Road Trip: Oklahoma City National Memorial

On April 19, 1995, at 9:02 am, an American radical who was seeking revenge against the government blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This heinous act of domestic terrorism killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured hundreds more.

Children’s area near the museum entrance. School students from Texas made the handprint tiles to show their love and support after the bombing.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is a park that induces varied emotions in its visitors. During our visit we experienced a range of feelings that included sadness, anger, pride, and awe. There were also tears from at least one of us.

And Jesus Wept

A beautiful statue named And Jesus Wept stands across the street from the Oklahoma City National Memorial on the former site of the parish house of St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral. Fortunately, the cathedral survived the blast, but the parish house did not. There are 168 indentations in the wall in front of the statue representing the 168 people who lost their lives as a result of the bombing. The surrounding pillars represent the children and unborn babies who died in the explosion.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before the bombing. (Wikipedia)

How It Happened

On that fateful April morning, Timothy McVeigh parked a rented Ryder truck in front of the Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The truck contained almost 5,000 pounds of explosives made of fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other types of chemicals. McVeigh lit a timed fuse and then escaped to his getaway car. At 9:02 am, the explosion rocked downtown Oklahoma City, destroying the nine-story Murrah Building and damaging 324 surrounding buildings.

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the aftermath of the bombing.

Damage from the blast was not limited to the Murrah Building. Windows and doors were blown out within a 50-block radius, and vehicles parked near the building were reduced to crumpled metal. The buildings directly across the street were so badly damaged they had to be torn down.

Oklahoma City newspaper on the day after the bombing.

According to park information, the explosion was felt as far away as 55 miles and also registered 6.0 on the Richter scale. One of our family members who was 15 miles away claimed their windows rattled. Another family member who was on the fourteenth floor of a high-rise two blocks away said their building shook for a few seconds before the thundering boom was heard. Along with the rest of the country, we were horrified as reports of the bombing began to filter through the media.

Search and Rescue

In the photo below firefighter Chris Fields carries one-year-old Baylee Almon out of the carnage. The gut-wrenching amateur photo was featured in newspapers around the world. Sadly, Baylee died as a result of her injuries.

Oklahoma City fire Capt. Chris Fields carries 1-year-old Baylee Almon away from the aftermath of the April 19, 1995, bombing that killed 168 people.
“Of all the thousands of photos taken at the site, the photo of Baylee captured the horror of the bombing and took it straight to the heart of a sorrowful nation.” Caption from the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum.
The horrors that the first responders encountered are unfathomable to most of us. Unfortunately, many of them suffered PTSD as a result of their selfless efforts.

Nurse Rebecca Anderson tragically became the 168th victim of the bombing when she succumbed to injuries she sustained while helping a medical team search through the rubble for survivors.

Chasing Down Evil

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were immediately dispatched to the scene to begin the daunting task of interviewing potential witnesses and searching for clues. Their investigative efforts paid off when, remarkably, the rear axle of the Ryder truck was recovered on the day after the bombing.

The rear axle of the Ryder truck in the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. Also shown is the truck’s front tire rim.

The next day the FBI recovered a vehicle identification number from the axle and traced the truck to a body shop in Junction City, Kansas. Body shop employees described the person who rented the truck, and a composite sketch was made. Junction City townspeople identified Timothy McVeigh as the person in the composite. An intense search for the prime suspect immediately ensued.

In a stroke of luck, FBI agents found out that McVeigh was already in jail in Perry, Oklahoma. An observant state trooper had pulled him over for a missing license plate, and since McVeigh possessed a concealed gun and a knife, the trooper took him into custody just 90 minutes after the bombing. For a quick read and short video about McVeigh’s arrest, click here.

McVeigh’s yellow Mercury getaway car now has a permanent home in the museum.

The jury in McVeigh’s trial convicted him of his crimes and sentenced him to die by lethal injection. His execution took place in 2001.

It Wasn’t a Solo Act

Further investigations found that Terry Nichols, an army buddy of McVeigh’s, had built the bomb, and he was arrested in Kansas two days after the bombing. Prosecutors sought the death penalty in his case. However, at trial the jury couldn’t unanimously agree on executing him, so he instead received 161 consecutive life sentences. He remains incarcerated at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

Terry Nichols

The third person arrested in conjunction with the bombing was Michael Fortier. He was charged with failing to tell authorities about McVeigh and Nichols’ plan to bomb the Murrah Building. He had even cased the building with McVeigh prior to the bombing. Sadly, he chose not to make the one phone call that might have prevented the unspeakable tragedy. Fortier served 11 years of a 12-year prison sentence and was released in 2006.

On the Brighter Side

In the aftermath of tragedy, a beautiful memorial arose from the ruins. Along with it came one of the most astonishing museums we’ve ever seen. The Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum explicitly and meticulously tells the story of that disastrous time in our nation’s history.

Museum exhibit: replica of one of the offices destroyed in the bombing. Note the clock stopped at 9:02 and so much paper!

From displays of the wreckage and artifacts to videos of newscasts from around the world and interviews with survivors, the museum does a fabulous, albeit painful, job of telling the story of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The museum now occupies the Journal Record Building. Built in 1922, the Journal Record Building survived the bombing to serve another, perhaps more important purpose.
The memorial’s Field of Empty Chairs and reflecting pool as seen from the museum.

Standing at either end of the reflecting pool are the Gates of Time. The eastern gate shows the time of 9:01 and the western gate shows the time of 9:03. Time stands still at 9:02 between them. The 9:01 gate represents the last minute of innocence and the 9:03 gate represents the first minute of recovery and healing.

9:01 Gate
9:03 Gate

Field of Empty Chairs

Laid beautifully across the original footprint of the Murrah Building, the memorial features 168 chairs made of bronze, glass and stone. Each one bears the name of a person who perished in the bombing. Large chairs designate adults and small chairs designate children.

Field of Empty Chairs with the Alfred P. Murrah Building Plaza overlooking in the background.

Chair in honor of Luther H. Treanor, who died in the Social Security Administration office on the first floor of the Murrah Building.

The photo below shows the Survivor Wall, the last surviving piece of the Murrah Building. The wall features two granite slabs that were salvaged from the building’s lobby, and upon them are the names of more than 600 people who survived the bombing.

Survivor Wall

President Bill Clinton designated the Oklahoma City National Memorial as a national park in 1997. However, the Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation raised the funds to build the memorial, and in 2004 the site was relinquished to the organization. The National Park Service still lends some services to the park.

“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 serenity.” 

We thank you so much for joining us on our visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial! Our closing photo is of the Survivor Tree.

Once just another tree in a downtown parking lot, but it somehow survived the direct blast. Today the Survivor Tree, a 100-year-old Elm, stands proudly as a symbol of resiliency and strength.

Looking for more road trip or national park inspiration? Try these great destinations:

Pecos National Historical Park

Devils Tower Road Trip: Things to Do

Bryce Canyon National Park

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.