It’s been more than two decades since a truck full of explosives destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.
For many Oklahomans, the annual remembrance ceremony at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is a bittersweet tradition. Family members of the deceased lay flowers, messages and photos on the 168 chairs bearing the names of their loved ones. Survivors and first responders thank each other for their strength and service in the days following the attack. Uniformed members of the armed services pay their respects. School children too young to remember bow their heads to pray for people they will never meet.
For the 22nd anniversary, commemorated on Wednesday, hundreds of attendees gathered in front of the memorial’s reflecting pool, between the black arches bearing the timestamp of the moments before and after the explosion.
On the other side of the pool were speakers and elected officials, including Oklahoma Senator James Lankford and Governor Mary Fallin.
Fallin, who was lieutenant governor of Oklahoma in 1995, recalled the days after the bombing as a period that defined Oklahoman identity.
“The other thing that we saw come out of our tragedy in Oklahoma was what became known as the Oklahoma Standard: people helping people, people going above and beyond, people doing what needed to be done,” Fallin said in a speech.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson also spoke, acknowledging the HUD employees who died in the attack.
“This is not just an Oklahoma memorial, this is also a national memorial. And the things that happened here 22 years ago affected us as a nation,” he said.
The ceremony began with 168 seconds of silence and ended with the names of the 168 deceased, read by family members.
Dorsey “Doc” Shannon, 71, was one of the first people on the scene in 1995. He retired from his job at the Drug Enforcement Agency not long after the bombing, but he wore his old uniform to the ceremony on Wednesday, complete with a DEA badge, so family members and survivors would recognize him.
“To me, it’s important that families know we’re here,” Shannon said.
Eva Bloomer, 51, and her husband, Dudley Rohde, 54, attend every year to honor the memory of her father, Olen Bloomer, who died in the attack at the age of 61. She has never thought much of the official speakers. Bloomer and Rohde come for the ritual--putting flowers on her father’s chair, taking photos, watching the service members and other attendees.
What matters to Bloomer is the simple act of remembering her father, alongside the rest of the city, the country and the world.
“Someone will say my father’s name, other than my family,” she said.
The ceremony is a ritual for the family of Rev. Gilbert Martinez, too. In the past twenty-two years, his five children have grown up, gone to college, gotten married, and raised children of their own. The family has persevered without their father, a beloved pastor in the local Hispanic community. Each year, they decorate his chair with photos, old and new. Wedding snapshots hang next to the last family photo taken while Martinez was still alive.
His daughter, Jillian Nunez, 28, was six years old when he died. Being back at the memorial is painful, but important.
“It’s a flashback of everything that happened before, even down to the last few seconds before,” she said.
Angela Richerson also lost a parent in the explosion. Her mother was 62 when she died. “Sometimes I feel closer to her than even at the cemetery. This is the last place she was alive,” Richerson said.
Claire Donnelly contributed reporting to this story.