What Orlando can learn from Oklahoma City memorial

Pulse owner visited New York, Oklahoma City memorial sites

OKLAHOMA CITY, Fla. – The owner of Pulse nightclub announced plans in May to build a permanent memorial and possibly a museum to honor the 49 lives lost in the 2016 mass shooting and also to honor the dozens who were injured.

Pulse owner Barbara Poma traveled to both New York City and Oklahoma City to research how those cities created their respective memorials for victims of terror attacks.

Poma said she was also moved by the feeling she got while touring the memorial grounds, both at night and during the day.

"The memorial itself was, in the evening time, it  was just so peaceful," Poma said. "And it was so beautiful."


[PHOTOS: Central Florida remembers Pulse one year later]


News 6 Investigator Adrianna Iwasinski went to Oklahoma City to see what advice the creators had for the people of Orlando.

The Oklahoma City memorial is a place to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever by the tragedy that happened on April 19,1995, according to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum mission statement. At the time, it was the worst case of domestic terrorism on record. The creators of this massive, powerful memorial want all those who leave here to know the impact of violence. But they also want it to be a place of comfort, strength, peace and serenity.

"The process was as important as the finished product," said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and who has been at the museum since its inception.

Poma said her trip to the Oklahoma City memorial helped her feel more confident in what she hopes to do in Orlando.

"It was a learning trip but it was an emotional trip," said Poma during a recent interview. "It was my first light, for me, in my darkness. I was like 'OK this can happen. I can do this.' And (Watkins) looked at me and said 'You can do this.'"

Watkins said she and Poma walked through the museum halls together recently. Poma was touched by all the personal stories displayed and the commitment of all those involved in creating the ever-changing memorial, Watkins said.

"We know we've built a place of great honor and respect and education," said Watkins. "People drive past this memorial - they go downtown and they have to pause and think about what happened here."

The one thing Watkins recommended to all those involved in building the Pulse memorial is to be willing to work together and to be ready to compromise.

"We had to do that here," she said. "The fence that now lines the west side of the memorial wasn't there when we did the memorial design. The families said, 'We want the fence.'"

Watkins said she would encourage the city of Orlando to also be involved in the process and be willing for the memorial to grow and change like the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum has through the past two decades.  Watkins said the sacred ground continues to have a profound effect on all who visit, especially those directly affected.

"It really is as raw today for some people as it was 22 years ago," Watkins said. "And for others, they've learned how to move on and rebuild - and find a new normal. And others haven't,  and so you just honor people where they are."

News 6 also spoke with Bob Johnson the former chairman of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation and Trust.

Johnson was appointed by then Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norrick to lead the memorial process just days after the Oklahoma City bombing happened. The former Red Cross board member took the role to heart but knew he had to proceed with caution.

Flowers rest on the chair of Christi Yolanda Jenkins at the Oklahoma City National Memorial before the 15th anniversary observance ceremony of the Murrah Building bombing April 19, 2010 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Flowers rest on the chair of Christi Yolanda Jenkins at the Oklahoma City National Memorial before the 15th anniversary observance ceremony of the Murrah Building bombing April 19, 2010 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

"Memorial processes are fraught with emotional and other traps that could easily lead to failure," Johnson said.

Johnson said they took an unchartered path allowing the public to weigh in on the creation of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. He said 350 people were appointed to the task force, made up of a number of the victims family members and survivors. It was essential to have the public involved in the memorial if they were going to embrace it. He encouraged those involved in the OnePulse Foundation to do the same.

The most important thing to establish early on is the objective and the message, Johnson said.

"A memorial process should not be just a focus on what physical component are we going to develop? What should the design be?" Johnson said. "It should be about healing."

Johnson told News 6 that he remembered one survivor who suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder because of what he witnessed that day, but who said the task force saved his life.

"He said 'If you would not have engaged me in the memorial process, I'm convinced I would not be alive today," Johnson said.

Johnson took News 6 on a tour of the memorial grounds and shared what means the most to him.

"The 9:01 gate indicating innocence before the bombing, and the 9:03 gate reflecting the hope that arose and the healing that arose right after the bombing," Johnson said. "I think its so important that this reflecting pool is here, too, to create the serenity that we wanted in the memorial."

And then there are the chairs that light up at night that represent each of the 168 men, women and children who died that tragic day.

"You know at night I like to think of those chairs as 168 beacons of hope," Johnson said. "And I truly think they represent that."

There is the aforementioned fence, which has become a living breathing part of the memorial all on its own.
People from all over the world have left something behind to say that they were there, and they will never forget.

"It is not only helpful for us to see those messages, but therapeutic for them as well," Johnson said.

Finally, there is the survivor tree, an iconic symbol that not only survived the blast but has withstood the test of time.

"The amazing thing is this is it's an American elm," Johnson said. "And they are not very hardy trees."

However, this one is.

It continues to flourish and provide hope and shelter and solace to all those who visit. Johnson said there are also saplings from the tree that have been shared with people all over the world, so they, too, will remember and have a piece of this living part of the memorial.

"There are thousands of little survivor trees across the country, including one on the White House lawn," Johnson said.

News 6 asked if one might be sent to Poma to be planted at the Pulse memorial. Johnson said that would be a great idea.

Johnson said they received more than 600 design ideas for the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and whittled it down to five.  A selection panel of 15 people, including eight survivors and family members, four design professionals and three community leaders, was created to make the final pick. That panel was asked for a secret ballot vote on the final designs that had been submitted and approved. It is the design people see today.

"It was absolutely incredible," Johnson said. "Evidence that miracles still happen."

Inside the interactive museum, visitors get to learn every aspect of that tragic day as well as the days that followed. People from all over the world come to learn how Oklahoma City persevered through their darkest days and refused to let hate define them. Both Johnson and Watkins said that is why they try to continually add to the museum, to help keep it relevant, engaging, and inspiring.

"Most kids now were not alive at the time of the bombing," Watkins said. "And so they are learning a story that happened in ancient history."

"I think this is a very special place," Johnson said. "And the lessons here are timeless."

Both Johnson and Watkins said that hope is the one thing they want everyone to feel when they visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, and they hope that it transcends to those planning the Pulse memorial.

Poma has stated that right now, there is no concrete timeline or budget for the Pulse memorial project, only saying that it will be a living, breathing iconic project where people can grieve and heal while honoring the victims.
She said she also wants it to be a place of education and remembrance.

Poma said she will seek the help of a task force involving survivors, victims' families and first responders and members of the OnePulse Foundation. News 6 was told all net proceeds donated to the foundation will go to the memorial.

Watkins will also serve on the ambassador council and has committed to helping the OnePulse Foundation through its memorial process.