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'Every Oklahoman should know their story': Thunder Free Days bring first-time visitors to OKC National Memorial and Museum

Stephanie Powers, center, and her children Daisy, right, and Isaiah, left, visited the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum on Feb. 25, one of this year's monthly Thunder Free Days. [provided]
Stephanie Powers, center, and her children Daisy, right, and Isaiah, left, visited the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum on Feb. 25, one of this year's monthly Thunder Free Days. [provided]

Stephanie Powers stared past the glass, transported back in time.

“There wasn’t the reflecting pool or any of that here,” she said to her son Isaiah, 9, and daughter Daisy, 14. “It was this.”

She swept one arm in front of her, motioning across the section of fence on display in the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Twenty two years ago, when Stephanie hopped off the Greyhound bus that took her from California to Oklahoma City, her father took her to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing right off the bat. The fence that encircled it had seemed so much taller then.

Two months ago, Powers, 34, took her two middle children to the museum for the first time. It was the second Thunder Free Day of the year.

For the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which lands on Sunday, the NBA's Thunder planned to provide free admission to the memorial museum on the 25th of every month this year (except for December, when admission will be free on the 31st instead). The coronavirus pandemic eliminated the March and April dates, but Thunder Free Days will resume as soon as the museum can reopen.

“That's what they're designed to do, is to bring people in who haven't been here,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. “It's almost like people are feeling the responsibility to learn their story, and that's something we feel very strongly, that every Oklahoman should know their story.”

Oklahomans like Powers and her children.

A year ago, Daisy ran the Memorial 5K during the Oklahoma City Marathon. Stephanie had been talking about visiting the museum ever since.

“I don't know why I never came,” Stephanie said. “I knew it was gonna be emotional, and I'm usually an emotional wreck.”

They finally found the time when Stephanie heard about the Thunder Free Days on the news.

“An opportunity for the kids to kind of take a brain break from schoolwork,” Stephanie said, “and do some more learning, but do it hands on.”

While parents across the nation have been turned into pseudo home-school teachers due to closures in the past month, Daisy and Isaiah have been enrolled in online school all year. Stephanie chose late morning for the trip to the museum, when she knew most kids would still be in school. Feb. 25 was a Tuesday. Attendance spiked, but the 866 visitors that day didn't pack the museum like the 2,299 visitors on Jan. 25, a Saturday.

Daisy had been skeptical going into the experience.

“I thought it was going to be boring,” she said.

The museum surprised her.

The tour began lighthearted. Stephanie pointed out the federal building to Isaiah in a mural of downtown under the words, “A day like any other.” Daisy laughed as she posed on the windowsill and Stephanie took her picture.

Then they entered the Oklahoma Water Resources Board meeting room as a recording from April 19, 1995 played. They walked out into scenes of panic and destruction.

“Look, mom, it’s a computer,” Isaiah said, pointing into a display case filled with artifacts pulled from the rubble, as newscasts played overhead.

The family paused in front of a projection to watch footage from the day of the bombing and interviews with survivors. Stephanie’s eyes began to well.

“Are you going to cry?” Daisy asked.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Stephanie said, swallowing hard.

As their journey wound through the exhibits, they took in the stories of victims, survivors and first responders. Stephanie checked in with Isaiah halfway through to see if he’d learned at least three things. Later, she marveled at how much she was learning, despite living in Oklahoma for most of her life.

Stephanie was still in Barstow, California, when the bomb tore apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. But she remembers huddling in the living room with her family until they got word that Stephanie’s father, who was working in Oklahoma, was OK.

By the time Stephanie and her children reached the section on the criminal investigation, the shocked hush had lifted from their little group. Isaiah had become so enthralled with the interactive touch screens set up throughout the museum that Daisy had started calling them “Isaiah screens.” Daisy, an avid "Criminal Minds" viewer, examined the evidence with the curiosity of an aspiring FBI behavioral analyst.

“Incredible,” Stephanie said after they finished their walk through the museum.

Isaiah echoed that sentiment, thrusting one hand in the air for effect.

When the museum reopens to visitors, the Thunder Free Days won’t quite be the bustling affairs they were at the beginning of the year.

“We won’t have crowded museums like that; I think those days are behind us,” Watkins said, adding that the museum is working on a plan to provide patrons with the space they need to safely and comfortably enjoy the experience.

“We feel like we share part of the same mission,” Watkins said of the Thunder, “of showing people, what the Oklahoma Standard is and why it's important that we all learn it and live by it. In these times of COVID-19, it's more important than ever that we take care of our neighbor and we help one another and we show people the very best.”

Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›