OKLAHOMA CITY -- A serene field of empty chairs sculpted from stone and bronze stood in silent tribute today to the 168 people who died five years ago when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blown apart in the roar of a truck bomb.
As the Oklahoma City National Memorial opened, families walked across the lawn where the building once stood and placed flowers and homemade wooden crosses on the chair representing their loved one. There were large chairs for the 149 adults and 19 little ones for the children killed.
Children used big sticks of sidewalk chalk to write messages on tiles beneath artwork in the children's area of the memorial. Others peered into the reflecting pool that stretches along what once was the bomb crater.
A pastor urged the thousands of family members, survivors and rescue workers to ''hold on to the memories'' but move on with their lives in the first of two ceremonies today to dedicate the new memorial.
''This whole memorial will serve as a reminder that hate may blow up a building but we as a people will never forget,'' said Dr. Robert Allen of the First United Methodist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas. ''We as a people will never forget.''
Church bells tolled at 9:02 a.m., the exact moment on April 19, 1995, when the blast of a fuel oil and fertilizer bomb smashed the face from the nine-story building and rattled windows miles away.
P.J. Allen, who was a toddler when he was pulled alive from the wreckage of the building's daycare center, stood waving an American flag.
''Treasure the gift of life,'' the minister told the crowd gathered outside a golden gate that serves as an entrance to the site. ''Remember the gift of 168 lives who touched ours in some way. Remember the friends and family who reached out to help. Remember the strangers whose live were touched by the event five years ago.
''Hold on to the memories, the memories that this field of empty chairs represents. Treasure them.''
Jeannine Gist needed no reminder of the empty chair at her own dinner table. But on the anniversary of the bombing, the sculpture chairs brought her peace, she said Tuesday.
''When we first talked about building the memorial, I couldn't imagine it could be a peaceful place,'' said Gist, whose 32-year-old daughter, Karen Carr, worked and died in the federal building.
Family members, rescuers and survivors bearing bouquets and wreaths were among the thousands who trekked to the site this morning for the private dedication of the $29.1 million memorial.
President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno were scheduled to appear at a public ceremony later today.
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