The 167 killed people killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and the one person who died three days later when a piece of debris from the building fell on her while she worked to recover the bodies of the others.
Each is now memorialized by one of these chairs (this is my friend Pete’s) in the Field of Empty Chairs in the footprint of the Murrah Building on the grounds of the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
Over the weekend I was in Oklahoma City volunteering with the Memorial Marathon that’s put on each year to honor those killed and injured in the bombing, and those whose lives were changed forever. Including mine.
Each of the people who died had a story, of course, about why they were at the Murrah building that day.
Pete had been one of my first instructors when I came to the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, and we quickly became friends. He later left the Air Force to become an investigator for the agency that did background checks on people applying for or updating their security clearances. Pete only worked one day a week at his office in the Murrah Building.
April 19th was that day.
I didn’t know Cartney or LaKesha but both were junior Airmen assigned to Tinker. Both were at the Social Security office, LaKesha to get a Social Security card, Cartney to do name-change paperwork.
She had gotten married on April 15th.
When the bomb went off at 9:02 that morning, I was 7½ miles away, inside a concrete building, planning for an AWACS training mission my crew and I were going to fly the next day. We heard the explosion and thought someone upstairs had knocked over a table or filing cabinet.
Until we learned differently.
But the Marathon and this post aren’t about death, even the deaths of my friend and my fellow Airmen. It isn’t about bomber Tim McVeigh’s cruelty and cowardice, or the blind, dumb luck that put an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper at the right place at the right time to notice that McVeigh’s getaway car had no license plate. It isn’t about the slow grind of the judicial system that kept McVeigh in custody long enough for him to be connected with the bombing.
This post isn’t even about my guilt about not having gone down to the bombing site to help with the rescue and recovery efforts, although that is one reason why I’ve volunteered with the Marathon for each of its 16 years.
This post isn’t about the political leadership that guided the city, the region, and the people through the recovery process, either, so unlike the one after 9/11, when the political environment was already fraught with conflict, and from which it has yet to recover.
No, for me the Marathon and everything surrounding it are about people. People who band together and persevere in the face of stunning and heart-wrenching, inexplicable tragedy, who form friendships and partnerships, who focus not just on going on, on surviving, but on turning tragedy into something positive, something inspiring, something that looks to the future while remembering and honoring the past.
Like the Survivor Tree, the American Elm that survived the bombing and has become the Memorial’s symbol, Oklahoma City and the surrounding region have recovered, taken other body-blows (in the form of massive, deadly tornados), survived, recovered again, and not just gone on, but gotten better. The people here learned to weather all kinds of storms they could not have imagined before they happened. They have learned about strength–strength they never knew they had–and resilience. And dignity. And grace.
About hearts emptied and refilled. By a marathon. And a Field of Empty Chairs.