Where Residents Refuse to Let Fear Rule
OKLAHOMA CITY — The bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building almost flattened Benchmark Motors as well.
Forty-eight hundred pounds of exploding fertilizer created a halo of energy that lifted the roof off the car dealership, even though it stood six blocks from ground zero. When the roof came down, it slammed into the walls like a fist, shattering dozens of story-high panes of glass. Damage to Benchmark and the surrounding downtown was so great that skeptics said the area would not be rebuilt. Similarly, the sense of security citizens once enjoyed in this heartland city was gone forever, some felt.
Those people were wrong.
Take Benchmark Motors. Two years after the bombing, co-owner Jamie Hurst is risking a million dollars to expand the business. She thinks the rebuilding efforts have created a positive momentum in town. And residents aren't hiding behind locks or guards. Many have made the decision to not live in fear.
The coming trial of Timothy McVeigh, one of the Oklahoma City bombing suspects, may provide further catharsis. "A lot of things are happening that more people will be able to hear and see as the trial goes on," says Ms. Hurst. "That is definitely part of the healing process."
This does not mean that the Oklahoma City bombing has been without negative effect. The city's view of security - or lack of it - has indeed changed. And many condemned buildings still stand with boarded-up windows.
But this Midwestern city has not developed a culture of suspicion. Oklahoma City might even be better prepared to handle tragedy than before. And a defiant resolve to protect the quality of life and to rebuild has evolved.
"We have not changed, at least the city entity," says Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick, speaking of the fundamental shift in the perception of safety here. Despite the concern the bombing caused across the country, leading to the shutting down of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, radical security steps are not being taken here. "We have not locked down city hall where it's not very accessible to the public. We still operate the city for the benefit of the citizens. If we are going to make it restricted to them, we have lost the battle to these extremists groups," he says.
That optimism is evident not only in personal safety. It's also closely tied to most of the physical reconstruction. It has taken more time than anticipated for local business owners and city planners to come together on final plans for the area. But the rebuilding effort is gathering speed. All across downtown, the rich red clay of lots cleared of condemned buildings absorbs the rays of the orange setting sun. Soon they will see the activity of construction.
For instance, a site at Fifth and Harvey Avenue, catty-corner to the Murrah building lot, sprouts electrical and plumbing conduits from a concrete foundation. Before long, a new post office will see a stream of people coming in and out. In addition, the steel framework of a new ballpark for a minor-league baseball stadium has been erected. And plans are being finalized for a canal and walkway similar to ones in San Antonio, Texas.
A BLOCK away from the post office site, the First Methodist Church was badly damaged in the blast. It was near this spot that the gunshot was fired starting the Oklahoma land rush in the 1800s. But $8 million and a head-strong head pastor named Nick Harris later, the building is not only being restored to its former glory, it is being tripled in size.
"That's going to be the building everyone who visits that bomb site is going to see. And it's going to be right there for them to look at, and ... it's going to be a 24-hour-a-day sermon," says Mr. Harris. The church's completion should coincide with the unveiling of a still-undetermined memorial in July 1998.
The rebuilding is a metaphor for the restoration of the community's feeling of safety, believes Harris. "Every time somebody comes, I want them to look over there and be able to see that evil has it's impact. It does it's thing. When it's all said and done, good always rises from the ashes and it'll be there a hundred years from now. Whoever perpetrated this crime made a mess for a couple of years. But for the next hundred years we are going to have this monument on the corner saying, look, good triumphs. Evil has its season. But good always overcomes evil," he says.
There was criticism of the Murrah building's design in the wake of the tragedy. Critics said planners should have constructed and placed the building better in order to minimize such an attack.
But Garner Stoll, the city's planning director who is involved in rebuilding office space downtown for the federal workers who used to work in the Murrah building, says there is a conscious effort under way to avoid overreacting as architects hit the drawing board. "The big challenge in the federal campus design is to come up with a master plan that makes the agencies feel secure. We absolutely don't want to put these buildings in a fenced-off area. Public buildings need to be on a public sidewalk and street, in my opinion," he says.
The city's refusal to be beaten down does not preclude caution, however. The civic apparatus has changed in some ways. Bomb drills are now practiced along with tornado drills in some schools. Some Tulsa classrooms even have rogue gunman drills. Children are taught to listen to code words from their teachers. Classrooms will go dark and children hide from sight of doors and windows if a gunman enters.
While such practice may mark a loss of innocence, perhaps an even stronger resolve has evolved not to let life change here. That's an attitude evinced by everyone from school kids to cops. "In a lot of ways we are even more united," observes Captain Ted Carlton of the Oklahoma City Police Department.
Some in Oklahoma City say they actually think about the bombing less than those outside of the city. The attack is not forgotten, but day-to-day routines take center stage.
That is especially true for the firemen involved in the rescue and recovery effort.
As a fire truck races across town to assist, firefighters declare victory over a six-alarm fire in the historic Bricktown section of the city. Hard-featured men in raincoats aim jets of water down on the final stubborn embers.
Normally, fighting a fire for more than 10 hours would be considered a long haul for a team of firefighters. But this department was steeled by 17 days in the twisted steel and concrete of the Murrah building. Even big fires like this don't come close.
"That was one event and we handled it at the time and afterward we got back to business as usual," says Major Keith Bryant from Station 14.
The fire and police departments' reaction to the Murrah bombing was so successful it created a so-called "Oklahoma standard" for emergency response. But now the city wants to do even better. Authorities have purchased sensitive heat-detection devices that help search through rubble. Teams here are now so thoroughly prepared that Oklahoma City has applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to certify a local urban search and rescue team. If approved, it will be ready to fly out on a minute's notice to assist other cities in the same way teams came here to work in the Murrah building.
Jon Hansen, the assistant fire chief, says the level of preparedness goes beyond simply being ready for another attack. "Soon we'll be prepared if it happens to somebody else in our country. The fire service and FEMA and everyone else in this great nation turned out in force to help us in Oklahoma City, and we want to be able to return that in some way, God forbid, if this happens again in our nation," he says.
Some survivors of the bombing are similarly looking forward. Ruth Heald, a former Housing and Urban Development employee, was badly wounded in the attack. But she's since waged a heroic battle to recover. She has no plans to watch the upcoming Denver trial.
"I guess I have more important things to do than be consumed by it," she says.