Oklahoma City centre becomes a place to cry

One year on: Mourners still pin children's toys to the fence around the site where 168 people died in a terrorist bomb blast
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All that remains of the nine-storey Alfred P Murrah federal building, where 168 people died and another 600 were injured, is a flattened rectangle of uneven ground surrounded by a low wall and a seven-foot wire fence. The building was levelled a month after the blast, one year ago today. Fresh turf was laid for the anniversary ceremonies.

Survivors, family members, the Vice-President, Al Gore, and more than 1,000 journalists were gathered for a memorial service beginning with 168 seconds of silence at 9.02am.

Judy Kidwell, 50, who a year ago ran from the first floor with her ankle broken in two places, chose this week to return for the first time to the site of a building that housed everything from the Secret Service to social security offices and a bank.

After the bomb struck, people on the fourth floor were found by their desks on the first, as the floors collapsed.

"A year ago this was a beautiful building full of wonderful people," said Ms Kidwell, a court-house worker who lost several close friends. "Things were bustling, busy, people coming and going all the time," she said. "Now this is a place people come to cry."

A city called the buckle of the Bible Belt, proud of a hard-working prairie solidarity, has been surprisingly slow to renovate the city centre site, which still looks like a scene from the Blitz. Of more than 100 buildings damaged several of the nearest, including somechurches, are still empty shells with boarded doors, with facades and roofs torn off.

"Our God Reigns and We Will Remain," says a defiant notice at the First Methodist, but the tarpaulin is peeling off a blackened tower, and the frame from half a shattered rose window lies on the ground. The "survivor tree", a tattered oak across the street from the blast, has only a few sickly green sprouts. Only slowly, Oklahoma City is recovering from a tragedy that brought terrorism to the American heartland and produced the same kind of shared national grief that followed the shootings in Dunblane, Scotland.

Brandon Denny, 4, one of the six children who survived in the basement nursery where 15 others were killed, has recently learnt to walk by himself. Aren Almen, mother of Baylee Almen, killed one day after her first birthday, has been befriended by the fireman, Chris Fields, who cradled her body as he carried it from the wreckage, the moment captured in a photograph which became the defining image of the disaster. While the city waits designs for a monument, the wire fence itself has become the unofficial memorial.

There was an Easter bunny and a birthday card pinned there for Baylee this week. People have left earrings, hair pins, baby booties, endless stuffed toys and even nappies with messages attached.

"They felt like they needed to leave something," said Bill Welge, an archivist at the Oklahoma Historical Society, whose staff have week by week stored the offerings in a warehouse on the edge of town that now contains 200,000 items. Oklahomans described the anniversary as an important stage in the grieving process.

But there will be no closure, they say, until the trial of the alleged bombers Timothy McVeigh and James Nichols, now threatening to drag on well into next year. Many believe the two men are guilty but after the OJ Simpson trial say cautiously they will wait for the verdict.

Randy Ledger, a maintenance worker whose jugular was cut and face badly scarred as he was thrown through the building by the blast, pointed to the spot where he was found. "Hate inspired this," he said. "I pray for whoever did this, because they had hate in their heart."

Margaret Woodworth, from Cambridgeshire, married to a US serviceman and now an Oklahoma City resident, came with her English grandchildren to leave two teddy bears. "For all the little children from a little English rose," the attached message read. "We are just drawn down here," said Mrs Woodworth. "It is something that compels you."