FEAT: The Survivor Tree

The phrase “survivor tree” is an honorary term given to a handful of Gaye Sanderstrees around the world that lived through catastrophic events and are now symbols of hope. Oklahoma City is home to one such survivor tree.

The American Elm at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombing, continues to thrive after more than 90 years. Despite its symbolism on the memorial’s logo, the tree’s secret life before and after April 19, 1995, is relatively unknown. That is about to change.

Local fourth-grade teacher Gaye Sanders was looking for a relevant way to teach the required Oklahoma History lesson about the bombing to her students.  She learned that no resources about the tree existed.

“That planted a seed in my mind that someone needed to write a picture book for kids,” Sanders says. “I lived here during the bombing. I know a survivor. I feel such a connection to that event, so I knew that person should be me.”

While researching the tree at the Oklahoma History Center and Memorial archive, she discovered photographs of the elm in the large yard of a farm-style home before the Murrah building was built.

“It survived tornadoes, drought, ice storms and fires in the area, long before the bombing,” Sanders said. “Once downtown developed, a parking lot was built right up to the base of the tree.  It was the only shade around, so employees arrived early and paid to park under the tree.  People ate lunch under its shade.  Children from the daycare played hide-and-seek under that tree.”

On April 19th, 1995, the elm was badly burned by the explosion. Only a few charred branches stuck out from the trunk. It might have been chopped down immediately if investigators hadn’t needed to gather evidence from the tree. After that, the tree was forgotten. Until…next spring rolled around and it began budding.

“It had survived!” Sanders said. “Staff knew this was special. Workers began to care for the tree and gather its seedlings, which are now spread worldwide. Every time there’s an ice storm, Memorial staff stand at the base of the tree with bamboo poles, tapping on the branches to keep ice from forming.”

Sander’s book, The Survivor Tree, is slated for publication later this year by Road Runner Press, an award-winning Oklahoma publisher who immediately saw the importance of the book to Oklahoma schools and libraries. It is currently being illustrated by Oklahoma-native artist Peter Hay. 

“I recently read the story to my students during our field trip to the Memorial,” Sanders said. “I always cry when I read it, even though there is minimal detail about the bombing, but the kids’ reaction validated this book for me because they felt such a connection to the tree. This living thing is now a piece of their heart.” 

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