It was a quiet Sunday morning in Oklahoma City.
The sky was overcast as some people shuffled along to Sunday morning services. Others joined a crowd of more than a thousand people who stood silently at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
They chose to remember the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building 20 years ago in a nearly two-hour ceremony Sunday morning.
“You are here not because you can’t forget what occurred, but … because you’ve chosen to remember,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said at the ceremony. “Turn back the clock 20 years ago and we were in our darkest hour. It was 60 minutes of terror, but our finest hour has now lasted 20 years.”
Former President Bill Clinton, who was president at the time of the bombing, echoed Cornett’s sentiments. It was the sixth time Clinton had been in Oklahoma City to remember the bombing.
All of the speakers – which included current and former Oklahoma City mayors; Oklahoma governors; James Comey, director of the FBI; and Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security – extolled the “Oklahoma Standard,” a term coined by out-of-town rescue workers because of Oklahomans’ willingness to pitch in and help.
“By just living by the Oklahoma Standard, you grew faster than ever before and grew far more prosperous,” Clinton said. “A breathtaking increase in per capita income in these 20 years, but the material gains were incidental. Every family here who lost someone would give it all up in a heartbeat to have their loved ones back.”
It was a quiet ceremony punctuated by the cries of birds flying overhead and, later, the pitter-patter of drizzle in the reflecting pool separating the crowd from the speakers and dignitaries.
The service – which began at 9:02 a.m., the moment the bomb was detonated – started with a 168-second silence to honor each of the 168 people who died in the April 19, 1995, attack. It concluded about 90 minutes later with survivors and tearful relatives of the dead reading the names of those killed.
Jeremy Tomlin read the name of his father, Rick Tomlin, along with 10 Department of Transportation workers who died on the fourth floor of the Murrah Building. Rick Tomlin had grown up in Little River.
Jeremy Tomlin said he has read the names at least four times for ceremonies in the past, but that it never gets easier.
“You always think you’ve got it until you hit the microphone,” Tomlin said. “That’s when it hits home.”
After the ceremony, 43-year-old Russ Neasbitt – a nephew of Oleta Biddy, a Wichita native who died in the bombing – stood beside her bronze memorial chair and cried. Tears flowing, he recalled going to the Murrah Building days after the bombing:
“There was a group of people standing on the street corner, and there was a man standing there with his son,” he said, his voice cracking as he said it. “He had his hands on his shoulders, and the boy turned around and looked at his dad, and said, ‘Maybe Mom went to Grandma’s today.’
“I don’t know who that boy was, but I have prayed for him many, many times. But you can’t talk about the loss without talking about the good things, what is now known as the Oklahoma Standard. You can’t. The two go together.”
Henry Biddy, Oleta’s husband, was not at the ceremony but had left 20 yellow roses – Oleta’s favorite – on her chair a few days prior.
Jeremy and Tina Tomlin gathered with family around Rick’s chair in the fourth row. Tina had attached a wreath of sunflowers – a nod to Rick’s Kansas roots – and a small wall-hanging decoration that read, “God Bless America and those who defend it.”
Tina Tomlin said she had to smile when a light rain began during Clinton’s speech. Rick, whom she described as a “strong Republican,” would have liked that, she said.
Tears were still shed in Oklahoma City on Sunday morning, but attendees seemed as resolved as they were sad.
“The loss of your loved ones and the lasting impact on this community opened a hole in your heart that will never close, that will never heal,” Comey, the FBI director, said. “Sure, it’s true that smiles come more easily two decades on and that memories are softer, but the sense of loss is the same. The sorrow is the same.”
The Oklahoma City bombing is remembered as the worst act of domestic terrorism in United States history.
Timothy McVeigh, an Army veteran with strong anti-government views, planned the bombing as revenge for the deadly standoff between the FBI and Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, that had killed more than 70 people on April 19, 1993 – exactly two years earlier.
McVeigh was convicted on federal murder and conspiracy charges in 1997. He was executed in 2001.
His Army buddy, Terry Nichols, was convicted on federal and state bombing-related charges and is serving multiple life sentences in a federal prison.
The memorial, which sits where the Murrah Building once did, was dedicated April 19, 2000.
Contributing: Associated Press