Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 10, 2006

A place of memories and hope

The personal effects were what really got to me. Watches, keys, baby shoes, ladies' heels, purses, briefcases, eyeglasses, coffee mugs and toys were displayed with shredded office blinds, crushed file cabinets, tattered desk calendars and a clock stopped at 9:02 a.m. All were found in the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the April 19, 1995 bombing.

It was a day like so many others. It had dawned clear and the temperature was in the 60s. At 9 a.m., the city was busy. Parents dropped their children at day care centers on the way to work. Cars maneuvered through rush-hour traffic. Volunteers started setting up for a downtown art festival. Community leaders at a prayer breakfast finished eggs and orange juice.

Two minutes later, chaos reigned. Timothy McVeigh's rental truck - filled with 4,800 pounds of fertilizer and fuel oil - exploded, ripping through the federal building.

I was in Oklahoma City for a conference last month and one clear, calm night during our stay, some friends and I took the opportunity to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

Located where the building once stood, the nine rows of illuminated, glass-based chairs call to mind the nine floors of the building. There are 168 chairs - one for each person who died. Each has a victim's name etched into the glass base and is placed to correspond to the floor where he or she was working or visiting. There are smaller ones for the 19 children. Empty chairs - empty chairs to symbolize their absence in their loved ones' homes.

The 318-foot reflecting pool, lined with black granite, was framed by massive twin gates, one with 9:01 inscribed on it and the other with 9:03. I didn't understand when I first saw them.

But the meaning became clear when we visited the museum two days later. The East Gate represents the innocence of the city before the bombing. The West Gate represents the minute after it, when Oklahoma City and the nation were changed forever.

We were ushered into a small area which represented a hearing room in the Oklahoma Water Resources Board Building across the street from the Murrah Building. A tape with a woman's voice was playing.

"This is Wednesday, April the 19th, 1995. This is a hearing for protest of groundwater application 94501."

We heard a few more words and then the blast. The room went dark. It was silent for a moment, followed by screams. The light returned as the faces of the victims were flashed on the wall.

The doors opened and we entered a hall where videos of the first television reports were being shown. We continued on - through the area with the personal effects and into a room where tapes of survivor stories were played. We followed into yet another filled with 8 x 10 photos of the 168 victims. "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art" played softly in the background.

Calendar pages with victims' birthdays marked on the date squares lined the walls. Little Baylee Almon, whose body was cradled so gently by the rescue worker in the photo published around the world, had just turned 1 the day before.

When I left the museum, I reflected on how I had wondered before my visit how the memorial could do justice to the victims without being overly maudlin. The mission statement in one of the memorial's brochures explained:

"We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and security."

I think they succeeded. After my visit, I somehow felt closer to the victims and their families even though I knew none of them personally. The museum had shown the terrible toll of the bombing, but it also had a message of hope - that humans can and do get through such awful events.

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