceremonies this week marking the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "It is our prize possession."

It is the axle of the Ryder rental truck, a 1993 Ford with a 20-foot body packed with 4,800 pounds of homemade nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil explosives, that Timothy J. McVeigh detonated at 9:02 on the sunny morning of April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, 19 of them children. The nation was stunned; it is still the worst act of domestic terrorism on American soil.

"That piece is why we really got McVeigh," Ms. Watkins said, as workers, volunteers and visitors bustled about the memorial of empty bronze chairs on the site of the building - "sacred ground," it is called - and the adjacent museum, which chronicles the dreadful event in gripping detail.

It was the vehicle identification number, PVA26077, stamped on the axle found a block away by local police, that led the Federal Bureau of Investigation to arrest Mr. McVeigh only moments before he was to be released from a small town jail 60 miles north on a minor traffic infraction.

The bombing was devastating - "Oklahoma City will never be the same," a reporter, Penny Owen, wrote on the front page of the next morning's Daily Oklahoman under a banner headline "Morning of Terror." But this is now a bustling place, with a spruced-up business district packed with new hotels, stadiums and a convention center; a renovated factory area called Bricktown attracting crowds to restaurants, bars and shops; and an annual arts festival, canceled the year of the bombing, now running alongside the weeklong memorial.

"We designed this week to send a signal to the world that there is hope," Ms. Watkins said. The symbol of the memorial is the Survivor Tree, a once-scraggly American elm that had stubbornly grown in a parking lot across the street. A car's hood came to rest in its limbs, which were largely stripped by the blast, but a year later leaves reappeared. Today, as one of the centerpieces of the memorial, it is one of the world's most pampered trees, with an elaborate aeration and watering system.

Tuesday, the anniversary of the bombing, will be a day of remembrance, with 168 seconds of silence and the reading of the names of the victims at 9 a.m., followed by a reunion and barbecue lunch for family members, survivors and rescuers in Bricktown. There are lectures and other events each day this week, with a concert on Friday night headlined by the country star Vince Gill and the fifth annual memorial marathon on Sunday, attracting some 12,000 runners.

The anniversary will also be a national news event. CNN has promised all-day coverage on Tuesday along with other special programs. The network morning shows will have a presence, and Brian Williams is to anchor the NBC news from here. There are already some 600 journalists and technicians registered from 87 news outlets, and on the sidewalk alongside the memorial this weekend workers were banging together risers for television and still cameras.

"This is the most we've had, including the execution, which I thought would be hard to top," said Ms. Watkins, speaking of the death of Mr. McVeigh on June 11, 2001. Terry L. Nichols, the other man indicted in the bombing, is serving life sentences on federal and state charges.

For many residents here the site is intensely personal. An estimated 387,000 people here, more than a third of the metropolitan area's population, knew someone who was killed or injured in the bombing, and some 190,000 people, 19 percent of the population, attended funerals for the victims. For relatives living here or scattered about the country, the memorial has become a place of pilgrimage.

About 50 members of the extended family of Mickey B. Maroney, a Secret Service agent who died in the explosion, were here for a reunion and memorial on Saturday, gathered mostly from Texas by his daughter, Alice Ann, who was tearing but composed as hugs were exchanged. A half-dozen fellow agents, hardly secret in black suits and wraparound sunglasses, stood at the edge of the group, sharing the sorrow.

"It's about all of us; it's about the journey we've taken the last 10 years," said Jack O'Brian Poe, chaplain for Oklahoma City's police department at the time and now for the Secret Service field office. "It's not a journey we would have chosen.

"It's painful, it's painful to do this," he went on, his right arm draped around the bronze chair bearing Mr. Maroney's name as if it were an old friend's shoulder. "This was some dark times. But we've seen the very best. We've seen America come together. We've seen Oklahoma City come together."

It is that mixed message of sadness and hope the memorial is intended to project.

The memorial is framed by two 13-ton yellow bronze monoliths called the Gates of Time, with the eastern entrance displaying the time 9:01, symbolizing the innocence before the bombing, and the western gate showing 9:03, the time of hurt and healing. In the center, what had been North Fifth Street has been turned into a shallow black reflecting pool.

On the site of the building, a sloping lawn holds the 168 stylized chairs, bronze with frosted glass bottoms etched with the name of each victim, smaller ones for the children, illuminated from the bottom at night. Five of the chairs, for those killed near the Murrah Building, are slightly separate. The rest are arranged in nine rows, for the nine stories of the structure, and are placed roughly where the bodies were found. The area is planted with loblolly pines, which in a decade are expected to grow to 90 feet, symbolizing the nine stories. On the eastern side is the only remaining wall from the Murrah building, with the names of more than 800 survivors etched onto two granite blocks retrieved from the ruins.

On the sidewalk outside is a remnant of the original "people's memorial," lengths of the chain-link fence that surrounded the wreckage. Spontaneously, the fence was decked with all manner of memorabilia, still periodically removed, catalogued and stored by museum curators. This weekend was typical: license plates, plastic children's toys, key rings, bandanas, military and police patches, an orange and white cheerleader's pompom, and for this occasion, several wreaths on portraits of victims.

Across the street, at St. Joseph's Old Cathedral, stands a nine-foot-tall statue of a weeping Jesus. One block away is a monument of a different sort: the new federal office building, a fortress-like structure of stone walls and blast-resistant glass patrolled by Federal Protective Service officers. Scott Pascoe, a National Park Service official greeting visitors, proudly said the new structure had been ranked by an architectural magazine as "the fourth-safest building in the world."

The museum where the Ryder truck axle is housed is in the 82-year old building of The Journal Record, a local business publication that had been across the street and whose damaged exterior, with a broken fire escape and scrawled messages from the rescuers, has been preserved.

The exhibit tells how Mr. McVeigh, fleeing the scene, was stopped by an Oklahoma highway patrolman, Charlie Hanger, famous locally as a stickler for traffic rules, who was within a quarter-mile of finishing his patrol on Interstate 35. Mr. McVeigh's rusty old car had dropped its license plate and he was carrying a pistol, so the trooper took him to the Noble County Jail in Perry. The sole judge on duty was busy, and while Mr. McVeigh waited, the F.B.I. was able to trace the vehicle to Elliot's Body Shop in Junction City, Kan., and make an identification. A computer search led to a frantic phone call that held him for arrest in the bombing.

The museum also gives a vivid picture of how an ordinary day turned into horror.

A tape recording from a machine on a plain office table has the voice of Lou Klaver, an official at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board - its building nearby was destroyed and two people were killed - opening a routine hearing on an application number 95-501 by Roy Wikle to pump and bottle water.

"There are nine elements," Ms. Klaver is heard to say, "that I have to receive information regarding -- "

The explosion booms, startling even when expected. The room goes dark. Next is videotape from the local Channel 9 news helicopter circling over the carnage.

"Wow," exclaims Jesse Gary, a reporter from the helicopter. "Holy cow! About a third of the building has been blown away!"