That Wednesday twenty years ago started like any other. I arrived at school in Northwest Oklahoma City ready to face a classroom full of fourth graders, just as I did every day. A morning field trip had been planned, and fourth grade students from all over the district would be converging upon the Civic Center to attend a musical performance—what performance, I now have no idea. Arrival in downtown was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. but, for reasons unknown, the buses were late arriving and by the time we got everyone loaded and departed from the school it was right at 9 o’clock. As we traveled toward downtown along Memorial Road, the kids were excitedly laughing and talking, glad to escape the confines of the classroom. About five or so minutes into our journey a call came across the bus radio: “Stop immediately. There has been a major explosion in downtown Oklahoma City.” Not everyone heard the announcement and as the driver guided the bus to the side of the road, several students began inquiring as to why we were stopping. Again the dispatcher’s voice crackled through on the radio, interrupting the hubbub and demanding that we halt immediately—repeating that there had been a major explosion in downtown. Oklahoma City is known for its extremely flat terrain, which enables one to see for miles. Though we were still a good distance from downtown, we could clearly see thick, black smoke billowing toward the sky in the distance. One of my students—an especially precocious kiddo named Andrew—piped up shrilly. “Do you think it was a bomb?” Without even pausing to reflect I responded, “I’m sure it wasn’t a bomb, Andrew. It was probably a gas leak or a pipeline explosion.” I cannot even express how remote the possibility of a bomb explosion seemed to me at that time…such a reality never crossed my mind! After all, this was America—and the Heartland at that! Such things happened in other places! Needless to say, the field trip was shelved and we returned to school. We were horrified to learn that this was no small explosion, but rather had blown a large portion of a huge building to smithereens! My immediate concern was the safety of my husband, whose job often took him into the downtown area, and I rushed out to my car to call him. (I had a cell phone at that time, but it was hard-mounted in my car.) Miraculously, I was able to get through to him and learn that he was safe—something I was not able to do again as the cell phone towers were completely jammed making it impossible to get through to anyone. The day passed as if a slow motion nightmare—attempting to conceal the awful truth from our students while conducting the daily routines in as normal a fashion as possible, then slipping off on our breaks to gaze with horror at the carnage playing out before our eyes live and wall-to-wall on televisions stashed around the school building. Those of us on the school bus that morning were some of the few in the city who did not actually feel the impact of the explosion—I have been told that the tires likely absorbed the force. My husband thought an airplane had crashed outside of his office; my sister was convinced someone was breaking into her house; others feared an earthquake. My husband spent that first night on the scene as part of the heavy equipment response team—something he is not likely to ever forget. All told, 168 people lost their lives, almost 700 more were injured, and countless others suffered the loss of family members and friends. One of my students lost his uncle (his body was never found) and a college classmate of ours was among the victims. Possibly the most sobering effect this senseless act of cowardice and evil had on me was the loss of innocence and naivete that I had always possessed—a sense of peace and security here in America. But, I am so thankful that the buses were delayed that morning and we didn’t find ourselves mere blocks from the bomb site with hundreds of children!
The people of Oklahoma City are strong and resilient, and they soldiered on in the face of tragedy. On the former site of the Murrah Federal Building, you can now visit a Memorial to the victims of the bombing. It includes a large reflecting pool flanked by two large gates—one inscribed with the time 9:01, the other with 9:03. The pool itself is representative of the moment of the blast. Nearby is a field of bronze and stone chairs—one for each person lost, arranged according to what floor of the building they were on. The smaller chairs represent the 19 children who were killed; the larger chairs are symbolic of the adult victims. Amazingly, one tree survived the explosion and its aftermath and still stands, known as “the survivor tree.” Part of the original building remains as a testament to the enormity of destruction. Visitors can also visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.