When attacks shock a nation and rob hundreds of lives, it can be difficult to come to terms with the senselessness of it all. However, we can move forward while remembering those impacted by the tragedy.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is the Survivor Tree in Oklahoma City?
- Where is the Survivor Tree Located?
- When Was the Survivor Tree Planted?
- How Do You Pay Your Respects at the OKC Survivor Tree?
National memorials are a way to honor those lost to senseless violence. They are a place to pay respect to the dead and reflect on the memories of loved ones lost. For others maybe unfamiliar, a memorial is an educational experience.
For example, the 9/11 memorial and museum in New York City serves as a monument to those who died or suffered injuries in the 9/11 attacks.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is another example. On its grounds stands the Survivor Tree. This overview will explain what the Survivor Tree is, and why it means so much to so many.
What is the Survivor Tree in Oklahoma City?
The story of the Survivor Tree in Oklahoma City begins with tragedy.
On April 19, 1995, 168 people lost their lives when Timothy McVeigh detonated a car bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
This devastating tragedy affected countless lives, as both the loved ones of the victims and the country mourned their deaths. The FBI still considers this incident to be the worst instance of domestic terrorism in American history.
While nothing could undo the tragedy, some found a unique symbol of hope in the form of a tree.
Before the bombing
The tree already played a somewhat important role to those who worked at and near the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before the bombing. It’s an American Elm that reaches a height of about 40 feet.
It was also the only tree in the nearby downtown parking lot large enough to offer shade. Some would even make a point of arriving at work early just to park beneath it.
After the bombing, however, the tree took on a much greater significance.
The OKC Survivor Tree got its name because, although the force of the bomb that toppled the Alfred P. Murrah Building was devastating, the tree survived. This naturally inspired a sense of hope in many trying to cope with their grief in the wake of a national tragedy.
That said, before becoming an official part of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the Survivor Tree almost came down anyway. Embedded throughout its branches were shrapnel and other forms of evidence valuable to investigators. Luckily, investigators were able to retrieve the evidence they needed without breaking out the saw.
Later, during the early stages of planning the Oklahoma City National Memorial, hundreds of people, ranging from family members of the victims to survivors of the blast attack, wrote a Memorial Mission Statement. It included a resolution insisting “one of the components of the Memorial must be the Survivor Tree located on the south half of the Journal Record Building block.”
Saving the tree
Preserving the Survivor Tree so it could be a component of the Oklahoma City National Memorial wasn’t an easy task. Due to both the tree’s age and the damage it had sustained in the bombing, there was a chance it could die.
Mark Bays and his team made sure that didn’t happen. Members of the Oklahoma City National Memorial planning team enlisted the help of Bays because of his work as an urban forester with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry.
Over several years, Bays took various steps to save the tree. This included pulling back the asphalt surrounding it to create better growing conditions, as well as taking seeds and growing seedlings.
The Oklahoma City Survivor Tree began to recover. Now, year after year, the Oklahoma City National Memorial team (with the help of volunteers) also plants and distributes Survivor Tree seeds throughout the country. Through the official website of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, you can buy seedlings and seeds to grow your own Survivor Tree.
Where Is the Survivor Tree Located?
The Survivor Tree is part of the overall Oklahoma City National Memorial at 620 North Harvey Avenue. Bays and others designed a promontory on which it stands, ensuring passersby easily notice. Beneath the promontory is a complex irrigation and aeration system that helps the tree continue to thrive.
Other noteworthy components of the Oklahoma City National Memorial include:
- Murrah Plaza: This overlook provides a view of the full memorial grounds.
- The Field of Empty Chairs: This field is home to 168 chair-like monuments in nine rows. Each row represents a floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and each chair bears the name of a victim who lost their life on the floor its row symbolizes.
- Survivor Wall: The Survivor Wall is the only wall that remains from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It features salvaged granite slabs bearing inscriptions of survivors’ names.
- Gates of Time: The Gates of Time are two large gates on either end of the memorial, with a reflecting pool spanning between them. The top of the entrance gate features an inscription of “9:01.” This references the moments before Timothy McVeigh detonated the car bomb at 9:02 AM, and symbolizes the innocence before the tragedy. After guests tour the memorial, they may leave through the opposite gate. Its inscription of “9:03” represents the beginning of the healing process.
- Rescuers’ Orchard: Rescuers’ Orchard consists of several smaller trees surrounding the Survivor Tree. They symbolize the first-responders and all others who rushed to help in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
- Children’s Area: The Children’s Area features a wall of tiles bearing messages of support and sympathy. Each one features the work of children from across the country who sent these messages to Oklahoma City in the weeks and months following the tragedy. This area of the memorial also includes blank chalkboards and buckets of chalk for young visitors to write down their feelings about the experience.
- The Fence: The fence originally served as a means of protecting the federal building. After the bombing, people began leaving symbolic tokens on the fence. The tradition continues to this day.
- Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum: The grounds of the Oklahoma City National Memorial offer symbolic experiences that capture the emotional toll of the bombing. The museum offers education. Through self-guided tours, guests can hear the stories of the victims and survivors. The tour also features stories of those who the bombing affected even if they weren’t there, such as the loved ones of victims. Guests comb through these stories via hundreds of hours of video and 35 interactive exhibits. The museum also plays a crucial role in the overall memorial because admission fees fund maintenance of the outdoor sections.
When Was the Survivor Tree Planted?
It’s unclear who (if anyone in particular) planted the original Survivor Tree in OKC, or when they planted it. According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, photos from the 1920s indicate the tree is probably around 100 years old.
In the name of posterity, on October 3, 2020, Oklahoma City civic leaders coordinated with Oklahoma City National Memorial team members to extract the original Survivor Tree’s DNA and plant a “clone” in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Oklahoma City. They did so in part because the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel the memorial marathon the city usually hosts this time of year. Instead of hosting a marathon, they planted a tree.
This decision highlights the symbolic importance the Survivor Tree holds for so many people. And though the Survivor Tree will die one day, its clone will live on. This ensures mourners of the OKC Bombing will always have a Survivor Tree where they can pay their respects.
How Do You Pay Your Respects at the OKC Survivor Tree?
People who visit the Survivor Tree usually do so as part of a tour of the overall Oklahoma City National Memorial. Like Murrah Plaza, it offers a vantage point from which to see all major components of the memorial from one spot.
The peaceful nature of the Survivor Tree and its surroundings give visitors a chance to quietly reflect on everything they’ve seen after walking the grounds. However, others find that because of the tree’s symbolically hopeful meaning, it offers the ideal spot for discussing the experience of touring the Oklahoma City National Memorial with friends and family without giving in to sorrow.
Oklahoma City Survivor Tree: A Symbol of Strength
From memorials such as the Survivor Tree to important occasions like the September 11th National Day of Service, we’ve found many ways to both cope with tragedies and ensure we never forget those who lost their lives. The Survivor Tree can’t bring them back, but it can honor their memories while inspiring survivors and loved ones to overcome their grief.
- Causey, Adam Kealoha. “Oklahoma City bombing ‘Survivor Tree’ DNA to live on.” AP News, Associated Press, 19 April 2019, apnews.com/article/0751516a90ea472ab5e2d6b30604d32d
- Martin, Brandon. “Survivor Tree clone to be planted near OKC Memorial Marathon's Gorilla Hill.” FOX 25, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, Inc., 3 October 2020, okcfox.com/news/local/survivor-tree-clone-to-be-planted-near-okc-memorial-marathons-gorilla-hill
- “The Memorial.” Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, memorialmuseum.com/experience/the-memorial/
- “Oklahoma City Bombing.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/oklahoma-city-bombing
- “Plant of the Week: Survivor Tree (American Elm in Oklahoma City).” University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/survivor-tree.aspx
- “Survivor Tree.” Oklahoma City National Memorial, www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/survivor-tree.aspx