By Dave Ruthenberg, Columnist
Overwhelming. There really is no other word to describe the experience, except as overwhelming. From the opening moments when the calm of what started out as another routine day to the calamitous event that took place just minutes later and claimed 168 innocent lives, a walk through the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum brings you face-to-face with evil incarnate and blessed goodness all at once. Overwhelming.
I have found if you ask Oklahomans about April 19, 1995, they can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. It is one of those events that leave an indelible mark on the memory of those who were so close to the event. Much like past generations can tell you where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; the Oklahoma City bombing has a similar impact.
I realized this when my co-workers in the newsroom could tell me their exact whereabouts at that moment. Sheepishly, I admitted I could not recall my exact whereabouts at the time. Being in Michigan did not bring the same immediate intimacy of the event.
But if I felt a disconnect then, my tour of the memorial quickly changed that.
The saddest day in Oklahoma history started out as simply as any other workday, and this is captured on a recording that was recovered and represents the starting point of the museum’s walking tour. At 9 a.m. that day, a hearing was about to begin at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. You hear the opening comments, knowing two minutes later a terrible tragedy was about to unfold. Yet, even though you know it’s coming, the sound of the explosion still rips through you and chills you to the bone, for you know at that instant, pure evil has been visited upon this city.
From there you see the televised reports immediately following the incident and the speculation of who could have done this begins. The natural assumption at the time was it had to be foreign terrorism. For it was nearly unfathomable one of our own citizens could have done this. But soon enough we all realize differently.
Strikingly, as well, is how the death toll climbs as you pass the markers around the museum that recount the minutes and hours following the event. The plaques show the progression of the death toll as the depth of this tragedy becomes greater …. known dead: 20 …. known dead: 39 ... until the toll finally reaches 168.
In those moments we also are introduced to the heroes who thrust themselves so unselfishly into the fray, and in one case, gave her life to rescue others.
Rebecca Anderson, 37, was a licensed practical nurse who was at home when she heard about the bombing and went to the scene to assist the rescue. She assisted two victims and then went inside the ruins to see if there were more victims that needed aid. While inside she was struck by falling debris. She staggered outside and collapsed into the arms of another rescuer, a moment captured in a chilling photo. Anderson was rushed to the hospital where doctors relieved pressure on her brain, but four days later she succumbed to her injuries and left behind a husband and four children. A true heroine.
The rest of this heart-wrenching tour takes you through all of the moments afterward. You realize quickly how the nation responded and the depth of the caring that is out there. It is far deeper than the evil that dwelled within the vapid soul of Timothy McVeigh. I suppose, inside me, I would have liked to have seen a shot or two of the coward strapped to his execution bed just for a sense of revenge, but understandably no such photos are on display.
However, all 168 victims are on display in the aptly named “Gallery of Honor.” Accompanying each photo is a memento from each victim’s life telling you something about them. You realize these are not statistics, but loved ones.
One of those I spoke with about their memories of that day was Lt. Eric Holtzclaw of the Enid Police Department. Like everyone else I had spoken with, he could recall his exact whereabouts but more striking to me was his comment about the delicate balance we have in our society. “There is a thin fiber,” Holtczlaw told me, between calm and chaos.
On that day in 1995, that fiber was broken, but only briefly. The goodness of a nation was revealed in response to a most heinous event. The American people stared down evil and, in the aftermath, evil blinked.
Ruthenberg is copy editor at the News & Eagle. He can be reached at email@example.com.