An Afternoon at the Museum

Oklahoma Travel Blog

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The 9:01 Gate of Time and the Reflecting Pool

It was about a fifteen minute drive from the Cowboy Museum and Western Heritage Museum to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. The OCNMM is dedicated to the victims, survivors, and rescuers of the bombing of Murrah Building on April 19, 1995. I had only the vaguest idea of what to expect.

We found a place to park and walked towards a large and approximately 35 ft tall, black bronze wall. I later found out that it, and its brother across the Reflecting Pond, are called the Gates of Time.

The Reflecting Pond, 9:03 Gate of Time, and The Field of Empty Chairs
The bomb that destroyed the Alfred P Murrah detonated at 9:02 AM. The two gates are stamped with 9:01 and 9:03. These two times represent the last moment of peace and the first moment of recovery. Margo and I snapped a few pictures of Gates and Reflecting Pool. We knew we could tour the outside memorial later, as it is open 24 hrs, so we headed to this somewhat damaged looking building that the signs said was the entrance to the museum.

 

The side of the building, The Journal Record Building, that faced us was a painted brick building. The paint was faded and chipped. There were numerous windows that were black, and one section on a open floor was upainted, like something had been removed. I was certain that after 14 years the damage caused by the FuelOil/Fertilizer bomb of 14 years ago would been repaired.

The Journal Record Building. It now houses the Museum
The only explanation was that this was intentionally left as a statement. It did a good job of setting the tone. We later confirmed that this was the exact intention, and that the outside of the building had had a sealant applied to prevent futher weather eroision.

 

We went inside and paid for our admission. We were instructed where and how to start our visit. Most museums you just get a brochure and go. The OCNMM directs you to an elevator that takes you to the top floor, and then has you wait for a presentation to start. Their idea is to walk you, chronologically, through the bombing.

 

On the 3rd floor starts you with a history of terrorism, and then to the history of the Alfred P.

The Journal Record Building and The Survivor Tree
Murrah Building. Alfred Murrah was a federal judge. I didn’t retain much more than that about the building. Next is a lot of displays that show a normal day. People going to work, people coming into the building, things of that variety. Overhead the sounds of business as usual are played. Phones ringing, chatter between co-workers, greetings to someone arriving for work. These areas were designed to put you more at ease, and in the shoes of an Oklahoman on that day. It is a prelude to the next part of the tour. A clock ticks down the time remaining until the next presentation.

 

We had already been told by one of the many staffers that the next part will take us through the explosion. The staffer elaborated by telling us that at the time of the explosion, in another nearby building, a hearing was going on.

This dedication was in several places
That hearing was being recorded on audio tape, and had started at about 9 AM. When the doors opened we went in and sat down on one of several benches. Facing us was a large screen. The audio tape began to roll and we were listening to a female voice describing the beginning particulars of the hearing. As we already knew what was coming, the tension built. The explosion itself, while not anti-climatic, was not nearly as loud as you would expect. But, to illustrate the confusion, the lights flash very briefly and then went out. We were in complete darkness for 5-10 seconds. Then the wall in front of us was filled with portraits, which we correctly assumed, were of those who had died. It was very well done.

 

We the doors leading us to the next part of the museum opened, we knew that this would be a very different experience. We were not disappointed.

The center window shows the reconstructed damage scene.
We, we were in one sense. Pictures, again, were not allowed. The museum exuded a sense of reverence. Again staffers were there to tell stories and point out particularly interesting items.

 

Very early in this process we heard the story of The Survivor’s Tree. When this area of downtown OKC was being developed there grew an American Elm tree, that had been part of someone’s backyard. Rather than cut it down, they left it, paved around it, and created a parking lot with a tree in it. That became a coveted spot because of the shade it offered. The tree was in the parking lot of the Journal Record Building, the building we were now in. Across the street, (now gone) was the Murrah building. When the explosion went off the heat and flames blew and burned every leaf from the tree, and set parts of it on fire.

Field of Empty Chairs and St Joseph's Cathedral
It blackened and dead looking. The first responders used the tree as a support for their equipment. Days later when clean up started it was presumed to have been a casualty as well. The next spring it began to sprout new branches and leaves. The best horticulturists in the state were called to nurse it back to health. A special structure was built around it. It flourished, coming back as good as new. It became not only “the most beloved tree in Oklahoma”, but the official symbol for the museum.

 

We wandered from display to display learning of heroic efforts, of fate taking one person and sparing another. We saw the horrific damage that was caused, and then of things seemingly completely untouched. There was an office area that when the clean up began, they meticulously photographed, so they could recreate that damage and destruction for the museum.

Miss Baylee Armon's chair. She was the baby in the fireman's arm, in the famous OKC Bombing picture
There were interactive displays were you could hear the stories of the survivors, rescuers, and friends and family of the victims. The actual people had recorded these messages and stories. Margo had to quit listening as she was getting chocked up.

 

The one thing that most impressed me, was not the heroic efforts of the first responders. They were all great, doing a vital, but supremely emotionally challenging job. What really made an impression on me was what was to become The Oklahoma Standard. This was the direct, spontaneous, selfless, and overwhelming generosity of the people of Oklahoma. A call would go out over the airwaves for “D” cell batteries, and so many would be dropped off they would have to go back on the air to beg people to stop. After touring the area in which he would be sleeping and eating following his long shift at the Murrah building, a bald first responder saw the competeness of what was provided.

Team 5's message
Cots, with washed and folded cloths laid out, candy on the pillow, notes of thanks from school children, tables of food, and on and on. He is then asked if there was anything else they (the volunteers) could get for him and the others. The folcially challenged man joked about a barber shop. After his next shift it was there. Blood banks overflowed. Volunteers worked around the clock to do nothing but provide for the rescuers. When it was all over some coined the term The Oklahoma Standard, the standard which all other disaster responses would be measured.

 

I found this amazing. The rescuers were professionals, doing what they were trained to do. They were organized, coordinated, and practiced in their duties. The people of OKC served the rescuers through their own internal force of right and good.

 

Margo and I learned the story of the investigation.

The Survivor Wall
We learned (actually relearned)  how Timothy McViegh was under arrest, through his own stupidity, long before he was even a suspect. Again the displays, presentations, and staffers were top notch. There were displays about the world coverage. A display about the photographs taken and used in newspapers. Everyone remembers the picture of the firefighter holding the baby in his arms. It won a Pulitzer Prize. That baby’s name was Miss Baylee Almon. She did not survive. Eighteen other children died that day. One staffer told us as a result there is no Federal building in America was an onsite day care.

 

Towards the end, we learned about the outside part of the memorial. The was the Gates of Time and Reflecting Pond that we had already noticed.

The Survivors Tree
But there was also The Rescuers Orchard, a group of trees planted near The Survivor’s Tree dedicated to those who helped with the tragedy. There is one tree for each state that sent help. The tree representing Oklahoma is closet to The Survivor’s Tree, as the OKC finest were first on hand. Then there is the Survivor’s Wall. This is an actual section of the Murrah Building which was left intact, and the names of the survivors added to. But, the most moving part of the outside memorial is Field of Empty Chairs. Each victim of the OKC Bombing is memorialized with a bronze and glass chair. The chair has the victim’s name engraved in it. Chairs were chosen to represent the empty chairs at the dinner table, that the bombing caused. The chairs are arranged in nine rows, one each for each floor of the Murrah Building.
A tribute to the spontaneous gifts left after the bombing
Each victim’s chair can be found on floor he or she would have occupied that terrible day. The chairs are clustered towards the middle, as that is where the most devestation occurred. The chairs of the children are smaller.

 

Margo and I went outside. It was nearly 6 PM and the museum was going to close. We got close up views of the things we had just learned about and took our photographs. Even at 6 PM it was still hot, and the shade of The Survivor’s Tree was a welcome diversion. But, thirst and hunger were setting in. So after a pitstop at a downtown c-store, which I think was called The Midtown Mart, for water, we found our car and pointed it north. Our next stop was dinner at Pops

bkretzer says:
Yeah, I was expecting just another museum. They really did a great job on this!
Posted on: Aug 28, 2009
vulindlela says:
Wow, that is really moving....
Great write-up.
Posted on: Aug 28, 2009
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