OKLAHOMA CITY – On an overcast Wednesday morning earlier this month, Mark Bays climbed into a white Suburban to begin the solemn annual ritual he’s practiced now for close to two decades.
Tall, lithe and mostly silver-haired, he settled into the driver’s seat. From a tan and black reusable cloth grocery bag, he pulled out two plastic freezer bags filled with small brown seeds. He placed the bags on the center console.
“These are the packages,” Bays told a reporter from The Oklahoman. “ … Each one of those little seeds could be a potential tree.”
From his office near the state capitol, Bays, who has worked for 25 years as urban forestry coordinator for Oklahoma Forestry Services, headed south on Interstate 235, then west on Interstate 40 toward Clinton. He passed fields with cattle grazing and bright yellow canola in bloom and billboards advertising the Stafford Air and Space Museum and Cherokee buffalo burgers.
During the 90-mile trek, cars and trucks sped by oblivious to the significance of his cargo. But two words scrawled in black marker on each bag denoted the magnitude: Survivor Tree.
In the wake of a national tragedy, it became a beloved symbol of the power to overcome — a lone battered American elm that survived a 4,000 pound bomb blast that took down a nine-story building and stole the lives of 168 people.
Scorched by fire and shredded by blast debris, at one point, investigators nearly cut down the tree to recover valuable pieces of evidence that lodged in its branches.
Instead, it became a community rallying point, a living memorial to those who perished as a result of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on this day 22 years ago.
Today, it is a prominent part of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, but its powerful message of resilience, partly with Bays’ help, has spread so much further.
Every year, seeds from the tree are collected to grow seedlings that are eventually distributed to people in communities throughout the United States.
Officials first started collecting seeds from the Oklahoma City Survivor Tree in 1996 because they weren’t sure if the tree would survive. The seedlings, first distributed in 1997, initially were given to family members of bombing victims, survivors and first responders.
Now, they’ve found homes from coast to coast. People line up at the annual remembrance ceremony every year to take home a seedling, and the memorial receives requests from across the country.
Just since 2012, the memorial and museum provided seedlings to people from 76 Oklahoma cities and towns and 33 states across the country, according to a spokeswoman. Weather problems prevented seeds from being distributed in 2014.
The cycle starts anew every spring, when seeds fall from the Survivor Tree and collect in the promontory area surrounding the tree. Staff at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum gather the seeds and turn them over to Bays, who makes the trek to Clinton. There, he delivers the seeds to Steve and Sherry Bieberich, owners of Sunshine Nursery, who plant them and care for them throughout the year.
The drive to Clinton is usually a time of reflection for Bays, who paused to collect himself when talking about what the journey means to him. He remembers what he was doing 22 years ago when a truck bomb went off outside the federal building. He thinks about the time people have spent caring for the Survivor Tree. It reminds him how caring for the tree has impacted his life.
For Bays, he’s just one of many who care for the cherished tree and help spread its legacy across the country, touching lives and transmitting a message of hope and resilience. People sometimes ask him how he sleeps at night knowing how much the Survivor Tree means to so many people. Bays sleeps just fine. He knows it’s not just him looking after the tree, but an entire community of people who care.
On this year’s trip, he was joined by Riley Coy, another state forestry services employee. Off of a paved road and up a gravel drive lined with potted trees they arrived at Sunshine Nursery, marked by a large green sign with thick yellow lettering. Bays smiled and waved to Sherry Bieberich and waited for Steve Bieberich to come in from working.
All share a pivotal role in preserving an important legacy.
“There’s a lot of pieces that go together to make it happen year after year,” Bays said. “ … We’re just basically tree people doing what we do.”
‘A small thing’
About an hour later, in a plastic-covered greenhouse, Steve Bieberich, 66, grabbed a handful of seeds and sprinkled them over a tray of soil, demonstrating the process he goes through when planting the Survivor Tree seeds.
“You don’t want to get them too close,” he explained. “Some of these will germinate and some won’t. We just want to make sure we get enough to transplant the end numbers out.”
Officials typically distribute between 200 and 500 seedlings each year, Bays said.
When the Survivor Tree seeds start to germinate, Bieberich, sometimes joined by members of his family, transplants them one-by-one into small square pots or sawed off milk cartons. Bieberich uses a butter knife to poke a hole in the soil, a combination of pine bark, peat moss, perlite and sand mixed at Sunshine Nursery. He then carefully guides the tree roots into the tiny opening.
Steve and Sherry Bieberich don’t know what exactly happens to the seedlings once they leave their care. They never asked to know the details. They are happy just doing their part.
“It’s a small thing for us to do, and we’ve enjoyed doing it,” Steve Bieberich said.
Spreading seedlings of hope
While the Oklahoma City Survivor Tree is based in downtown, its seedlings have taken root across the country.
The community of Nashville, Georgia requested a sapling to plant in a downtown park that was created in honor of Hannah Clayton, a 16-year-old girl who died of cancer in 2000.
Last year, in Fremont, Ohio, elementary students gathered on the grounds of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums for a tree planting ceremony. They sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and sprinkled white rose petals in remembrance of those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.
When Richard Williams and his wife sold their southeast Oklahoma City home in 2005 and moved to Texas to be closer to their grandchildren, they wrote in the contract that the new homeowners had to take the best care possible of two Survivor Tree offspring growing on the property. The trees are now about 30 to 40 feet tall.
Williams, 71, is a survivor who worked on the first floor of the Murrah building and was rescued from the rubble by a police officer. He has been involved with planting Survivor Tree seedlings in other communities as well.
Representatives from Oklahoma City have sent, and in some cases hand-delivered, Survivor Tree saplings to other communities affected by tragedies, including New York City after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001; Joplin, Mo., after a deadly tornado in 2011; and Killeen, Texas, after the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood.
LaDonna Leverett talks to her Survivor Tree saplings.
Leverett, 55, named the trees for her parents, Calvin and Peola Battle, who were killed in the bombing. But she didn’t expect the saplings to take on her parents’ likeness.
After work on a recent Monday night, she led the way through her northwest Oklahoma City home and onto her back porch, where two Survivor Tree saplings grow near one another in pots.
“I’ll kind of let you figure out which one is which,” she said.
Her dad’s sapling has sprouted up tall and thin, just like her father, who was about 6-foot, two-inches. Her mom’s sapling is shorter and fuller.
“I know they’re gone, but I don’t feel like they’re forgotten when I go out there and look at my trees and they’re just budding and just flourishing,” Leverett said. “It just reminds me how life continues to go on and it doesn’t stop just because something happens. Life continues, and it’s just what you make of it.”
On days when she needs to vent about life or how she misses her parents, Leverett goes outside and talks to the saplings. She reflects about how much time has passed, yet how it doesn’t feel like 22 years have gone by. She tells them that she is in a good place.
If she’s feeling down, she might look at the trees and ask for advice. Sometimes the wind will blow and the leaves will flutter.
Some nights, she likes to sit on the porch after work and just take in the day. Some days, she sits outside and doesn’t say anything.
“They’re never, never gone,” Leverett said. “They’re always there. They’re always with me. Their spirit will live on forever. They live in my trees. They live in any place I feel them, see them. I know their spirit is always there.”
On a Sunday earlier this month when Leverett was home alone, she went outside to sing. She recently joined a choir at her church, and the group is practicing for an upcoming performance.
Her mom always loved to hear her sing.
As she sang the words to “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten – This is my fight song, take back my life song, prove I’m alright song … I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me – Leverett could imagine her mom’s approval.
“I could just see her sitting back, just smiling, saying, ‘There’s my baby, there she is, just sounding just as pretty as she ever,’” Leverett said. “And then my dad would say, ‘That’s my girl.’”
A connection between cities
Every year, Neil Arter watches for the trees to bloom.
In late February, a Callery pear tree outside Arter’s office at Oklahoma Christian University started to bud. Arter, the university’s dean of students and vice president of student life, snapped a photo and sent a message to Ronaldo Vega, as he does every year.
“Well, February 23, 2017 might be our earliest bloom yet. Hello from sunny Oklahoma,” he wrote in a text message.
Vega responded: “It does my heart so good to see her thriving. Thanks for keeping me in the loop.”
The tree, planted near the center of Oklahoma Christian’s campus, between the Gaylord University Center and the Mabee Learning Center, is no ordinary tree to Vega. It’s his tree.
Five years ago, Vega dug the tree from his front yard in Queens, N.Y., and drove it to Oklahoma. He helped plant it on campus near an Oklahoma City Survivor Tree sapling.
The tree had been given to Vega as a gift after he spent 10 months doing recovery work at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A professional architect, he later served as construction project manager and then as director of design for the 9/11 Memorial. The tree is a cutting from a tree that survived the World Trade Center attack and has become known as New York’s survivor tree. Like Oklahoma, initially, officials were worried the tree wouldn’t survive, so they took cuttings to preserve its legacy.
In the years since, a group of New Yorkers has formed a bond with Oklahomans. They’ve become like family. Every year, the two groups swap trips in remembrance of the attacks on one another’s cities. This year, one of the first things the New Yorkers did after arriving in Oklahoma was visit the trees.
“There is a sad reality that only the people who have survived such horror can relate to,” Vega said. “ … Life changed all of us and yet here we are, as close as anyone can be to another. We care so much about each other. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Dot Hill has made the trip in the opposite direction, from Oklahoma to New York.
Hill, 60, of Yukon, is president of 419 Outreach, a local organization dedicated to helping mitigate the effects of terrorism. She’s also a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing, having worked on the first floor of the Murrah building. Hill and other survivors from Oklahoma City have given seedlings to others whose lives have been affected by tragedies. They carried one on the subway from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island, where it now has a view that most residents would envy. Another tree was planted near the Brooklyn Bridge.
“I think it’s one of our best ways of reminding the world,” Hill said of the saplings.
When Bays and Coy dropped off this year’s crop of Survivor Tree seeds at Sunshine Nursery, they had something to take back. Bieberich led them into a greenhouse where a row of black trays filled with close to 250 bright green Survivor Tree seedlings were waiting.
The men then carried the trays out one by one, carefully loading them for the drive back to Oklahoma City.
As Bays closed the back doors and stepped away from the Suburban, he paused for a moment to note the “precious cargo.”
On Wednesday, Bays will rise early like he does every morning. He’ll start the day by walking in his backyard with his black lab, Jade, and donning his Khaki uniform shirt and green pants before heading to work. He’ll load the seedlings, which are being kept “in a secure location in Oklahoma City” back into the Suburban, this time for a much shorter drive downtown for the annual remembrance ceremony.
Bays always looks for survivors and victims’ families who he has developed relationships with over the years. People bring back photographs of their Survivor Tree saplings and proudly show Bays how big their trees have grown.
It gives Bays a sense of pride, too.
After the ceremony, he’ll help memorial staff and volunteers hand out the seedlings in front of the museum, and the Survivor Tree’s offspring will find a place in the hearts of even more.
“We’ve got another generation to share with everybody,” Bays said.
Story provided by: Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman.