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Oklahoma City Remembers Bombing Victims

A toy truck found in the rubble of the Murrah Building from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing sits on display during a preview at the Memorial museum
Residents of Oklahoma City are holding memorials for 168 people, including 19 children, who died 10 years ago in the bombing of the Murrah federal building. The intervening decade has brought healing to the city and to many affected by the tragedy.

It was, at the time, the worst act of terrorism ever seen on U.S. soil, occurring six years before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The quiet community of Oklahoma City was rocked by a huge explosion just after nine o'clock in the morning on April 19, 1995.

This neighborhood, still dotted with churches and government offices, is again quiet. Where the Alfred P. Murrah building once stood, a memorial park bears witness to the victims through a sculpture installation. Nine rows of empty chairs, one for each floor of the building, honor the dead.

Survivors of the bombing and the family members of the victims will come together Tuesday, and other days this week, for a series of commemorations. For Richard Williams, who was assistant manager of the building, the events will release a flood of memories. "I knew the building; I knew every square inch of it. I knew every person in that building, if not by name, by face. I saw them every day," he says.

Mr. Williams worked in the building from its opening in 1977 until the day of the bombing, and he says the workers there were like a family to him. He remembers little of the explosion, but later learned he was pulled from the rubble by a rescue worker. "I have been able to piece things back together from the stories of my rescuer, my coworkers and people that knew where I was. Basically, I was buried underneath a rubble pile," he says.

Seriously injured, he says that getting back to work helped him through a difficult time of physical therapy. He adds that his later involvement in the planning of a memorial for the victims contributed to his healing.

Many survivors of the blast and family members of the victims have formed lasting friendships. Mr. Williams has become close to Bud Welch, who lost his daughter, Julie, in the bombing. Just 23 years old, she was a Spanish-language translator for the Social Security Administration, and Mr. Welch says her death was devastating. "When your parents die, you go to the hilltop and you bury them. And when your children die, you bury them in your heart, and it's forever. You never get beyond it," he says.

Each survivor and family member has searched for healing in different ways. For Bud Welch, it has come through involvement in the effort to memorialize the victims, and in fighting passionately for a cause he has embraced. He is opposed to the death penalty, and feels strongly enough about it that he testified in the Oklahoma murder trial of bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols.

After presenting his testimony, Mr. Welch argued on Nichols' behalf in the penalty phase of the hearing, urging his life be spared. Mr. Welch notes that the families of some victims disagree with him.

Both Nichols and Timothy McVeigh were convicted on federal charges, McVeigh of murder and Nichols of conspiracy and manslaughter. McVeigh was executed in 2001. Nichols was spared that fate and is serving a life sentence in Colorado. Their motives were unclear, but McVeigh was said to be angry over a deadly standoff earlier between federal authorities and a Texas-based group called the Branch Davidians.

Mr. Welch is now president of an international group called Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, which works against the death penalty and for the rights of victims. "I don't think we have to forgive," he says. "I don't think that's part of it. However, I did reach the point in August and September of 2000, about five-and-a-half years after the bombing, that I truly felt in my heart that I could forgive Tim McVeigh. And what I learned from that was, it actually released me. It didn't do anything for Tim McVeigh. It released me."

Bombing survivor Florence Rogers says, like Mr. Welch, she feels no hatred for Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols. She says that harboring hatred would only be harmful to her. She was chief executive officer of the building's credit union, which served as a bank for many federal workers. Of her 33 employees, 18 died.

She was conducting a morning meeting with seven staff members when the blast occurred. As she came to her senses, she was stunned to see that her colleagues were gone. "I could see the blue sky clear through all those floors. And the six floors from above had blown up in the air and just fell on all the staff members that were in the meeting room with me," she says.

She found herself lying on a ledge above a chasm of rubble. Two of the building's maintenance workers later pulled her to safety.

Suffering only minor injuries, Ms. Rogers attended a meeting that night to discuss plans to reopen the credit union, and it opened its doors at another location within 48 hours of the bombing.

Ms. Rogers, now retired, has devoted much of her time since then to the foundation that helps survivors and the families of the victims, and which tells the story of the bombing and its aftermath. "I have been involved with the whole process almost from the very beginning, and it has been so personally rewarding to me, and it has undoubtedly helped in my own personal healing to be involved in this. And as we come up on the 10th anniversary, we have shown the world that good does overcome evil," she says.

She says financial institutions around the United States, in Australia and Canada raised more than $1.5 million for the families of her lost employees.

Help also flooded in for other building workers, and Richard Williams says, the level of compassion was nearly overwhelming. "You had to be careful what you asked for, because you might get a truckload of it, literally," he says.

For some, however, the bombing would continue to take a toll. There have been suicides among those involved in the tragedy, and some have been critical of the memorial process. A number are convinced that the bombing was the work of more than just two people, and that federal investigators have failed to reveal the extent of a conspiracy behind it.

But Richard Williams says the outpouring of love after the tragedy has become an inspiration for people everywhere. He says the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing is a time of hope, and a celebration of what is good in the human spirit.