The most enduring and heart-wrenching moment from that day
Fifteen years ago, today, America witnessed the worst domestic terrorist attack, when Timothy McVeigh drove a moving truck full of explosives to the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City and walked away.
I still remember that day clear and I still remember how deeply it affected me. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Oklahoma and still felt very strongly at that time that Oklahoma was my home. I was a junior in high school. School was out that day for teacher inservice day but I had spent the morning at the school changing the heads on the tympani in the band room. Tympani were my domain.
The explosion took place at 9:02 am but I did not hear about it until I got home at about 11 o'clock. I was shocked and angered but mostly afraid. That day we still had no earthly idea who had perpetrated that act. Late in the day reports started trickling in that witnesses had seen two men of Middle Eastern decent running away from the scene. Because of the attacks on the twin towers a few years earlier I believed fully that it was a foreign terrorist attack. Timothy McVeigh was stopped hours after the bombing and arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon. Evidence collected quickly showed that McVeigh was involved in the bombing.
As the evidence continued to come in it became clearer and clearer that this bombing was indeed a domestic attack. It was an attack on the government and in later taped interviews McVeigh made it clear that he did not care who died but the ATF was his primary target over Waco and Ruby Ridge. He was an extremist and did not care who he killed in order to punish the government. His hatred ended with 168 people killed, including 19 children under the age of 6. This is the last I will mention of McVeigh, he was a terrorist and deserves no further recognition.
On April 19, 2000 the Oklahoma City National Memorial was opened on the site of the attack. I have been there and it is quite honestly stunningly beautiful and awe-inspiring. They have placed markers, known as the Field of Empty Chairs on the original footprint of the building to represent the people killed, those representing children are smaller in size. In one corner of the square part of the building has been left intact to remind us that there was a building there. There is an American Elm on site known as the Survivor Tree. The tree survived the blast full intact. On each entry point of the site are the Gates of Time, one has the time 9:01 the minute before the attack marking the innocence that Oklahomans and all Americans felt before and the other with 9:03 marking the minute after the attack representing that our world had changed forever. There is the wall that was setup after the attack that people from all around decorated with mementos and memorials to the dead and survivors still standing. The reflecting pool is the original site of N.W. Fifth St that ran directly in front of the building. If you ever have a chance to go to the memorial due yourself the favor and make time for it. The memorial is overwhelming but at the same times gives the visitor a sense of peace. They have a website where you can get an overview of the memorial along with virtual tours here.
That day changed me deeply and emotionally for the rest of my life. I was afraid that day of what could happen. But watching how the men and women who are charged with protecting our lives operated that day and the days that followed gave me the sense that whatever evils may be perpetrated against us there were men and women who would do their all to keep us safe. After that event I lost my fear and I came to trust that those who were charged with keeping us safe would always do their best to do just that.
Unfortunately as it tends to happen, this day has largely been forgotten and it was not 9/11 that dropped it out of our national conscience. As years pass, even though we all say that we will never forget, we typically do forget or at the very least stop recognizing what the day truly held for us. Pearl Harbor and the day Kennedy was shot are days that we all know, but as the years grow further away from those days we have largely forgotten just how in the forefront those days were for this nation. I have not forgotten April 19th. I honor it every year. When I am teaching, I set aside April 19th aside to remember that day and to teach kids who were still babies at the time just how big an impact this day had on our country.
Those that died that day did not have to die. They did nothing to Timothy McVeigh. They were his victims because of his hatred of the government. Those that know me know that for the most part I am against the death penalty. I would rather see those that commit acts of violence sit in a tiny prison cell and have to live with what they did and the memory of those they affected for the rest of their lives. Timothy McVeigh is not one of those people. He never showed remorse and felt that he was justified to kill them. Keeping him alive would have solved nothing.
It is up to us to keep those who died that day in the forefront of our minds and keep their spirit alive. They shall not be forgotten.
--April 19, 1995