Sacred ground

Thursday, April 20, 2000

BY RON SYLVESTER
The Wichita Eagle

OKLAHOMA CITY – From across America, thousands once again came to this city to seek light in what once was the shadow of death.

This time, they found more than an empty spot where a building used to be. On Wednesday, five years to the day after a terrorist’s bomb rocked the nation and shattered the lives of a community, the dedication of the Oklahoma City National Memorial called for peace, courage and a new beginning.

Replacing the foundation of the Murrah Federal Building, the serene memorial with calm waters in a reflecting pool belies the destruction of April 19, 1995.

Nearly 30,000 attended two dedication ceremonies: the first under overcast morning skies for the families of those killed, plus survivors and rescue workers, and the second the memorial’s public opening during the sunny afternoon.

The air smelled sweetly of flowers from homemade sprays visitors placed on glistening empty chairs, one for each of the 168 men, women and children who died in the explosion. The crowds walked between the giant bronze gates marked 9:01 and 9:03 to remember the nightmare that occurred at the minute between. They planted seedlings that had been taken from the one tree that survived next to the federal office building.

And they wept – grandmothers wearing spring pastels, young women in black, men in dark gray suits, little girls with pixie haircuts and white chiffon dresses, little boys in their Sunday best and broad-shouldered men in military dress. The families of those buried and those who made it out alive wore blue-and-white ribbons.

Among them was Gary Biddy, who grew up in Wichita, where his parents worked at Boeing and Beech Aircraft. After brother Henry graduated from West High, the family moved to Oklahoma City. But Henry continued going back to Wichita to see Oleta Walters, his sweetheart from Southeast High. They married in Wichita, then joined the others back in Oklahoma City. For 35 years they lived happily, before Oleta, working in the Social Security office, died in the Murrah blast.

“She was on the first floor, near ground zero,” Gary Biddy remembered. “She was one of the last found. We had to wait 17 days to have a body to bury.”

Soon afterward, Oleta’s sister, Verna Fields, died of an aneurysm she’d carried all her life.

“The doctors said it was because of the stress,” Biddy said. “So we really lost two in our family over this.”

Like many others, the family will be inextricably linked to the worst terrorist act on an American city.

Just looking at his grandnieces and grandnephews, Biddy was reminded of the fortunes and misfortunes of five years ago. There was Lane, born days after his grandmother died in the attack. And Ethan, just a couple years older, who would’ve been in the Murrah day care center had his mother, Jeannean Biddy, not been at home on maternity leave.

But the hope of the memorial is to heal wounds, just as grass now covers the site of death.

“There are places in our national landscape so scarred by freedom’s sacrifice that they shape forever the soul of America,” President Clinton said at the afternoon dedication. “This place is such sacred ground.

“We may never have all the answers for what happened here,” he said. “But as we continue our journey toward understanding, one truth is clear: What was meant to break has made you stronger.”

During 168 seconds of silence to honor the dead, only an occasional cry from a baby and the flapping of flags over the memorial pierced the quiet.

Ernest Alexander of Wichita, who had sung at a mayor’s prayer breakfast in Oklahoma City the morning before the bombing, returned Wednesday to perform a mournful medley of “America and the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”

At 9:02 a.m., the bell tolled from the rebuilt First United Methodist Church across the street, and jets from the Oklahoma Air National Guard roared high overhead.

Outside the memorial’s east wall, flowers, wreaths and handwritten notes hung from a chain-link fence that once surrounded the demolished building – including pictures of crying teddy bears with messages such as “remember the children” and “the fence where we hang our hearts.”

As the names of those who died were read, tears dripped from both of Gary Biddy’s cheeks at the mention of Oleta’s name.

“There wasn’t a day that went by that (Henry) didn’t tell her he loved her, and that’s the truth,” Biddy said.

Henry Biddy, a quiet man who doesn’t like to talk about the tragedy, sat with grandson on his lap. Three years after he lost his wife in the attack, he returned to Wichita and found love again. He married Billie two years ago after being introduced by brother-in-law Raymond Fields, Verna’s husband.

But for many, the healing process is only beginning.

“We’ll never fully recover from the impact of what happened five years ago,” said Mayor Kirk Humphreys.

Sarah Yoakam recalled leaving her hometown the night before the explosion to return to classes at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. When she returned, she could sense the city had changed.

Now she hopes the memorial will help mend the hole in the city’s heart.

“I think today, even though it’s hard for the families, is a turning point,” she said.

The $29.1 million memorial caused mixed emotions for Gary Biddy.

“There’s an awful lot of money and a lot of politics involved,” he said. “But overall, we’re happy with what they’ve done.”

Florence Rogers, who lived through the blast, said at the afternoon dedication that the memorial stands as a symbol against the fear of evil.

“Today, we give this place to the world,” Rogers said, “to prove that acts of terrorism will not dampen the American spirit – not in Oklahoma City, not anywhere.”