A City Still Mourns
“And we have suddenly become an international city; Our insulation instantly torn away. We are ordinary no longer; Now we are the heartland struck deep and hard; A wound running black and red; And nothing is clear anymore.”
—Anonymous poem left on the fence at the Oklahoma City National memorial.
Fifteen years have passed since Firefighter Chris Fields emerged from the rubble of a collapsed Alfred P. Murrah federal building holding the shattered body of 1-year-old Baylee Almon. The photograph has become the iconic relic of the largest act of domestic terrorism in American history. Almon died moments after the photograph was taken, and the experience took its toll on Fields.
“I was a good Christian on the outside,” Fields later said on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, “but on the inside, I wasn’t there.”
The stark images of violence, evil and death made him “reevaluate it because God put me where I was that day for a reason.”
For days after the explosion, the nation’s heartland stood in shock as an overwhelmingly conservative Protestant city became home to hoards of reporters, rescue workers and even tourists. By the time search and rescue efforts were suspended on May 4, 1995, thousands had made their way to the site to observe the remnants of what was not the work of a foreign dissident angry at America, but a homegrown terrorist who looked as respectable and clean cut as someone’s next door neighbor. Not once after Timothy McVeigh was captured, tried and later executed did he ever express sorrow over his actions. Even the children who were murdered gave him little pause as he simply excused the fact as “collateral damage.”
The explosion of 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate (an agricultural fertilizer) and nitromethane (a motor-racing fuel) was heard in Shawnee (some 35 miles away). Luke Holmes, now associate pastor of youth at Warner, First, 14 years old at the time, remembers hearing the blast in class at Christian Heritage Academy in Del City.
“Fear immediately gripped all of us as we did not know the full extent of what happened,” Holmes remembers. “Some of my friends had parents who worked downtown, and they were terrified at the thought that they might now be orphans.”
Kerry Russell, chief financial officer for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) was actually late to an appointment in downtown Oklahoma City on the morning of April 19. After stopping by his office at the Baptist Building and finding a voicemail informing him that the information he needed was not ready, he walked up to the sixth floor of the building just in time to feel the entire building shake violently. Black smoke could be seen from the offices located approximately 7 miles away from downtown.
“After the bombing, thousands of dollars poured in from all over the world,” Russell said. “It was the first event of its kind that caused us to understand both the generosity and compassion of the church of Jesus Christ as well as the massive undertaking to properly account for the gifts from so many people,” Russell recounted.
Thousands of people lined the streets leading up to blood donation sites. Rescue workers learned that they should not tell the media of any needs lest the site be overrun as people immediately went and purchased whatever was needed—in huge quantities.
Rain gear was requested at noon on April 22. By 2 p.m., a three-block line of cars slowly inched north past the city’s convention center with hundreds of donations of rain coats, hip waders, ponchos and hats.
“When there was first a need for gloves or boots or blankets, media outlets soon had to go back on the air within an hour of their first request because they were inundated with more than they could ever use,” remembers BGCO Executive Director-Treasurer Anthony L. Jordan—then senior pastor of Oklahoma City, Northwest. “That is just the way Oklahomans are,” he said. “In times of crisis, we step up to meet the challenge.”
Frank Keating, Oklahoma’s governor at the time of the blast, soon termed the state’s outpouring of support, “the Oklahoma Standard.” The words stuck. Across the entire nation “the Oklahoma Standard” became the watchword for national pride and support for the people of Oklahoma in their hour of need. The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. paid tribute to “the Oklahoma Standard” by cosponsoring with the National Endowment for the Arts an exhibit titled, “We will be back: Oklahoma City Rebuilds.” The exhibit ran from Nov. 17, 1995 through March 17, 1996 and remains one of the most visited exhibits in the building’s history.
When Keating returned to the ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the bombing, he spoke again of “the Oklahoma Standard” and its impact which had now become in the words of Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, “the national standard.”
Since that morning 15 years ago, the United States has reeled from another act of terrorism on American soil—this time of international origin. This year’s remembrance ceremony takes place after Sept. 11, 2001. Since “9/11,” the Oklahoma City bombing has taken on new significance. As the first location on American soil to experience unspeakable horror before a live television audience, the Oklahoma City bombing is a reminder that no place is safe from terror. Napolitano said as much in her remarks before the large crowd gathered to commemorate the anniversary.
The ceremony began with the ringing of church bells and 168 moments of silence—one second for each of those whose lives were lost, including 19 children. Later in the program, as their names were read aloud, an awareness that the memorial itself with its 168 empty chairs and grassy knoll has now become a national sacred space is beyond question. The National Memorial houses a museum with artifacts from the bombing that is both an exhibition of the horror of that day and a preservation of the memory of those who were lost.
After 15 years, Jordan still hasn’t toured the museum.
“I was there, and I still can’t talk about it too much,” he said.
He insists, however, that the “goodness of God is seen in our darkest moments. I still remember that day with great sorrow in my heart, but I also remember the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that one day all things will be made new, and our sorrow will be forever turned to joy.”