The Facts of Oklahoma City

My WSJ review of the expanded and renovated Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, a site and event often overshadowed by 9/11.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, New York’s World Trade Center has been ground zero for terror-attack remembrances in the U.S. (with the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., a distant second and third). That’s understandable. But one of the unintended consequences of the 9/11 focus has been the marginalization of the site of America’s other major terrorist attack: Oklahoma City in 1995.

OKCThat may be about to change. The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum has reopened after an extensive $8 million refurbishing and expansion that includes 19 new interactive stations and 1,100 additional artifacts, including never-before-seen forensic evidence released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nine of the 12 galleries are now open, with the other three slated to open by December, just ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attack.

You may recall that on April 19, 1995, two antigovernment extremists, Timothy McVeigh and accomplice, Terry Nichols, successfully detonated a 4,000-pound fertilizer bomb hidden in a Ryder rental truck parked outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The museum and memorial are now on that site.

Museums often begin their exhibitions by providing historical background, but this one is unflinching in taking visitors immediately back to the scene of the crime. The primary image in the first gallery is an 8-by-8-foot grainy photograph of the yellow rental truck that contained the bomb. The time stamp in the lower-right corner reads “04-19-95, 08:56:56,” about five minutes before the crude explosive detonated, killing 168 people, including 19 children. The photograph, taken by a security camera at the Regency Tower, is mounted next to a window that looks out on the apartment building, still there, connecting today’s visitors to that fateful day.

Photos, panels and interactive maps explain that the Murrah building housed 17 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Customs Service, and a Marine Corps recruiting office. On the second floor was a day-care center where, one panel chillingly tells us, cribs lined the windows on the side of the building where the bomb went off. Across the street was the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which was holding a routine hearing that produced the only known recording of the bombing.

Visitors are ushered into a reconstruction of the hearing room, the doors are closed, and the tape begins. After visitors hear about 30 seconds of routine business, an explosion is heard in the background of the tape. The lights in the mock hearing room flicker, and the wall in front of the hearing table lights up with portraits of the victims. On the tape, we hear people screaming as they evacuate the hearing room. Then a door opens, directing us into the next exhibit space, which the museum calls “Chaos.”

A video of early local-news coverage plays while visitors make their way through a room strewn with debris. Actual ductwork from the Murrah building, chipped and scarred, hangs just overhead. Wide columns are covered with images from that day. Glass display cases hold some of the personal items recovered at the scene. When visitors first look at the glass, there are images of the bombing scene. Then the images fade and the glass is clear, showing recovered artifacts. For instance, a glass panel initially shows the bombed-out parking garage across from the Murrah building. When the image disappears, we see dinged up and dirty car keys found in the rubble. A larger display case reveals a banged up desk and twisted filing cabinet with charred file folders. It’s all done very well, and gives visitors some sense of what it must have been like to be there.

The Gallery of Honor is a sparse room with a sweeping concave wall filled with 168 neatly aligned shadow boxes—one for each victim. Every box has a photo of the victim, and most have small mementos chosen by family members. Those displays with no mementos were purposefully left empty by the family, museum officials said, symbolizing the loss.

The children’s memorials are the most moving. Zachary Taylor Chavez, 3, is seen in a birthday photo along with some Lion King toys. Eighteen-month-old Blake Ryan Kennedy’s box has just one tiny sneaker. A panel in the room explains that 30 children were made orphans that day, while 219 kids lost at least one parent.

The Survivor gallery catalogs just that, with photos and quotes of office workers who survived and helped their injured colleagues. One of the most incredible stories told here is that of Florence Rogers, president of the Federal Employees Credit Union. She was holding her weekly staff meeting when the bomb went off. She was unharmed, but the other eight people in the room “just disappeared” when the building was sheared in half by the explosion and the floor collapsed under them. Her dress, looking like she just bought it, is on display.

The brand-new Trail of Evidence gallery details the police work that began almost as soon as the dust cleared. The museum has the truck axle housing that was the first major clue in helping the FBI track down the perpetrators. It landed 575 feet away. That wasn’t uncommon; parts of cars and buildings were blow so far away by the blast that it initially made it harder for investigators to determine which debris was from, say, the truck with the bomb and which was from cars belonging to workers. Police eventually cordoned off 20 blocks to look for clues, including some that were embedded in the sides of nearby buildings.

All of this is well organized and, most important, presented in a way as to not make McVeigh and Mr. Nichols the focus of the exhibit. There is also little sentimentality or sensationalism, just the facts, which makes the exhibit even more powerful. Yes, much of the evidence used to convict McVeigh and Mr. Nichols is here, including personal items such as the 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis McVeigh was driving when he was pulled over about an hour after the bombing near Perry, Okla. The museum also has the plastic fertilizer barrel found in Mr. Nichols’s barn, along with fragments of the barrel that held the fertilizer for the bomb.

Near the end, large touch screens allow visitors to trace the entire criminal case—from the Dreamland Motel just outside Junction City, Kan., where the truck was rented and the details of the plot finalized, to the trial that ultimately sentenced McVeigh to death (he was executed in 2001)and Mr. Nichols to life in prison. Images of their fingerprints appear alongside each piece of evidence that directly connected them to the crime.

But the clear focus of the exhibits is on the victims and the aftermath. As it should be.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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