Names on a Memorial: Oklahoma City

(This posting was originally intended for publication during the 12th anniversary week of the Oklahoma City bombing. That week also saw Yom HaShoa [Holocaust Martyrs’ Remembrance Day] and the anniversaries of the Columbine High School massacre and the Branch Davidian fire. Next year, this same week will be the first anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. This year, at the end of the week, I found renewal at a concert for the 38th Earth Day.

My posting therefore acknowledges another memorial, one without names, The Man with Two Hats, which honors the Canadian role in the liberation of the Netherlands during World War Two. Henk Visch’s statue of a man with arms upraised, holding a hat in each hand, is located in both Ottawa and Apeldoorn and was first dedicated in the Netherlands on May 2, 2000.

At the Ottawa dedication on May 11, 2002, the Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, a Philippine immigrant, commented that these statues would demonstrate “the true test of friendship — of one country to another.” Every year since liberation, Holland shows its gratitude with a gift to Canada of 10,000 tulip bulbs.)

The Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, yielded to pressure from the 9/11 families and announced a new arrangement of names for the World Trade Center Memorial. Random is out and affiliation is in. Almost. All names are to be listed with others in their affiliation. While rescue workers’ unit affiliations will be fully expressed, corporate affiliations will not. Even American Airlines and United Airlines are excluded. Only flight numbers will be on the Memorial. Not surprisingly, the families remain unsatisfied. They want ages, floor numbers and corporate names.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial, designed by Hans and Torrey Butzer with Sven Berg, symbolically achieves all of that. The names of those who died on April 19, 1995 are engraved onto chairs sitting in the footprint of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The arrangement is geographic, with nine rows of chairs symbolizing the nine story building. Names are located on the floor they were on when they died, divided by agency, left to right, replicating the location of offices in the building. Names of employees and visitors are alphabetical within agency.

Five people died outside the Murrah Building. In alphabetical order, they are listed singly in a vertical line of chairs at the end of every other floor. The name on the first floor is Rebecca Anderson, a rescuer. Then one name from the Water Resources Building, two names from the Athenian Building and another from Water Resources.

Abandoning the geographic arrangement, alphabetical order for the non-Murrah names separates the two Water Resources employees. But if those names were arranged by building, where would that leave Rebecca Anderson? She didn’t have a building. She walked into the ruin and died when part of the Murrah Building fell on her. In this case, selecting alphabetical order puts the rescuer in the first position.

A solution for the non-Murrah names would be to organize them by building, with the person not associated with a building at first or last. Rebecca died entering the ruin where the first floor had been. So placing her name first makes sense. This fulfils the geographic theme of the arrangement, keeps the names in each of the exterior buildings together, and still places the rescuer in the honored position on the first floor.

The designers made another organizational decision that is somewhat bizarre. Four married couples died at the Social Services Administration (SSA) on the first floor. Each couple followed the tradition of sharing the same last name. For them, alphabetical order was ignored to place the husband’s name first. Research indicates the purpose was to keep the tradition implied by “husband and wife” or “Mr. and Mrs.” The alphabet has a tradition too, so it seems an odd choice to make in the first year of the 21st Century, when the Memorial was dedicated.

If I were to change alphabetical order, I would place three children with their grandparents. Peachlyn Bradley, three years old, and her brother Gabreon Bruce, three months old, died at the SSA with their grandmother Cheryl Hammon. The accident of alphabetical order places Peachlyn and Gabreon together, but seven chairs separate them from Cheryl. LaRue and Luther Treaner died with their four year old granddaughter Ashley Eckles. They are now separated by 21 chairs.

Since the designers were open to changing the alphabet, each trio could have remained together, Cheryl surrounded by her grandchildren and Ashley by her grandparents. Theirs were the two families that lost three people. Keeping these loved ones together on the Memorial would have been a small, but perhaps meaningful gift.

For the World Trade Center (WTC), adding floor numbers to the names would help demonstrate that the highest numbers of deaths occurred above the point of impact in both buildings. The Oklahoma City Memorial geographically shows the location of the greatest number of deaths by arranging the names into a concentration of chairs, with more chairs in the middle and fewer chairs toward the right and left edges.

The bomb exploded directly under the cribs in America’s Kids Child Development Center on the second floor. The most remembered image of that day is a fireman carrying the limp body of a baby. This bombing killed a lot of babies. The Memorial acknowledges their deaths by giving children smaller chairs.

It’s an elegant arrangement, with just a couple of misses. Using only names and chairs, the designers showed affiliation, age, level of destruction, and location of death by floor, office and exterior to the Murrah Building.

They did one more thing. The Memorial’s Survival Wall lists the names of more than 800 who experienced and survived the blast. They did not die, but they certainly had a life-changing experience. Offering them a part of the Memorial honors their suffering, gives them a place for contemplation, and helps visitors understand the enormity of the crime.

Survivors’ names are alphabetized within the buildings, which are also in alphabetical order. The original plan was to arrange the building names geographically, but it was felt that the primary target needed to be first.  Alphabetical order places the Alfred P. Murrah Building at the front of the list. (Linenthal, 2001)

I wish the World Trade Center Memorial would consider honoring the survivors of 9/11. I am not suggesting the names of everyone in the WTC on September 11, 2001 be listed. That is probably impossible to know. However, the names of companies with offices in the WTC could be engraved onto the Memorial, giving thousands of people with horrific experiences a place of solace and a place for their own memories. For reasons that have not been explained, corporate names are disallowed and the World Trade Center Memorial continues to miss the opportunity to fully serve its community of 9/11 survivors and families.

(I am grateful to Brad Robison, Director of the Terrorism Information Center at the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City. I contacted Brad during the anniversary week and appreciate his taking the time to answer my questions.)

Print pagePDF pageEmail page