Twenty years have come and gone since the horrific April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. But after the dust settled and victims were laid to rest, hope manifested itself in an unusual way – through an old American elm, known by many as the Survivor Tree.
Located on the grounds of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum in what was once the parking lot of the Murrah Federal Building, the Survivor Tree witnessed one of the largest domestic terror attacks in U.S. history.
“The Survivor Tree epitomizes the hope, strength and resilience of Oklahoma City and its citizens. The tree was literally burnt to a crisp in the bombing, yet it bloomed again,” says Susan Winchester, chairperson of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, whose sister, Dr. Peggy Clark, died in the bombing. “It has become the most beloved tree in Oklahoma.”
Caring For The Survivor Tree
The story of the Survivor Tree began in early 1996, when organizers were preparing a remembrance ceremony for the first anniversary of the bombing. Mark Bays, Urban Forestry coordinator for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, was among them.
“It was early spring, and we were looking the site over when someone noticed this tree in the parking lot across from the Murrah building was blooming again,” Bays says. “At that point, it became a symbol of hope and healing. Efforts started right then to care for it.”
Since that day, the ODAFF has ensured the tree is regularly pruned, inoculated against disease and fungus, and sprayed against parasites. For a couple years after the bombing, caretakers were still finding and removing bits of glass and debris embedded in the tree.
“Everyone is concerned about the tree – they care for it like a personal friend,” Winchester says. “If there’s an ice storm, people come out to make sure ice doesn’t accumulate on the branches.”
Numerous private tree companies have come forward to offer their services, free of charge.
“Companies will come to us and say, ‘What do you need? When do you need it? We’ll be there,’” Bays says. “Because of their generously donated time and materials, it’s difficult to put a price on their contributions, and we are grateful for all they have done. Every person that has helped along the way says it’s an honor to care for this tree.”
When visitors come to the memorial today, there are peaceful places to sit and reflect under the Survivor Tree’s branches. An inscription around it reads, “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”
“The tree is our symbol – it bent, but it didn’t break,” says Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. “It is special to those who survived the bombing, as they knew this tree well as a good shade tree to park under each day. It brings back a flood of emotions, but it’s symbolic that it stands tall and firm after a devastating attack.”
When New York City’s World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists in September 2001, a seedling from Oklahoma City’s Survivor Tree was presented to NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a beacon of hope.
“The spirit of the Survivor Tree helped 9/11 victims heal, as well,” Bays says. “It has taught us we can live past tragedy. It reminds us we are tough people and evil will never win.”
Every year, seedlings from the Survivor Tree are given away “to remind people that our deep roots provide backbone to deal with the very worst,” Watkins says. “We are encouraging our stakeholders to post pictures of their Survivor Trees all across the country at okstandard.org. It’s a great way to see how far our branches reach.”
In May 1995, a month after the bombing, employees of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry planted seven redbud trees in the shape of a heart with a single whitebud tree in the center in memory of the seven USDA employees killed in the bombing. The memorial is called Heartland Memorial Tree Grove, and it is located on the grounds of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
“Our state tree is the redbud planted throughout, and the lone whitebud tree in the center represents the innocence lost that day,” Bays explains. “Surrounding our Heartland Grove, there are 77 stones from all 77 Oklahoma counties to show our state’s unity in responding to the tragedy.”
As part of the 20th anniversary in 2015, Heartland Grove underwent a renewal and rededication. The 20-year-old trees were beginning to decline in health, so they were made into mulch and a new generation of trees was planted in their places. Mulch from the original trees was spread around the new generation of trees.
“It’s a way for us to remember those USDA family members and partners killed that day,” Bays says. “It’s a tremendous honor to play a small role in something as monumental as this memorial and recovery effort.”
Bays has been asked numerous times how he sleeps at night knowing the health of the Survivor Tree rests on his shoulders.
“The answer is easy,” he says. “There are a lot more eyes on it than mine. If anyone has a question or something is needed, someone will surely point it out. The eyes of the nation are on this tree.”