April 19 remembrance ceremony goes virtual because of coronavirus
The gravity of 168 seconds of silence will still linger. The names of the 168 lives lost in the bombing will still be read. But on this April 19, a day that will forever bring Oklahomans together, the annual Remembrance Ceremony will have to be viewed apart.
“That’s a hard thing to replace — the power of sitting across the reflecting pool and hearing the names,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. “It’s different than sitting in your living room.”
From 9 to 10 a.m. on April 19, in living rooms across the state and around the country, a virtual ceremony will be broadcast. Oklahoman.com will carry the taped special. So will Cox YurView networks reaching more than 4 million households from Sun Valley, Idaho to Virginia’s Hampton Roads.
Watkins said there was “zero” pushback from TV stations to air the production, which will honor those who were killed 25 years ago in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Watkins and her team have adjusted their plans for the milestone anniversary just as rapidly as the coronavirus has spread. First came questions about the safety of holding the Memorial Marathon, which was eventually postponed. Then the museum, the site’s primary source of income, closed as the public health threat grew.
All the while, April 19 was looming.
A month before the anniversary date, the Memorial Conscience Committee formally decided to produce an hour-long video for the anniversary rather than hold a traditional Remembrance Ceremony where people pack the grounds.
“It was very difficult, said Kim Neese, a bombing survivor and chair of the conscience committee. “It broke our hearts to not be able to do a live ceremony.”
But, with a ban on large gatherings, it was one of only a few options. Holding a live video call with family members and survivors was also discussed.
The virtual ceremony is being produced by local advertising agency Ackerman McQueen with the help of several memorial staff members who have a background in television and video production.
“That I think is the spirit you see in Oklahoma time and again,” Watkins said, “is people jump in and do what they have to do. What airs on that Sunday morning of April 19 will be the very best of a lot of people.”
Neese was on the third floor of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board building when the bomb detonated. In the video, Neese will read the names of Robert N. Chipman and Trudy Jean Rigney — the two who died in the Water Resources Board building. She’ll read three more names as well.
Neese described the honor as “humbling.” It will be her first time reading names for the Remembrance Ceremony.
Jane Anderson has been working with the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum for the last 20 years. Anderson, the president of Edge Productions in Norman, typically has two roles for the anniversary event. The first is providing the outdoor sound system. The second is helping the name readers rehearse.
“We want them to be confident in their speaking, but more importantly, we want them to be comfortable with the fact they'll be reading their family member's name or their coworker's name,” Anderson said. “They are what's most important to us — the readers who are continuing to remember the 168 killed.”
One by one, more than 20 readers arrived at the memorial on March 28 for the production. The plan was to film outside, but the windy day wasn’t cooperating. Instead, the list of names was read inside the museum’s Gallery of Honor.
“I don’t think anyone begrudges us for how we’re doing it,” Watkins said. “They appreciate the fact that we’re trying to be innovative and keep it going at a time when so much of the world seems abnormal.”
A reunion for families affected by the bombing was planned for April 18 at the Oklahoma City Dodgers game. The Dodgers were going to retire No. 168 that night.
“The families and survivors, they do love to get together and see each other,” Neese said. “We'll miss that.”
The event will be rescheduled, and Watkins is already thinking about holding a candlelight ceremony later that night at the memorial.
For now, the memorial grounds are still open, but that could change by April 19 — a day the Remembrance Ceremony will stray from its usual setting, but one that will maintain its unifying message.
“While we balance this new world of being apart, we will always give it our very best to make sure these lives are not forgotten,” Watkins said. “Because those people went to work that day, they didn't go to war. They went to work. It's important to tell that story.”