BOMBING memorial balances tourism with remembrance

Saturday, July 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ First they tour a museum documenting the day 168 people died in the deadliest act of terrorism in America. Then they go to a gift shop to buy stuffed rescue dogs, souvenir T-shirts and key chains.

The museum gift store at the Oklahoma City National Memorial also sells jogging shorts, pendants and coffee mugs to remind people of those who died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

``It's a real fine line we walk,'' said Kari Watkins, executive director of the center. ``We're going into uncharted territory.''

The distance between appropriate and inappropriate is sometimes small. The people who run the store work to prevent commercialism from overcoming reverence at Oklahoma's biggest tourist attraction.

Souvenir thimbles and spoons are forbidden, but votive candles embossed with a golden chair are for sale. Chairs at the memorial stand for each person killed in the April 19, 1995, bombing.

Gold bells sold at the store represent the church chimes played each anniversary of the bombing at 9:02 a.m., the minute of detonation.

The store carries several books about the bombing and coping with grief, but the definitive ``American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing,'' isn't allowed because its authors spoke to McVeigh and related his story. The memorial also refused to accept profits from sales of the book.

``The purpose of the museum store is to allow people to take home with them items that will perpetuate their memory, most importantly, their memory of what happened on April 19, 1995, and the senselessness of the tragedy,'' said Bob Johnson, a board member for the Oklahoma City National Memorial Trust. ``We are very, very careful about the store to make sure it does not take on an air of commercialism.''

T-shirts with pictures of the memorial's logo _ an elm tree that survived the bombing and the words ``On American Soil'' _ fly off the shelves. Polished river rocks etched with one word, ``Remember,'' are hot new items. Teddy bears, similar to the ones distributed the Sunday after the bombing when the Rev. Billy Graham came to the city, are consistently the most popular sellers.

Store manager Doris Jones, who lost a daughter and an unborn grandson in the bombing, said she sometimes hears from people who feel that it's inappropriate to sell mementos at a place where so many died.

Jones said some question her about why the center is ``trying to make money off people's deaths,'' but most talk of the power of this place and how it's a must-see for visitors to the area.

Karen Vinson, a recent visitor from Hurst, Texas, said the museum moved her. But she didn't want anything from the gift shop.

``It wasn't anything I wanted to take home with me,'' she said.

Seven-year-old Hobie Brown found something in the store that he had to have. It was a stuffed, yellow Labrador wearing a rescue vest. His mother, Lisa Cain, said he won't remove a tag on the dog's ear that explains how rescue dogs helped recover survivors.

``He told me how sorry he felt for the children,'' said Cain, who was visiting from Missouri. Nineteen children died in the bombing.

Jones doesn't tell shoppers how she knew in her heart that her pregnant daughter was dead as soon as she saw the destruction on television.

Jones' daughter, Carrie Lenz, went to the hospital for an ultrasound a day before she died. Lenz, 26, and her husband named the baby Michael James, ``Trey'' for short, as soon as they found out they were having a boy. He was among three unborn children killed in the bombing.

While many people touched by the bombing have moved far away, not wanting to risk having to drive by this place, Jones chooses to spend five days a week at the memorial.

``I just didn't want that baby forgotten,'' she explains.

The memorial, a self-sustaining nonprofit, uses its $7 admission tickets and souvenir sales to pay expenses.

More than 200,000 visitors have gone through the museum's revolving doors since it opened in February. More than a million have visited the outside memorial. The museum may easily double the $1.3 million expected in ticket sales the first year, Watkins said.

Many visitors begin their tour of the memorial by dipping their hands in a reflecting pool, then press their palms on a bronze gate in solemn respect for the dead. The dried hand prints remain for hours on the ``gates of time'' that symbolically frame the moment of the bombing. Sometimes the visitors cry.

Then they buy film from the gift shop and their children smile for photographs just feet from where babies died.