The American Elm tree that is the centerpiece for this section of the website survived the tragedy of the Oklahoma City Bomb blast to become a symbol of resilience, renewal, and recovery. The tree also figures prominently in the story of Bud Welch in the “Forgiveness” (**INTERNAL LINK) branch of this section of the website.
Additional information about the tree appears below.
Survivor Tree: Witness to Tragedy, Symbol of Strength
It is more than 80 years old. An American Elm Tree in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City, it survived the bomb’s blast and witnessed one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil. Today, we call it the Survivor Tree.
Before the bombing, the tree was important because it provided the only shade in the downtown parking lot. People would arrive early to work just to be able to park under the shade of the tree’s branches.
On April 19, 1995, the tree was almost chopped down to recover pieces of evidences that hung from its branches due to the force of the 4,000 pound bomb that killed 168 and injured hundreds just yards away. Evidence was retrieved from the branches and the trunk of the tree.
When hundreds of community citizens, family members of those who were killed, survivors and rescue workers came together to write the Memorial Mission Statement, one of its resolutions dictated that “one of the components of the Memorial must be the Survivor Tree located on the south half of the Journal Record Building block.”
Rowland Denman, the Memorial Foundation’s volunteer Executive Director and Richard Williams, District Manager for the General Services Administration Oklahoma division, called upon the expertise of Mark Bays, an urban forester with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Bays developed a plan to save the tree and has taken it on as his project for the last nine years. The asphalt that lined the parking lot was pulled away from the tree to begin improving the conditions around it. Seeds were taken and seedlings were grown. The tree began to thrive.
The Memorial design was unveiled in 1996 with a prominence put on this ancient elm. Designers Hans and Torrey Butzer rote in their plans submitted for the Memorial, “…by creating a level ground plane along Fifth Street, the resulting site contours would emphasize the high point or promontory on which the Survivor Tree now stands. Thus, the Survivor Tree and its cascading terraces become the perfect counter-point to the sloping Murrah Building Footprint across Fifth Street.”
The final Memorial design included this important promontory. Because the roots of the tree ran so deep, the promontory was put on piers so that there would be no damage to the tree’s root system. Each pier was hand dug by Bays and the construction crew. The design also included an aeration and irrigation system underneath the promontory, which permits the air and water to get underneath the tree’s roots. This state of the art system allows the tree to receive the appropriate amount of water and air to keep it growing for years to come.
Cuttings of the Survivor Tree are growing in nurseries all over Oklahoma. Owners of landscape nurseries, arborists, urban foresters and expert horticulturists from across the state and country have come together to work and preserve this piece of history. None of these people have ever charged the Memorial for their work. Each year, the Facilities and Grounds crew at the Memorial provides Bays and the nursery men hundreds of seeds. They plant the seeds and distribute the resulting saplings each year on the anniversary of the bombing. Today, thousands of Survivor Trees are growing in
public and private places all over the United States.
“The Memorial is grateful to Mark Bays, and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry for their long standing commitment to the Survivor Tree,” said Kari Watkins, Executive Director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. “The tree is a beautiful symbol today thanks to Mark’s work and those he has reached out to across the state, who take seeds and return tree saplings the following spring.”
The Survivor Tree is a symbol of human resilience. Today, as a tribute to renewal and rebirth, the inscription around the tree reads, “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”
Survivor Tree seedlings are now available to the public for purchase through American Forest's Historic Trees program. To purchase a Survivor Tree seedling, visit www.historictrees.org. For more information on the program, click here.
And when the light of reason fails
And fires burn the sea
Now in this age of confusion
I have need of your company…
I think that one of the reasons people are touched by the stories is that in one way or another, everyone is a survivor. Before I was a survivor of terrorist attacks, I was a survivor from Cuba … Somehow you’re always surviving something.
Elia Zedeño, 46,
North Tower, 73rd floor
The financial analyst was logging onto her computer when she felt a massive jolt. She bolted for the stairs and made it out just as the South Tower imploded, sending her to the ground and filling her throat with clumps of soot. She walked uptown, not realizing until the afternoon that both towers had collapsed. She hadn’t thought to look back.
A common theme in overcoming disasters is a sense of deep connectedness: to the experience, to other survivors, and sometimes even to the human community in general. Here are some voices of the experience of connectedness as it relates to renewal and resilience and recovery.
Tom Canavan (47th Floor, North Tower, 9-11-01): I have a bond with (other survivors) that I could never have with my family and my wife and my kids. ..It’s sort of sad, because I’ll never have that with the people that I love, but I’ll have that with complete strangers.
is a survivor of the 1999 Columbine shootings, and says this about the importance of connection:
The best advice I can give (people experiencing disasters) is not to isolate themselves. And that is exactly the thing you want to do. You don't want to talk about it to your parents. You don't want to talk about it to your family. And you really don't want to talk about it to your friends because you kind of feel like they have no clue what you're going through.
We’ll walk hand in hand…
We are not afraid…
We shall live in peace…
Deep in my heart I do believe
WE SHALL OVERCOME SOME DAY!
In the United States Civil Rights tradition, “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem of courage and perspective and community. Overcoming does not imply getting rid of, or fixing, or even necessarily changing external facts or circumstance, but it implies a movement through what sometimes cannot be changed, a movement that involves courage, and meaning-making, and forgiveness…a movement that involves the various components of Disaster-Related Mental Health that are the focus of this part of this website.
We dedicate this section of this website to those who have walked hand-in-hand, not afraid, peacefully, and with deep belief in their hearts, that they could overcome the experience of disaster.
Many survivors, even in the midst of disasters, move toward resilience and recovery and renewal through acts of service toward others. Here are some of their voices.
Prentiss Polk is a 24 year-old roofer from New Orleans. He says of his experience of service in Katrina:
When the hurricane hit, I was in the Florida Projects. In the Ninth Ward. I stayed in that water for like three days. Helping people and bringing people food and water.
First we built a raft. We went to an old tire shop, got some tires with air in them. Got some two by fours, and three sheets of plywood, and built it. We tried to save as many people as we could…we built an ark. We carried a five month old baby through the storm. Through the water. He a little soldier too. He a survivor. He five months old. It’s raining. We walking through five and six feet a water with him. And he’s holding us down. He’s not crying or nothing.
We helped a lot of people. We did our thing, man.
As survivors “do their thing” of service, wonderful things happen:
Helena Garrett, whose 16-month-old son, Tevin, was one of 16 children killed in the America's Kids Day Care Center on the second floor. Nineteen children were among 168 people who lost their lives that day.
"Grief was never really spoken about," Garrett said. "People were too afraid to address those issues. I didn't want to be seen as, 'Oh, she needs help.' I had such a silent voice. I wouldn't talk to anyone. I just kept everything inside of me. I didn't know how to release it."
But speaking to school groups and others about her loss and feelings and looking into the eyes of listeners have helped her realize that others understand her emotions.
"People are actually agreeing with how you feel," Garrett said. "They say that time heals all wounds. That's not true. I'm not healed. It still hurts. I still miss him."
(Kidwell Katrina) The reporters said they needed medical help: nurses, people with experience. I don’t have any experience to speak of. But there was one doctor in particular who said, whoever you are, if you’re watching this please, we need help. We need help now.
I sat there listening to him for about a minute before something clicked in my brain. It was like hello! He’s talking to you! You’re watching this and they need help. I was like, oh my god, I have to go down there.
I felt like I understood the need for being positive about it, but I didn’t feel like I needed to sugarcoat. I did sugarcoat. I didn’t talk about what happened to my friend’s boyfriend, how this woman was like, can you help me, please, [her hands cupped in front of her face] and he’s like, sure! What do you need? And she brought her hands down and she had vomited into them. And didn’t know what to do with it. It’s like, nobody’s going to talk about that shit because it’s disgusting. People don’t want to hear about it. I felt like part of the problem was that people don’t want to hear about it.
Mary Mowdy, who was on her third day at work at the Oklahoma Guaranteed Student Loan Program:
She began speaking out about her experience when the community's focus shifted from the horror of the bombing to preventing another terrorist attack.
"I just didn't want to be one of those who just sat around and felt sorry for myself," said Mowdy, who suffered a punctured jugular vein that required 1,000 stitches and staples to close.
"When you get kicked in the teeth, you just don't lie there. You get up and make the most of what you have," she said. "Here we are 14 years out, and I feel pretty good about letting them see that's not what you do. I do think it's a very important message."
Dr. Ellie Lottinville, a psychologist who was in charge of the death notification teams for the American Red Cross and later treated many survivors and victims' family members in her private practice:
"We grieve. And it's normal. All of us have had to grieve over the deaths of these people," she told a group of high school psychology students.
"You pull back away from people instead of coming forward to people," Lottinville said. Survivors had to learn "to turn it around."
"If I was going to heal, I needed to get out and help these people. I had to do something to give back. You do something for someone. You can't do it right off. You have to let the grief set in."