We Come Here To Remember

Oklahoma City builds a memorial to tell the story of hope and unity that grew out of a bomb's destruction.
Cassandra Vanhooser

Even now, thoughts of the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City make me shudder with terror and revulsion.

I fear that we have seen the enemy, and he walks beside us or--even worse--lives inside each of us. I am still horrified that a red-headed kid from rural New York could be so filled with hate that he would kill 168 people.

But I am filled with hope too. While visiting Oklahoma City, I find a community very much on the mend. And the new Oklahoma City National Memorial touches my heart in ways I could never imagine.

Even if you don't know the story of what happened here, the effects of a horrible violence haunt this place. The jagged edge of the Murrah Building splits the azure sky. The Journal Record Building looms over the landscape and stares hollow-eyed over a now peaceful scene. Even more chilling, 168 empty chairs sit on a field of emerald grass--one for each person killed that day.

There are signs of resilience too. An American elm stands on a knoll overlooking the site. It faced the blast, absorbed its power, and yet lives on. The sounds of new construction echo through the streets. Portions of the original chain-link fence that surrounded the bomb site still accept spontaneous tributes to those who perished.

But the thing that really brings me to my knees is the collective voice of the community speaking to me from the bronzed gates. "We come here to remember," says the mission statement, "those who were killed, those who survived, and those changed forever." This memorial was built for people--the fallen, the heroic, and all of us who remember where we were at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995.

Those Who Were Killed...
Stepping up to a section of chain-link fence incorporated into the western wall of the new memorial, Bud Welch gently lifts his daughter's photo from the center of a wreath. "I want to place a face on one of the 168 who were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing," he says, "and that's my daughter Julie."

Just 23 years old, Julie Marie Welch was a brunette beauty with shoulder-length hair and an indomitable spirit. Fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese, she was a translator in the Social Security Administration office on the first floor of the Murrah Building. She was young, in love, excited about her life.

"I was to meet her for lunch that Wednesday at 11:30," says Bud, who operated a Texaco station where Julie stopped almost every day after work. "We were going to go to an Athenian restaurant. We tried to meet every Wednesday for lunch."

After Julie's death, Bud was consumed by an almighty rage. He tried to numb his pain, but he became obsessed with the idea of seeing the bombers die.

"All my life I opposed the death penalty," Bud says calmly. "But the first four or five weeks after that bombing, after Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols had been arrested, I didn't even want trials for them. I just wanted them to fry.

"I finally realized that to execute either one of them was an act of rage and revenge," he continues. "And rage and revenge were exactly the reasons Julie and 167 others were killed right here. I just realized that was not going to help me at all to get through my grief."

Having turned that corner, Bud became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. His schedule is filled with interviews and speaking engagements, and he travels the country sharing his message of reconciliation with anyone who will listen.

"The day they take Tim McVeigh from his cage in Indiana for the purpose of killing him, it's not going to bring Julie Marie Welch back or anybody else killed in that bombing," Bud says firmly. "And it's damn sure not going to bring me any peace. God didn't make us where we'll feel good for killing somebody else."

Those Who Survived...
A striking woman with auburn hair, Florence Rogers walks through the memorial, noting points of interest with the ease of a tour guide. But as she approaches the 168 empty chairs, her steps falter. "This would be the row of chairs where my 18 girls are," she says quietly.

April 19, 1995, began like any other day for Florence, then president and CEO of the Federal Employees Credit Union. Just back from a Caribbean cruise, she had called an 8 a.m. meeting, anxious to assign duties for an upcoming bank audit. But her printer was not working.

Florence quickly moved the meeting to her office, reading from the agenda displayed on her computer screen. "I had just reared back in my chair when all of a sudden, wham! I could just see the whole building blowing up before my eyes," she says. "It picked me up and threw me on the floor, sucked my chair out from under me. My desk just disappeared."

Florence barely received a scratch. The eight other people in the room--the management team, including two vice-presidents and Florence's secretary--were killed instantly.

Of her 33 employees, 18 were killed and 6 critically injured. Still, just 48 hours and 18 minutes after the blast, Florence reopened the credit union using the remainder of her staff, borrowed employees, and makeshift facilities.

"God gave me incredible strength that I did not know I had," Florence says with a sad smile. "I'd go to work, I'd leave and go to a funeral, I'd go back to work. I'd make my hospital visits at night."

Though she retired in 1997, Florence still tells her story all over the world and serves on the memorial's board of directors. "There was an angel sitting on my shoulder that day," she says, blue eyes bright as she looks skyward. "The man upstairs was not finished with me yet, and I'm working hard every day to do whatever it is he had left for me to do."

And Those Changed Forever...
Perhaps the most enduring image of the bombing came from the photograph of a battered baby cradled in the arms of an Oklahoma City firefighter. But the picture that so powerfully illustrated the horror of the violent act also broke a mother's heart.

"I don't like that picture," says Aren Almon-Kok, mother of Baylee Almon, killed one day after her first birthday. "I don't look at it unless I have to."

Aren had dropped Baylee off at the daycare center and was working when she heard the explosion. "I could see the smoke," Aren remembers, "but I just thought it was demolition work."

As news of the bombing spread through the city, Aren soon realized the building that housed her daughter's daycare center had been bombed. Her nightmare was just beginning. "One of my supervisors drove me down here," Aren says, her voice trembling. "I stood behind the building for an hour or so just asking rescue workers about the children."

As Aren's family joined the vigil, they began to check the nearby hospitals. Hours passed before they finally got word that an unidentified child matching Baylee's description had been taken to St. Anthony's Hospital. When Aren reached the hospital, a nurse paged Baylee's pediatrician. "He came around the corner with a priest, and I knew then that she was gone."

Aren retreated with her family to her grandparents' house. "I remember getting up that next morning and looking for the newspaper," she says, recalling how her family hid the paper with Baylee's photo on the front page. "I picked up the paper, and I said, 'That's Baylee.' It didn't necessarily look like her. I just knew it was Baylee."

In the six years since, Aren has slowly pieced her life together again. She married Stan Kok in 1997, and they are parents to Bella, 2 years old, and Broox, born in November. Aren has also helped found a nonprofit foundation called Protecting People First, and she travels throughout the United States encouraging businesses to use shatterproof glass.

While working for the foundation, Aren met Congressman Bob Franks of New Jersey. When she told him that she and other parents had no idea there were federal law enforcement offices in the Murrah Building, he was outraged. As a result, the two worked together to pass a law--Baylee's Law--making it mandatory that daycare centers located in federal buildings notify parents when high-risk tenants move in.

And though she still can't bear to look at the picture, Aren has come to accept her child's place in history. "I feel like Baylee was put on this earth to do what she did, and that was to represent everyone who died in the building that day."

Finding Peace
In my notebook, I scribble these words: "We gather at this site searching for what we know is gone forever." I ponder this statement while staring at my face in the reflecting pool that stretches the length of the memorial. It's true this city--the nation even--lost much that day.

But I see, too, the reflection of a city that refused to be defeated by a terrorist's bomb. I see a lovely memorial built by that same community so that we will not forget what happened here or underestimate the power of our actions.

I kneel and dip my hands in the pool, as I've seen many others do. I walk to the bronze wall and lay my palms flat against the sun-warmed surface, adding my own prints to the thousands already there. The now-familiar refrain, etched into the tall gates, enters my prayer. "Dear God," I begin. "May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May I know..."

To Visit
The Oklahoma City National Memorial, located on NW. Fifth Street between Harvey and Robinson, is open 24 hours daily. Admission is free.

This article is from the April 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.