The Oklahoma City bombing, 25 years later: The picture and the pain

Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images(OKLAHOMA CITY) — The blast came only hours after the Almon family gathered to celebrate the first birthday of little Baylee. It’s a cliché to say the baby was her mother’s light, but she was.

Normally, it was just the two of them, but that was a night to celebrate and the extended-family gathering at their apartment in Oklahoma City was to be the first of many the cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles would mark together. That was the plan.

The next morning, April 19, 1995, Baylee’s mom, Aren, dropped her off at day care — on the second floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Then, at 9:02 a.m., a shock wave was unleashed by the truck bomb on the street below. It thundered through the American heartland, changing everything for the Almon family, changing everything for the families of all 168 people killed, for the families of the more than 500 injured, for Oklahoma City — and for much of a nation that might have believed peace was at hand once the Cold War ended just a few years earlier.

“This year, for the 25th anniversary, my family will get all the kids together and we’ll go to the memorial at 9:02,” Baylee’s mother, Aren Almon, told ABC News this week.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Almon said “we won’t be able to go in, but we’ll stand outside the fence and still represent Baylee in our own way. It’s still important for us to be able to be there and have the kids there and have them all be able to put something that is important to them on the fence for Baylee this year. That’s the way we’re going to celebrate the 25th anniversary.”

Baylee Almon’s life was snuffed out in an instant that morning, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blown up in a fog of antigovernment and racist hatred. All told, 19 children were killed along with scores of others whose lives were ended or destroyed by a bomb built and set off by extremist Timothy McVeigh.

The Oklahoma City bombing stands as the worst act of domestic terror in American history.

“Evil may have had its moment,” Kari Watkins, who has run the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum since it was conceived, said in a video message this week. “But together, we get to define every moment that comes after.”

The memorial and museum were built to honor the lives lost, and community leaders had grand ambitions for commemorating the 25th anniversary Sunday. Everything, though, was put on hold and moved to the internet because of social-distancing rules.

“We had looked towards this commemoration for a couple of years, really,” Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said in an interview. “I viewed 25 as sort of the anniversary where personal experience sort of transitions to history. You know, after 25, it’s really less of an experience and more of something we read about and we study. And so, I really felt like this was the last anniversary where the eyes of the nation would, I believe, turn to Oklahoma City.”

For Almon, the anniversary also means returning to a photograph that shocked and devastated a nation when it appeared in newspapers across the country. A little girl, covered in dirt, bloody and near death, cradled in the arms of Oklahoma City Fire Capt. Chris Fields. The photograph came to symbolize the bombing.

“I recognized her right away,” Almon said, recalling the moment she first saw the image that would be burned into America’s psyche. “Those were the clothes that I put on her that morning. … When I saw the paper, I was like, ‘That’s Baylee.'”

Almon said she “had no idea the impact that it was going to have, no idea. I don’t know if it’s because I was so young and just maybe naive. Or if it was just the fact that — I mean, I had so much other things on my mind. I mean, I was going to have to — at the age of 22 — bury a child.”

In the minutes right after the bomb tore apart the Murrah building, first responders from all over the state rushed to the scene. They had no idea what caused the explosion; they knew only there were people who needed to be rescued or saved, and still others who were gone but whose bodies had to be delivered to their families.

“I have babies in the federal building,” one woman screamed to rescuers.

“I’m going to need at least two more companies here,” was the message over the fire dispatch radio. “We need to go in and we got this day care here we need to get into.”

Rescuers raced toward the danger. Some were already on the clock and had their equipment; others rushed in from home, wearing only street clothes. They sped to get as close as they could until they just had to leave their vehicles and run the rest of the way over streets covered in glass and debris.

Fields, a trained hazmat expert and one of the department’s senior officers, had just gotten to the firehouse for the day shift when the bomb went off. He was one of the first on the scene.

“We were told by our incident commander to go to the south side of the building and we were going to be given our assignment,” Fields said in an interview. “And walking to the south side of the building with my crew, there was three other guys with me. A gentleman just, I mean, it was like he just appeared in front of me and said ‘I have a critical infant.'”

“You know, my mom always said, ‘There’s a reason it was you,'” said Fields, whose own son had just turned 2 when the bomb went off. “I just remember saying, ‘Here, I’ll take her.’ He handed me Baylee and he was gone back into the building.”

The fires were still raging. Heavy black smoke was pouring from the wreckage of the building and the cars that surrounded it. People, injured and bloody in a daze, were desperately searching for help. Fields took Baylee in toward his chest and ran her over to the waiting emergency medical technicians who had to put down a sheet so they could examine the baby.

In the distance, two photographers captured the moment, as Fields waited for the EMTs to get ready to take the child.

“I had to clean some concrete dust or insulation stuff out of her throat trying to open her airway. And I didn’t find any signs of life,” Fields said. “I’m just standing there looking at her and, in my mind, I’m thinking somebody’s world is getting ready to be turned upside down.”

That somebody was Baylee’s mom, Aren, who by that time was with her own sister, racing back-and-forth between hospitals trying to find the baby with the white socks. They had no way of knowing that a cop had already found the battered little girl and handed her off to the nearest firefighter, Fields.

“We get back in the car and drive back to Saint Anthony’s [Hospital], which we originally started at,” Almon said. “I walked into the hospital and I saw my pediatrician’s nurse, and I was like, ‘They said there sounds like a baby that’s here that'” could be Baylee.

The nurse said, “‘Well, hold on,'” Almon said. “So she called the pediatrician. And she goes, ‘Oh my God. No.’”

The baby is believed to have died almost instantly at the Murrah building.

The next morning, Fields would learn that the critically injured 1-year-old he carried to an EMT was named Baylee Almon — and that together, Chris and Baylee, would become the faces of the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing.

For 25 years, Fields and Almon have shared the bond they wished they didn’t have and befriended each other as both confronted demons born out of the blast at the corner of North Harvey Avenue and Northwest 4th Street.

“One day I was a parent,” Almon said. “And I woke up the next day and I wasn’t.”

Fields continued on in the fire department, working until retirement two years ago. It took nearly a decade after the bombing for the survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress to catch up with him, but when it did, he said, it was brutal.

“I could tell that I was kind of withdrawing from my family,” Fields said. “And things just spiraled out of control with my personal life, everything. You know, me and my wife ended up being separated for about 15 months, until I got to a point in my life I would consider rock bottom for me.”

Through it all, Fields and Almon said they were there for each other – almost like brother and sister. Fields got help, rebounded and put his life back together. He now helps other first responders learn how to live with the trauma wrought by their careers.

Almon has spent 25 years mourning a child whose last moments were shared with the world. It’s been far from easy, she said.

“Baylee was a real person. She wasn’t always that baby in the fireman’s arms,” Almon said. “She was a real person.”

Almon married, had a son and another daughter and now lives down the block from the site of the Murrah building. Some in the community of victims and family members from the bombing have ostracized her, she said, accusing Almon (without proof) of profiting off the bombing and angry that the attention that Baylee has gotten detracts from the other victims.

“That photo’s always been a blessing and a curse,” Almon said.

“I was able to [help] make safer federal buildings,” said Almon, who went on to lobby for increased security at government buildings. “If I’m able to use it to save lives and if Chris is able to use it to save lives, then that’s what we should do. We’ve dealt with that picture for so many years that if we’re able to help other people with it, then we should be able to.”

Baylee remains a constant presence in the life of Almon and her children. They talk about Baylee as if she were just sitting there at the kitchen table or in the living room. She’s the sister who just happens to be in heaven.

“I believe that Baylee’s in heaven and I believe that she can hear us,” Almon said. “I believe that I’ll see her again.”

And so, every year on April 19, Almon and her family go to the memorial to commemorate a life that was lived for just 365 days. Every year, except this year, as a nation once again confronts fear, danger and uncertainty.

“It’s been difficult,” Almon said. “It’s been a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. But we’ll still go down to the memorial and … we’ll be able to decorate the fence and hang her happy birthday posters and everything. We’re making the best of a bad situation.”

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