Oklahoma City bombing: Hope and resolve amidst the mourning

In Oklahoma City Sunday, survivors, families, and officials marked the 20th anniversary of a truck bomb blast that took 168 lives and injured hundreds more. Since then, says one, the city 'has been utterly transformed.'

Nick Oxford/REUTERS
Tyjenae Perry and her sister Tamiyjah Perry at their great-aunt Castine Brooks Hearn Deveroux's memorial chair at the 20th Remembrance Ceremony, the anniversary ceremony for victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

In Oklahoma City Sunday, about 1,000 people gathered to mark the anniversary of the bombing that shattered the city and rocked the country 20 years ago.

There were music and prayers. The names of the 168 people killed on April 19, 1995 were read, slowly and solemnly. Officials spoke, including Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, FBI Director James Comey, and former president Bill Clinton, who had come to the site shortly after the blast at the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

For some of the nearly 700 survivors injured that day, their memories made it too difficult to attend the ceremony.

"For me, it's too distracting from the solemnity, the austerity that I want to experience on my own," said Joseph Webb.

“I’m not attending, not because it bothers me, but because I like to have my personal time to reflect on what happened,” Mr. Webb said. “Each of us has been given a second chance, and I think because of that, we think about what we are going to do with that second chance.”

Mr. Webb was one of the “miracle babies” – six children at the federal office building’s America's Kids Day Care Center who survived. Nineteen other children at the child care center were killed.

Other survivors attended Sunday’s memorial event.

"I hope we are an inspiration to those who are starting their own journey to healing," said Priscilla Salyers who was injured and trapped in the rubble for hours. "I hope people see that life goes on. So many of us have picked up the pieces and kept moving forward."

Still, an estimated one-fourth of the survivors have shown signs of PTSD.

“We saw a lot of the survivors and a lot of the family members first,” John Tassey, a psychologist at the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City, told NPR. “And now, here we are 20 years later and we're opening new cases for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

In the days following the blast, word spread of an “Oklahoma standard.” Boiled down to “service, honor, and kindness,” it’s become a program dedicated to compassion and resilience in the face of tragedy.

"You turned away all of the petty squabbles in which we engage, leaving only our basic humanity," President Clinton said Sunday.

"There's still people who somehow think they can matter more and they can make a statement by killing innocents and snuffing our possibility," he said. "They're wrong. As long as people like you make the right decisions with their mind and their heart."

Clinton’s reference here was to Timothy McVeigh, who loaded a rental truck with nearly 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel, parked it I front of the Murrah building, then lit a fuse and walked away.

McVeigh was convicted of murder, and in 2001 was executed by lethal injection. Co-conspirator Terry Nichols was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Three months after McVeigh’s execution, foreign terrorists tied to al Qaeda slammed hijacked airlines into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some of the first people to help out in New York came from Oklahoma.

"The lessons learned twenty years ago on April 19, 1995 – and in the months and years thereafter – have changed the way America responds to violence and terrorism," Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation, said in a statement. "Oklahoma City stands as a city of hope in the example of how a community can recover from a tragic event."

Today, the memorial stands where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. It includes 168 empty chairs made of glass, bronze, and stone, each inscribed with the name of one killed there on April 19, 1995. The names of unborn children are inscribed below their mothers' names.

In the years since then, the city “has been utterly transformed,” says Susan Winchester, chairman of the memorial and museum. “Scores of new residents are moving to the state. There's a generation of young people born after 1995. And it's up to all of us to teach them how even the most tragic event can bring out the best in people."

This report includes material from Reuters.

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