OKLAHOMA CITY — – It's just past 10 p.m. Tuesday when Ben Madu turns his cab up 5th Street toward Harvey Avenue and the towering bronze gates come into view.
Atop each are numbers glowing in the night — 9:01 and 9:03. Between them lies the memorial marking that minute five years ago that forever changed Oklahoma City and the nation.
More than 10,000 people are expected to gather Wednesday to dedicate the monument on the site where a truck bomb sheared the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in half, killing 168 people and wounding more than 600. But the parade of visitors to this intersection — like the memories it evokes — aren't relegated to a single day.
Five years seems like a long time, but the images of that morning are burnedvividly into the public conscience: firefighter Chris Fields, cradling a dying 1-year-old named Baylee Almon; bloodied victims clutching their wounds and wearing looks of fear and mayhem; shards of glass and debris falling on streets blocks away.
By some accounts, more than one-third of the city's residents knew at least one victim in the blast.
Madu, 41, knew seven, including Woody Brady, a friend who used to frequent a fast-food restaurant that Madu managed. Brady had ducked into the federal credit union that morning to cash a check.
Madu himself had plans to visit the Social Security office in the Murrah building that afternoon. He doesn't like thinking about it. "Nobody wants to remember in Oklahoma," he says. "It was just terrible."
But not a week goes by without a passenger asking him about the blast, or to be taken to the site.
Outside the cab, a full moon sits high and warm gusts swirl around the site. The plaza is closed, surrounded by orange mesh fence and patrolled by local and federal officers.
Up on the corner of 4th and Harvey streets, Officer Joe Green is just beginning his shift. He was in the shower that morning when he heard the thundering blast. Now his job is to stand watch through the night.
Slowly, people trickle by, inching quietly along the cyclone fence that surrounds the plaza and for years has served as its own memorial. They stare at the flowers, photos and stuffed animals. They stop to read the notes to friends loved and lost.
"Rebecca Anderson, I am watching your angel here on earth," reads one. "Colleen Guiles, we will never forget," says another.
Theresa Davis, 35, pokes her finger through the fence toward the Journal-Record building across from the Murrah complex where she once worked. One of Davis's co-workers was on the fifth floor there when the blast showered his eyes with glass, she tells her son, Vincent, and her daughter, Vineasa. Tonight is the first time Davis has brought the 10-year-old girl to see the Murrah plaza.
"I won't be able to come here tomorrow, and I came tonight to pay my respects," Davis explains.
Relatives and friends of the victims will gather for a private morning service at the memorial, where 168 glass, granite and bronze chairs sit overlooking a reflecting pool. Six hundred hand-painted tiles pay tribute to the 19 children who died, and the names of the 700 survivors have been inscribed on granite remnants of the building.
The public ceremonies will occur in the afternoon, concluding with remarks by President Clinton. A museum is expected to open in November.
The memorial was built with private funds from donors around the country. Frank and Bettie Noerr sent a check for $100 and raised another $100 or so from fellow members of their Corvette Club in Sacramento, Calif. The Noerrs first visited the site a year ago, and changed their plans on a cross-country trip to return for the dedication.
They walk the sidewalk with Phillip and Feliza Long, members of a local Corvette club that helped raise thousands of dollars. Bettie Noerr won't read the notes and struggles not to cry.
Wednesday, she says, will be even tougher.
"There won't be a dry eye here," she says. "If there is, they won't belong."