Compelled, They Come: Visitors To The Blast Site -- Oklahoma City / One Year Later

AT 9:02 A.M., APRIL 19, 1995 - a year ago Friday - the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in what would be the single most destructive terrorist act in U.S. history. In the first of a four-part series, The Times today looks at the lure of the location where 168 people were killed. -----------------------------------------------------------------

OKLAHOMA CITY - It is midmorning, and some tourists from Romania stand at Robinson Avenue and Fifth Street, trying to follow a local guide's description of the sweeping damage around them.

A television reporter examines herself in a mirror, then reapplies her lipstick and curls her eyelashes before going on camera.

Members of a Kansas church take turns signing a huge yellow banner left by Georgia schoolchildren that reads, "Always in our thoughts and prayers."

It is like this every day.

Nearly one year after the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, people are drawn to the site of the most deadly act of terrorism in U.S. history. Drawn to what is now an uneven rectangle of fenced-in earth, one block wide and a half-block deep. Drawn to a place that looks like it is waiting for something to happen, rather than recovering from an event already passed.

From early morning on, a dozen people are at the site at any moment. Sometimes the number swells to 50 or more.

"I've seen people from New York stop their car, get out and take a picture, stand there for a minute and leave," says Raymond Turcotte, a security guard at the Regency Tower Apartments across the street. "I don't know what they are seeing. It's just grass and fences and rubble."

Messages public and private

But visitors walk along those fences and sidestep the rubble. They touch the ribbons and the wreaths and the teddy bears and the crosses that are tied to the chain links. They read the notes.

"We love you and miss you," says a message to Terry signed "Your family."

"Just to wish you a happy, happy Easter," says a card to Aaron signed "Love, Mary and Elijah."

Some of the mementos are private: One stuffed bunny simply has the words "Your favorite" written in ink on a furry ear.

Others are much more public: A homemade poster includes a color photo of a young boy, a long typed poem and then the signatures of "Great Grandpa Hernandez" and "Great Grandma."

Visitors say little. Most keep their heads bowed. Those with children pull them close and hush them. Others hold hands, touch each other gently, stroke each other's backs.

They point to particular spots, trying to pinpoint where the bomb went off, where the crater was located. They try to reconcile the newspaper and television images in their minds with the view before them. Some take pictures or videos, but almost no one poses or waves for the cameras. The frames of film are empty of life.

An odd vacation choice

Oklahoma City-area residents seem to have a hard time digesting all the attention.

Some who live nearby wish most of it would cease. The residents of the Regency Tower, for example, have been approached by so many members of the media that the management finally appointed a news coordinator to handle interview requests.

Others find it unsettling that the site has become a tourist attraction. Mike Hixson, a businessman who has to drive near the site most days, says: "I still can't bear to stop and see it up close. How people can come up and stare at it as part of their vacation is beyond me."

What people stare at is not just the site, but the area around the site. The Ryder moving truck that carried the bomb was parked at the front of the building, on its north side. As a result, little damage can be seen south of the site - the building absorbed most of the blow. But to the east and west, and especially to the north, where the explosion rushed out at full force, the damage is still astonishing.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board building is a broken heap. The YMCA building, the Kilpatrick Hotel, the old Journal Record newspaper building, First United Methodist Church and St. Joseph's Old Cathedral are mere shells. Most will have to be torn down; some office buildings have already succumbed.

Farther away - four, five or even six blocks north - windows remain boarded up and walls still need special support. About 300 buildings suffered some damage. Residents in Edmond, about 13 miles away, heard and felt the blast.

"This is a state of small towns and rural people," said Jean Sealy, a native Oklahoman who recently drove up from her home in Texas to visit her son's family. "I still can't believe something like this could happen here."

City's biggest landmark now

Ask for directions to the Capitol, and locals will say it is two miles northeast of the bomb site. Ask people when they went on vacation or when they had a baby, and they will say a couple of weeks before the bombing, or a month after.

Later this month, Oklahoma will celebrate the 107th anniversary of the Great Land Run of 1889, which among other things literally defined Oklahoma City. In the century since, the capital has nurtured its image as a haven for people with a pioneer spirit, and a crossroads for the oil, aviation, agriculture and livestock industries. Eight oil derricks still stand on the grounds of the state Capitol; the National Cowboy Hall of Fame has been the leading tourist attraction for years.

But now there is the bombing.

The city, indeed the whole state, is trying to reconcile the old and new images. Its people are trying to make some peace with history.

200,000 items of tribute

A committee has been formed to develop a permanent memorial on the site, but nothing has been decided yet. For now, the site has been covered with fresh sod that seems to be having trouble taking root.

A lone wreath on a small pedestal is displayed in the center.

A few hundred feet west, an open-air "Heartland Chapel" has been erected on the parking lot of First United Methodist Church, with donations from Jewish and Islamic groups. More mementos - rosaries, prayer cards, Easter baskets, an Atlanta Braves cap, a child's football - are arranged before the altar.

The mementos at the fence and at the chapel are cleared periodically and taken to an Oklahoma Historical Society warehouse. More than 200,000 items have been collected.

On Friday morning, about 3,000 survivors of the bombing and relatives of the 168 people who died are expected to visit the site. The precise anniversary will be observed at 9:02 a.m. Central Time. Later, they will go to the Myriad Convention Center, where rescue workers will join them for a larger ceremony.

"The city is beginning to heal," says Charles Eschmann, the superintendent of a Midwest Wrecking Co. crew that was busy last week tearing down one of the ruined buildings. "Time heals all wounds, isn't that what they say?"

Then he stops adds: "But of course, I didn't lose anyone. For people who lost someone, I don't think you ever heal."