Visiting the Oklahoma memorial 21 years after terrorism bombing

Each of the 168 empty chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial represents someone who died in the April 19, 1995, bombing. The memorial is built where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood.

OKLAHOMA CITY — This month marks 21 years since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. The Oklahoma City National Memorial, built on the bombing site, provides a quiet space to reflect on the realities of violence and to renew personal hopes for peace at a time when acts of terror continue around the world.

On a recent visit, I found myself reacting in different ways to the site’s symbols and features. First, the chairs. There are 168 of them, one for each victim, set out in a field where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. They’re arranged in nine rows representing each floor of the building, and each chair is marked with the name of someone killed on that floor. I could hardly look at the seats without seeing a man, woman or child in each one.

The long reflecting pool at the center of the memorial had a calming effect. It’s designed to symbolize the event’s limitless impact by reflecting all that has changed since the attack. When it happened, the Oklahoma City bombing was the worst act of terrorism that had ever taken place on U.S. soil, a distinction that now belongs to 9/11.

The moment of destruction in Oklahoma City is symbolized by the massive Gates of Time on either end of the reflecting pool. The gates are marked with numbers representing the minute before and after the explosion that morning. The first, 9:01, represents the last minute of peace before the deadly strike. At the other end, 9:03 marks the beginning of recovery.

At a fence near the entrance, mourners and visitors leave written tributes, flowers, flags and other mementos. Perusing the display, I felt anger, then grief, then reluctant acceptance.

As the gate inscription states: “May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”

If you go

OKLAHOMA CITY NATIONAL MEMORIAL: 301 NW Sixth St., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; www.nps.gov/okci. The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial is free and open 24 hours a day. The Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15 for adults; $12 for students, seniors and military; free for children 5 and under.