Visitors say bombing memorial's significance won't fade

Friday, April 18th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Two boys dip their hands in a reflecting pool, then press their palms on a sun-baked bronze gate framing the place where the federal building exploded.

A couple standing near the lone tree that survived the blast pauses in silence to stare across the calming acre dotted with evergreens and Oklahoma redbuds.

A teenager stoops with his camera, angling for a photograph of the inch-deep gleaming pool in front of the field of 168 empty chairs.

It's been eight years since a truck bomb gutted the nine-story federal building, and worse things have happened since.

But still they come.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial might be the only place most interstate travelers visit in the state. When relatives come to town, it's a must-see, and business travelers will spend their only spare hour strolling the solemn grounds.

``This is something that really just touched whole America, not just the local people,'' said Terry Rosen, a visitor from Salem, Ore. ``It was a real pivotal point in American history.''

Rosen last saw the site just after workers cleared the remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, leaving a barren block surrounded by a chain-link fence of mementos. The scene Saturday was a contrast, peaceful instead of heart-wrenching.

``I'm moved a lot more than I expected to be,'' he said.

Visitors' minds drift to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and the war on terrorism, but mostly, they think of the 149 adults and 19 children who died April 19, 1995.

``It just brings tears to your eyes,'' said Kelly Harp, a visitor from Mason City, Ill. ``What gets to you most is the little children.''

Carolyn McAllister of Little Rock, Ark., said the Sept. 11 attacks gave Oklahoma City's tribute to terrorist victims even more meaning.

``There was so much more loss in New York, but I still think about how so many people were affected here,'' she said. ``It's very inspiring. It makes me appreciate everything I have.''

A brief ceremony at the memorial Saturday will honor the victims of the explosion with 168 seconds of silence, one second for every person who died.

The outdoor memorial opened on the fifth anniversary of the bombing in 2000. A museum that tells the story of that day with an audio recording of the blast and mementos of the dead opened in February 2001.

Museum attendance dropped about 20 percent after the first year, when 400,000 visitors toured it, said Kari Watkins, memorial executive director. Most museums experience a 30 to 50 percent drop after the first year, she said.

``This story will be the story no matter what happens,'' Watkins said. ``I'm not worried about it. I don't think if the New York memorial opened tomorrow it would change our story. People will always come here to understand why people do the evil things they do.''

About 90 percent of visitors are not from Oklahoma, she said. Many don't tour the museum more than once, maybe because of its tragic subject matter.

Museum staff try to attract attendance through programs and new exhibits, including one that weaves stories of the terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City, New York and Washington, D.C. Watkins hopes that exhibit is on display somewhere in New York City by the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The memorial is analyzing results from a survey of visitors to find out why they come and what would make them come back, Watkins said. She believes the memorial foundation is doing everything right.

``We will continue to tell this story through the mouths of families and survivors and rescue workers, as we do all through the museum,'' she said.

Joyce Morris, a Tulsan who brought her Iowa relatives to the memorial last weekend, said its significance never will fade _ no matter what the terrorism in America's future.

``They'll always come,'' she said.