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Bombing memorial dedicated 5 years after Okla. tragedy

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–“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.”

“I think that says it for me,” said Paul Heath of the Murrah Bombing Memorial’s mission statement.

The memorial, at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, was dedicated with ceremonies April 19, five years after the blast that took 168 lives, injured hundreds and left emotional scars that are still in the process of healing.

Heath, recently retired as a counseling psychologist with the Veteran’s Administration, was in his office in the Murrah Building when the bomb exploded. He was standing by the only seven feet of wall that withstood the blast. Although covered with debris, he was able to escape and helped many of the injured out of the building.

Heath, a member of Oklahoma City’s Exchange Avenue Baptist Church, helped put the memorial’s mission statement together and was on the jury that selected the final design of the memorial.

“I’m delighted that all of the institutions, individuals, churches, synagogues and congregations of all religious faiths came together with one voice to say ‘acts of violence are not acceptable in this community, this state or this nation,'” Heath said. “I believe the memorial speaks loudly to that.”

Heath explained that the memorial contains four components — the Federal Plaza, which symbolizes the normalization of constitutionally guaranteed services for citizens; an outdoor component; an indoor component; and the Oklahoma Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, which will conduct research to learn how people get into such a delusional state of mind that they’re willing to do acts of violence.

Heath said the light of his friends, co-workers and other citizens who died in the building will shine forever from the 168 perpetually lighted chairs, each with the name of a victim etched on it.

“There is a special etching for the three pregnant women who died while carrying the unborn,” Heath noted.

There are two sizes of chairs, one for adults and one for children.

“I’m not unlike the rest of the world in trying to comprehend how a delusional person deliberately took the lives of children in an act of violence to try and make a political statement,” Heath said.

The memorial also recognizes survivors, whose names are on the east wall of a survivor’s chapel.

“There are nearly 800 names engraved in the original pavers on the plaza, recognizing the impact of violence on survivors,” Heath said.

In addition, the now famous survivor tree is standing alive and well. Twelve hundred new American elm trees have been grown from the seeds of that tree to be distributed as gifts from the Oklahoma City community as a symbolic message of survival.

Heath said he took a seedling from the tree to the Denver board of education.

“It will be planted quietly on the Columbine High School campus, and unmarked so it won’t be disturbed,” Heath said. “When the students of Columbine sit under the shade of that tree, or see life in the form of birds, hopefully it will remind them of their obligations as human beings to celebrate life and do what they can for the betterment of mankind.”

In addition to the chairs, chapel and survivor tree, the memorial gives tribute to the state of Oklahoma by a grove of redbud trees.

The highest points — huge bronze gates of time — with 9:01 etched on the east side and 9:03 on the west side — frame the memorial site with a connecting black granite bottom and 3/4-inch-deep reflecting pool, which flows from east to west.

“It not only mirrors the gates of time, framing the 9:02 event that cost us all so much, but it also is a mirror for those who look into it to recall they have time left,” Heath said. “What are you going to do with that time? Are you going to use it for the betterment of your community; are you going to demonstrate capacity to love and forgive; or are you going to invest it in anger and hate, which always leads to acts of evil?”

The gates frame 3.3 acres, forever marking the moment 9:02. Tall pine trees line the area.

In the children’s exhibit is an outdoor chalkboard on which children can write or draw pictures. It is surrounded by ceramic tiles that came from children around the world.

A grove of producing fruit trees is there to remind of present life and “[for us] to be fruitful with our lives,” Heath said.

The indoor memorial occupies 24,000 square feet of the west end of the Journal Record Building and contains the story of the bombing. A 14,000-square-foot permanent exhibit will tell the story in a chronological format from “A Day Like Any Other Day,” to “Changed Forever.”

Starting on the third floor, through a series of carefully planned exhibits, the exhibit describes what kind of a day it was in Oklahoma City the Wednesday after Easter 1995. There is a tape recording of the bomb exploding. The exhibit then takes visitors through a series of showcases honoring those who lost their lives. Families have been given opportunity to place personal items, including pictures, in the cases.

Moving through the exhibit, stories of survivors and rescue personnel are told. There also is a place to honor those who came from out of state to help in the rescue efforts, including those who made donations. Of particular interest is the penny campaign, in which children raised $480,000.

“That tells you how many children’s lives have been touched by the impact of the violence,” Heath noted.

Down from the third floor is the story of the people who bombed the building, as well as a collection of materials that have come off the chain-link fence which surrounded the site.

“The only change the architects honored was the request from families to erect a chain-link fence where people can continue to place things,” Heath said. “It is on the west end of the memorial on the north and south side of the 9:03 gate.”

Heath said the Oklahoma Institute for Prevention of Terrorism won’t reach its full maturity for some years, but it will continue “to speak volumes not only to the state, but also to the nation and the world about how fruitless acts of violence are for political change.”

The institute is designed to address a broad counter-terrorism front, ranging from science and technology issues to the social and political causes and effects of terrorism.

A resource library has been established and the institute has been designated by Congress as a lead counter-terrorism research and information facility.

Heath said the most important thing he’s learned from the bombing is the ability to forgive people.

“I have forgiven those responsible for the bombing,” he said. “However, I didn’t forget that, as a victim of violence, I had a responsibility to pursue the perpetrators through the courts.

“I’m responsible for forgiveness, but not for the guilt and horror these people perpetrated.”


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  • Dana Williamson