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OKLAHOMA CITY — At its core, Oklahoma City is still a frontier town.

Instead of worn flags marking turn-of-the-century homesteads, boldly designed street signs transform once-ordinary intersections into worthy landmarks. Instead of wild mustangs propelling cowboys across the plains, the roar of Ford F-150s fills the air as sports-crazed fans race downtown for Thunder game nights.

At the center of it all is Midtown, a district that preserves relics of Oklahoma City’s past and reflects the hopes of the city’s future. On any given day, you’ll see friends lounging on the patio of McNellie’s Pub, young families trucking into Hall’s for a weekly pizza night, dog moms and dads hanging at Midtown Mutts Dog Park, or tourists pressing their cameras against the windows of the city’s candy-colored streetcars — surprised by its modern landscape.

Amid all of the smiles, laughter and new memories made on Midtown’s streets, Kari Watkins, Chris Fleming and Donna Weaver can’t help but remember what the area looked like on April 19, 1995, the day domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh detonated a homemade bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people — 35 of which worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While Watkins and Fleming remember watching the aftermath on television, Weaver was only a few blocks from the devastation, at Southwestern Bell.

The day everything changed

At 9:02 am, Weaver was in the midst of a work meeting when the explosion jolted her building, breaking the glass atrium that faced the federal building. She and her co-workers quickly ran outside, thinking a violent earthquake was responsible for the broken glass and the growing cloud of dust to the south.

“There’d been an earthquake a few days before,” she said. “But we looked to the north, and we could see the nearby buildings. All the windows were out. On the south side of the building, you could see the black billowing smoke coming up from the Journal Record building.”

“Then we thought it was the explosion of chemicals used for the newspaper. We thought there must have been a fire,” she added. “But the smoke kind of cleared and we saw the damage on the Murrah Building. The windows were gone.”

Still thinking the damage was because of an earthquake or freak accident at The Journal Record, Weaver began walking toward the Murrah. As she got closer, she saw first responders helping survivors unable to walk because of the shards of glass that pierced their arms and legs. Nearby trees had been torn to shreds and the building’s parking lot was on fire.

Michael D. Weaver | Credit: Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

As office paper continued to waft through the sky, Weaver looked up to the eighth floor as she had done many times before that fateful day. Weaver had built a habit of walking to the Murrah building during her lunch break and waving at her husband, Michael, an attorney for HUD.

“My husband’s office was there on the north side. I worked north of him, and I usually went to the [YMCA] over the lunch hour, and often he was in his window on the phone,” she said. “Sometimes he’d see me and we’d wave. Sometimes I just saw him there. Sometimes I walked by and nobody was there, but I could just see his office.”

However, that day, she noticed Michael’s office was gone. Panicked, she walked back to her office, grabbed her cell phone, and began making calls to her son’s schools, her brother-in-law in Tulsa, and a pastor she knew who provided disaster relief support.

“I knew [the pastor] would be called, and I wanted him to know that Mike’s building [was damaged] and to let me know any information,” she said. “That’s when we were actually told to leave our building. They weren’t sure about the structural integrity of it.”

Even as the catalyst for the damage became more clear — a homemade bomb mounted in the back of a pickup truck — Weaver still hoped her husband was safe. As Weaver prepared to pick up her boys, a few of Michael’s golf buddies stopped her, refusing to let her drive scared and alone.

“They drove me home, and we got my sons back to the house,” she said.”But that’s where things get just a little fuzzy.”

The following 48 hours were a blur for Weaver and her two sons. Family, friends and church members were at their home around the clock, helping Weaver field bits and pieces of information about Michael’s potential whereabouts, cook dinner for her boys or simply sit in prayer.

Weaver hoped her husband was alive, hanging on to the fact that he’d dropped off their car for a repair at Goodyear before heading to work. Maybe it was just enough time to delay his arrival at the Murrah, she thought.

But, if Michael had died, she and her community prayed that he’d be found quickly, as concerns about building safety made rescue efforts an increasingly dangerous task.

“We were fortunate to find out by Saturday what happened to Michael,” she said. “We prayed that God would just shine a light and direct the rescuers to Mike wherever he was.”

“We later found out that Mike was found the very first night,” she added. “A rescue worker called and told us that they had been drawn to that area when they were searching and had been drawn to him. He said they were excited because they thought he was alive. It turned out he wasn’t, but they said they knew they found somebody special.”

“In the scheme of things, as long as people waited to hear about their loved ones, we were fortunate to have found out so quickly. My heart goes out to the families that waited weeks.”

Picking up the pieces

While the country was wrapped up in the sordid tale of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who targeted the building as revenge for the 1993 federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Weaver was figuring out what life without her husband would be like.

Grief clouded her ability to focus on simple work and household tasks. Dinners moved from the dinner table to the bar top as Weaver and her children couldn’t bear the sight of Michael’s empty chair. Excursions to the lake for boating and waterskiing weren’t as joyful without Michael’s jokes filling the air.

“Nothing is normal. You have to create and evolve into a new normal,” she said. “I did stay in counseling with three other wives who lost husbands in the bombing. That was extremely helpful and our counselor helped us anticipate those moments.”

As Weaver focused on picking up the pieces of her life, Watkins began the work of mending a broken community through the Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.

Kari Watkins | Credit: LinkedIn

From the summer of 1995 to the spring of 1996, Watkins and her team spent countless hours meeting with survivors, family members of the victims and community members about every detail of the memorial.

“It really was about taking a section of downtown that was ravaged by the zone and figuring out how we would tell that story,” she said. “I remember the first time we brought all of our neighbors together. It was in 1996, and in all the recovery and all the rescue efforts, no one had met with all the property owners around the Murrah.”

Watkins said those first meetings were grassroots, taking place in a makeshift office at the Bank of Oklahoma building downtown. She had to borrow folding chairs from a nearby church to accommodate meeting members who were still reeling from the loss of their family members, their businesses, and the safety they once had.

“There was a lot going on, but I think it was about building trust with one another,” she said.

The research and development process was a team effort, Watkins said.

The Urban Land Institute surveyed the land and provided guidance on what could be done. More than 600 architects submitted designs for the museum, and the federal government provided millions in economic recovery funds to help business owners reopen their shops near the Murrah. Purchasing the land for the museum was a gargantuan task, as multiple property owners had claims to it.

“This did not just happen. This memorial certainly didn’t just happen,” she said. “The site you see today was owned by over seven different property owners. We could’ve gotten this area under eminent domain, but we wanted to go in and be fair about how we bought what we needed to make the memorial happen.”

“How divine that a real estate attorney was put in charge of this,” she said of Bob Johnson, who headed the Memorial Task Force. “And that would allow his expertise to be used in a way that was uniting and bringing people together versus saying, ‘We’re gonna take over your land no matter what you want.’”

Watkins said the memorial took five years of hard work and soul-searching about what the space needed to represent, outside of chronicling the horrific events of April 19. She pointed back to the day the museum’s mission statement was solidified.

“We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived, and those who changed forever,” she said, reciting the words emblazoned on the entryway near the reflecting pool. “May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”

She said the word “hope” was added the evening of the final vote for the statement by a young man who lost both of his parents in the blast. The team debated for hours about the statement, she said, as hope was still hard to come by in the aftermath of the bombing.

“It was a tough word to endure in 1996. People didn’t have hope,” she said. “We knew that was critical. If we were ever going to turn this into something that’s teachable and usable, we had to find something good out of the very bad. We had seen it in that first year. It was just getting people to kind of proclaim it and hold on to it.”

‘Making it count’

The museum opened in 2001 and became a place of solitude for community members and visitors, who used a chainmail fence on the outer perimeter of the building to leave encouraging messages and mementos. Watkins and her team have since launched a number of programs aimed at educating younger generations about the bombing, the city’s recovery, and the importance of civic duty and community participation.

“Our goal is to bring people to the museum, to a local school, or to marathon weekend, and then when we do that, we sit down and try to find the differences that we have and put those here,” she said. “And we find what we have in common and put it there. And we figure out how we’re going to get closer together without tearing ourselves apart.”

Part of bringing people together has been the steady revitalization of Midtown, the district that surrounds the museum.

Midtown Renaissance Partner and President Chris Fleming said Midtown had been suffering well before the bombing, as the area declined from its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s. Mercy Hospital abandoned its campus in 1974, and in the ’90s, the lone hospital, St. Anthony, was ready to leave as well.

By the time Fleming’s group started in 2006, the local government had already taken steps to renew Midtown. However, it took involvement from the city’s real estate community to help develop a neighborhood where people would want to live, play and work again.

“Even though I know we’ve played a big role in it, there’s been a lot of people who have believed in the story we’ve helped create, who have come down and put their money to work,’” he said. “We’ve evolved from wanting to create just a neighborhood, to transforming Midtown into a world-class urban mixed-use neighborhood and a special place within Oklahoma City that people are proud to show off.”

Fleming’s portfolio includes 12 residential properties and 10 commercial properties, including the historic Buick and Plaza Court buildings that have become landmarks for Automobile Alley and Midtown. Many of the buildings still had damage from the bombing that had to be fixed when his group began their redevelopment efforts.

“Haddon Hall, which is the apartment building we have just west of the Packard building, has got different color brick on it than the rest of the building,” he said. “The bombing shook loose the original brick that was there and our team couldn’t find an exact match for it.”

“You just still see the scars from the bombing,” he said. “It’s just part of the area.”

Fleming said Midtown today — a bustling area of innovation and entertainment — is the result of blood, sweat and tears from Oklahoma City’s community to bring the area back to life. He said restauranteurs, like McNellie’s Pub and Stella’s Italian, were the first to come back and help build residents’ sentiments about the area.

“We were fortunate early on to have some business owners who would be pioneers with us,” he said. “They gave people a third place to come and find community.”

Fleming, who also serves on the Memorial Museum’s board of trustees, and Watkins are proud of how the city has moved forward over the past 29 years despite the pain from the bombing.

“I have now two college kids,” Watkins said. “They don’t remember the city without an NBA team. They’re rabid Thunder fans. They’ve always been able to enjoy the riverwalk downtown. The city has changed. And I think it started in 1995.”

Weaver said she’s proud of the city, too, as she still leans on a strong community that’s helped her at every turn with the profound — like planning a trip to Branson to honor the first anniversary of Michael’s death — to the mundane — like organizing her bill payments when stress made it impossible to function.

Her two sons are now grown and have children of their own, and Weaver has dedicated her time to educating younger generations about the bombing and how the community’s strength and resilience shone brightly in the midst of so much devastation.

However, when Weaver goes downtown, she can’t help but think of Michael — the days she waved to him from the street corner and the day she saw his office in ruins.

“I want to make his death count for something. I want people to learn from this and I want it to mean something for the future,” she said. “It’s important they understand the importance of it. It’s especially important that they understand their state and their city’s reaction to it and be proud of it because it was amazing.”

“It was hard for me to go down that road [near the Murrah] for a long time. I avoided it for a while. I had to think, ‘Okay, this is not going to be a hindrance to me anymore,’” she said. “Then you just do it, but it’s like going back to any place that’s changed. You like how it is. You have memories of how it was.”

Email Marian McPherson

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