They Know How It Feels
September 26, 2001
By Alex Tizon
OKALAHOMA CITY — We had not planned to come here. What was left to say? But as the Expedition cut through the heartland on the way to New York’s fallen towers, it became clear we had to visit the only other community in the country that could profoundly relate. We traveled from the rural plains of north-central Kansas, which seemed farthest removed from the events of the past two weeks, to this dustbowl metropolis, just a few hundred miles south but infinitely closer in spirit to Manhattan’s calamity.
Oklahomans have a new memorial for their own fallen tower, dedicated just a year ago, and they know more than anybody what New Yorkers face. They know what’s going on in the rubble. The rest of us can watch television footage of workers passing buckets of debris, but we can’t know what it’s like to find a foot or part of a face, or a hand clutching a business card, its owner presciently providing a way to be identified.
Ken “Sugar” Smith will tell you. We met him on the grounds of the memorial, in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable downtown, on the exact site of what used to be the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. He is 61, a retired Oklahoma City police officer, bald, thin and ornery. He swears a lot and tells a joke a minute, but he is one of those guys, by his own admission, who at all times is only a finger-flick from tears.
He lost 11 friends on April 19, 1995. They were all with the Secret Service on the ninth floor. Smith himself was a block-and-a-half away when the truck bomb went off. He remembers the sights and sounds and smells of that day, and of the days and weeks that followed.
“I feel so bad for the people of New York City,” he says. “I feel so sorry for them. I just feel so, so sorry.”
As a tribute to his friends, Smith volunteers at the memorial, handing out brochures and answering questions. It’s an open-air park that occupies three city blocks. In the middle sits a large reflecting pool bracketed by big bronze gates. Between the gates, next to the pool in a field of grass, sit 168 stone chairs, one for each victim.
If you come expecting insight into the provenance of such evil, you might be disappointed. Aside from a tour guide describing the perpetrators as “two American boys,” we learn almost nothing about Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. We don’t dwell on the ubiquity of hate, that such malevolence could just as easily come from one of our own as from outside. If you expect to be awed, you might miss the best parts. The formal structures of the memorial seem almost too deliberate in their attempt to walk you step by step into a state of bathos. Most poignant are the impromptu expressions of ordinary people, additions that curators have wisely chosen to preserve.
The chain-link fence, erected to keep people away from the rubble, is now a permanent trove of mementos: dolls and pictures and love letters. The graffiti left by a rescue team in 1995 begins with the words, “We seek justice. We search for the truth.” Visitors’ handprints left on the bronze-plated gates are seared into lasting imprints by the Oklahoma sun.
On the afternoon we were there, Bonnie Martinez, dressed in a formal white gown and tiara, came to honor her father on her “quinceañera,” a Latino ceremony marking a young woman’s 15th birthday. Her father, the Rev. Gilbert Martinez, was on the first floor, helping a friend fill out Social Security forms, when the bomb found its mark. It was supposed to be a quick errand. Bonnie was in third grade at the time. Her teacher mistook the explosion for an earthquake and told her students to crouch under their desks. It would be hours later, after school, when Bonnie arrived home to weeping relatives, that she found out.
“I miss everything about him,” she says plainly. She had learned to summarize six years of grieving into a single idea.
There will be thousands of like stories in New York City, and we won’t hear most of them. We can’t. The brain can only take so much before it goes numb. Many of us have already started to go numb. The sympathy of the world has focused on the giant heap of rubble in south Manhattan and on the victims buried underneath and their immediate families and friends, but our attentions won’t linger there forever.
The number of dead will be etched into the American psyche, but not the much higher number of nearly dead or merely maimed who must figure out a way to carry on after the spotlight has gone and our concern, shifted elsewhere. There are hidden casualties that will never be counted.
Smith tells the story of a close friend and fellow officer named Terrence. “He was a big, black man, tough as they came, heart of gold,” Smith says. Terrence helped pull victim after victim out of the crumbled federal building. What he saw pushed him into a depression that lasted three years, ending only when he took his own life. Whatever else brought him to that point, Smith says, the carnage of that one spring day eventually haunted him over the edge.
Oklahomans know to some degree what’s ahead for the people of New York and Washington, D.C. Aside from the official toll, there will be countless aftereffects that will surface in unexpected forms and in ways immeasurable. They will manifest for years. But even seen-it-all Oklahomans like Smith turn speechless at the scope of the loss in New York.
He ran a hand over his bald crown, and pondered a future memorial with thousands of empty chairs. He tried to multiply his city’s grief in order to grasp the magnitude, but was stopped by the unthinkable. Sometimes being speechless is the only right thing.