OKLAHOMA CITY — For nearly a quarter of a century, people have gathered here on what is hallowed ground in this city, the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, to remember the horror of April 19, 1995.
On that bright Wednesday morning, at 9:02 a.m., a rented Ryder truck filled with thousands of pounds of fuel and ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded along northwest 5th Street in downtown, a blast so strong it rattled windows some 20 miles away. The bomb ripped off the north face of the Murrah building, killing 168 people, including 15 children inside a day-care center on the second floor, and injuring hundreds more in a cascade of concrete and flame.
The bombing shattered the innocence of what was then a sleepy city in the American heartland where many felt sheltered from the kind of hate and terror that had been largely associated with attacks overseas.
In the decades since, the nation would endure other horrific moments of violence, including a rise in mass shootings and an even deadlier series of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But every year, on April 19, the people of Oklahoma City come to the grassy memorial where the Murrah building once was, to pause for 168 seconds of silence and for the reading of the names of those who died, determined never to forget, even as it sometimes feels as though the rest of the country has moved on.
This year, on the 25th anniversary of the bombing, there will be no in-person mourning. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the memorial, with its quiet reflection pool and lawn containing 168 glass and steel chairs, has been closed to the public, walled off by barriers preventing crowds from gathering as the city shelters in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The annual ceremony will be replaced by a pretaped video set to air on Oklahoma City television stations and online featuring nearly two dozen people, including survivors and family members, reading the names of those who died. All were taped separately in recent weeks, to abide by social distancing rules. Dozens of other special events to mark the anniversary, including a reunion of survivors, were canceled; the annual marathon, the primary fundraiser for the memorial and its museum, was postponed until October.
While the pretaped reading of the names will be just as “powerful and meaningful, … it will be different,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, which oversees the annual ceremony.
As organizers grappled with how to handle the annual tradition in the midst of a pandemic that is a tragedy of its own, a family member of one of those who died in the bombing called Watkins with a dire observation. Enough people had died in the 1995 attack, the person told her. They shouldn’t feel an obligation to hold a ceremony that might risk more death. “That just resonated with me,” Watkins said. “How could we?”
As of Friday, nearly 2,400 cases of novel coronavirus had been diagnosed across Oklahoma, with 131 deaths — numbers that have been far less than initial projections. But as in other states, there have been concerns about the lack of testing. With the peak of the disease still predicted to be at least two weeks away, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has ordered many nonessential businesses to remain closed and for Oklahomans to stay at home until at least May 6. “Light is at the end of the tunnel,” Stitt said on Wednesday.
But what happens next is causing the greatest anxiety, especially in Oklahoma City — a town where the devastation of the 1995 bombing sparked a rebirth that has transformed the city in ways few ever imagined. Two years before the bombing, voters approved a one-cent sales tax dedicated to funding capital improvements around the city, including the construction of a new arena and minor league baseball stadium.
The Metropolitan Area Projects plan, known as MAPS, was envisioned as a way for Oklahoma City to attract new business and tourism after the oil bust of the 1980s killed thousands of jobs and left much of downtown vacant. “We desperately needed something to change,” recalled former Mayor Ron Norick, who championed the initial projects and is widely considered the father of the city’s transformation.
After the bombing, the plan took on new urgency, and 25 years later Oklahoma City has bounced back with more than $1 billion in public and private investment in the downtown area alone, including new parks, housing, restaurants and other public infrastructure that has attracted thousands of new residents, office workers and an NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
All of that has gone dark in recent weeks amid the coronavirus. Businesses are closed. Residents are off the streets. “I haven’t seen the streets in downtown this quiet since, frankly, the bombing,” said Kirk Humphreys, a former Oklahoma City mayor who is now a real estate developer and investor. “You understand why that is, but it’s depressing.”
Tens of thousands of workers have been laid off as employers across the state have cut operations in response to the crisis. Adding to the urgency are worries about a collapse of the oil and gas industry, already in crisis because of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and facing further strain because of the coronavirus. Across Oklahoma City, the price of gas is hovering around $1 or gallon or less — about half of what it was two months ago.
“That’s really the concern. If oil stays where it is, what does that mean for us?” Humphreys said. In addition to people out of jobs, he pointed to the millions of square feet of office space downtown and across the city leased by energy companies, including the 50-story Devon Energy Center, the tallest building in Oklahoma — space that would be hard to fill. “If something happens to any of those companies, that would be disastrous,” he said. “I just hope we can get the economy going again soon, and people driving and buying gas again.”
An Oklahoma City University economist recently warned unemployment could hit 10% or more across Oklahoma because of the disruption of the energy industry and the impact of COVID-19 — surpassing joblessness rates recorded during the collapse of the energy industry in the 1980s.
While Oklahoma City has sought to diversify its economy to be less reliant on the energy industry, many wonder if it has diversified enough to weather what some have predicted could be the worst economic downturn since The Great Depression.
Aerospace has emerged as a fast-growing industry in the state, and while many of those jobs are considered safe because of defense contracts with Tinker Air Force Base in nearby Midwest City, some companies, including Boeing, are facing challenging economic circumstances in other parts of their businesses since the airline industry is just about grinding to a halt amid COVID-19.
In downtown Oklahoma City, construction is underway on a brand-new convention center and several new hotels to accommodate the city’s fast-growing convention and tourism industry. With many companies delaying or outright canceling large gatherings of employees months out amid fears of a fall outbreak of the coronavirus, there is anxiety about whether people will come to the city in the numbers people had hoped.
On April 1, Oklahoma City began collecting an eight-year, 1-cent sales tax to fund MAPS 4, a new citywide improvement project passed by voters last fall that aims to fund 16 new projects including a new coliseum at the state fairgrounds. The initiatives also seek to transform the city in social ways, including efforts to combat homelessness and domestic abuse and improve mental health and addiction services.
With many businesses shuttered and the city facing months of potential economic uncertainty, revenue collections could be lower than anticipated, but Stitt, former mayor of Oklahoma City, said the city had planned for economic ups and downs.
“Our folks assumed a recession. Did they assume this specific one? No, but they knew bad stuff would happen at some point because it always does,” Stitt told The Daily Oklahoman. “Is COVID-19 going to have a huge effect on our economy and sales tax revenues in the months ahead? Absolutely. But again, MAPS 4 is a 96-month tax. There will be many economic chapters in its life.”
On Saturday, behind the barriers at the bombing memorial, employees will begin the solemn tradition of laying wreaths on each of the 168 chairs of those killed in the 1995 attacks — a duty usually undertaken by family or friends.
Among those who had planned to be at the memorial ceremony this year is Norick, who had been scheduled to lead a tour describing his own experience as mayor that day. To him, it still feels like yesterday — the boom that shook his office on the north side of town, the dark, black smoke that towered over the skyline, the blocks and blocks of buildings where windows were blown out, the anguish on people’s faces, the question of whether the city would ever recover.
But Oklahoma City did, and Norick predicts the city will bounce back again, from whatever economic setback comes from COVID-19. “It’s going to take a while. You can’t just flip a switch and turn things back on … But we’ll get through it,” he said. “That’s who we are.”