Luzaida Cuevas was nervous as she prepared to meet her young daughter for only the second time in six years. When Cuevas arrived at the government office in southern New Jersey, where the March 4 reunion was to take place, 6-year-old Aaliyah was hiding under a table. But the little girl quickly sprang out—her arms opened wide for a hug—and yelled "Surprise!" "She kissed me and said, 'You're my mommy,' " recalls Cuevas, 31. "I held her like a baby. Could you imagine? It was incredible." All the more so because little Aaliyah—or Delimar as she was once known—was long assumed dead.

The tale of how mother and daughter were separated and finally reunited is the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay. It began on Dec. 14, 1997, when a woman named Carolyn Correa visited the Philadelphia home Cuevas shared with her then-boyfriend Pedro Vera. A distant cousin of Vera's, Correa, now 42, said she had come to see if he could fix the brakes on her car. Cuevas had never seen Correa before. But the next day she visited again, this time to see if Vera could help her find a job at the cable company where a friend of his worked. Vera and Correa went out, and Correa came back alone. Recalls Cuevas: "We talked for a while, and I went upstairs with the baby."

She placed Delimar, just 10 days old, in her crib and was on her way back downstairs when an explosion suddenly ripped through the top floor of the wood-and-brick row house. Cuevas ran back up the stairs to the baby's room but found only an empty crib and—despite the cold weather—an open window. "I looked in the crib, in the bed. Then I ran out, screaming that the baby wasn't there. The smoke was already thick, but the crib and bed weren't burned yet," she recalls. Meanwhile, alerted by relatives, Vera, Delimar's father, returned home to see the house in flames. "I went crazy," he says. "I wanted to see if anyone was inside, and they didn't let me. One of the firemen came out and hugged me and said he was sorry but that my daughter was dead."

Correa, meanwhile, had vanished. Hospitalized for facial burns and smoke inhalation, Cuevas, a Puerto Rico native who speaks little English, was incredulous. Fire officials could not produce the body, and a death certificate was never issued. Yet the baby had been incinerated in the fire, according to the medical examiner and the fire department, which also determined that the fire was probably caused by a faulty extension cord connected to a space heater. Cuevas's intuition told her otherwise. "I suspected Carol from the beginning," she says. "But I didn't know what she had done with the baby." Although Cuevas had seen plenty of cop shows on TV, she had no personal experience with the law and was convinced that no one would take her hunch seriously.

Yet her suspicions only intensified in the months and years to come. Although Correa and Cuevas barely knew one another, they were loosely connected by a large group of family and friends. And sure enough, just four months after the fire, Vera's sister Evelyn saw Correa and a baby in her neighborhood and told her brother she was struck by how much lighter the baby's skin was than Correa's.

Then, at a baby shower for his niece in 2001, Vera says he saw Correa and the girl. "As I was arriving, Carol was getting in her car with the baby in the backseat," says Vera, 39 (who split with Cuevas later that year). "I knocked on the window. She said, 'Hi,' and she gave me a kiss. When they left, the little girl turned around and smiled at me. It was chills. I had a feeling about her." A year later he saw the child again at a birthday party. Correa appeared nervous and moved the child away from him. He called Cuevas and said, "Luz, I was at this party, and the girl looks like me and you."

Ever hopeful that her daughter would be found, Cuevas, who had refused to hold a funeral service for the baby, had gone on about her life, raising her three sons, now 11, 10 and 4. Then in January 2003, she ran into Correa for the first time since the day of the fire, at a birthday party for another relative.

With her was a dark-haired, bright-eyed 5-year-old girl. "She smiled at me, and it was her," says Cuevas. "She had the same dimples she had when she was a baby." Still, she knew she needed proof. "I waited until she was on the floor, playing with another child, and I just said, 'Oh, look, that girl has some gum in her hair,' " she says. "I went over and took some of the hair and put it in a napkin. I wanted to talk to her, to tell her everything, but I was afraid Carol would see. I was just so happy to see her. You can't imagine how happy I was to know she was alive."

Although Cuevas knew the strands of hair could provide the DNA she needed, "I didn't know what I was supposed to do with it," she says. "I was trying to figure out where I should go, how much it would cost to have it tested."

Finally, on Jan. 24, she found someone who could help: Angel Cruz, a Pennsylvania state representative and the state's only Latino legislator, who listened, stunned but intrigued. "The way she reacted and how perfectly sure she was made me a believer," he says. He convinced Philadelphia assistant district attorney Angel Flores to listen to her too. Skeptical at first, Flores soon came around. "She kept saying, 'I know in my heart my baby is alive,' " he says. "She begged me to help, and I put down what I was doing and started making calls."

The Philadelphia police's Special Victims Unit took over the case and immediately raised questions about the absence of a body. Although the Philadelphia Fire Department has not commented, Dr. Michael Baden, the chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police, who was not involved in the case, says there's no question that the official report was wrong. "When house fires really get going, they only get up to 1,600° Fahrenheit," says Baden. "The body is a marvelous machine, and it doesn't disappear readily. Babies don't get consumed in fires." The Philadelphia SVU reached the same conclusion. "The mother," says Flores, "had a viable, accurate theory." Cuevas's theory led police directly to Correa.

Yet why Correa would steal a baby remains a mystery. A single mother with three children, she had told friends that she was pregnant around the time of the fire, something investigators have not confirmed. A pharmacy and grocery worker, she had raised few if any suspicions among her neighbors in Willingboro, N.J., where Aaliyah attended a Catholic school and had begun pursuing a modeling career, appearing in ads for Target and Hasbro.

"They were very close," says Kathy Donahue, whose Cherry Hill, N. J., modeling agency represented Aaliyah. "They were a great mommy and daughter."

When police approached her, Correa gave them a photo of a different child and a false birth certificate. They returned with a court order to test Aaliyah's DNA. Even then, as SVU investigators prepared to take a swab from the inside of Aaliyah's cheek, "the child revealed that Mommy had sprayed something in her mouth and told her not to swallow or tell anyone," says Leslie Gomez, another assistant district attorney who worked on the case. "We assume it was something to interfere with the DNA." Whatever it was, it didn't work. The test proved once and for all that the child was indeed the little girl that Cuevas had lost.

On March 3, Correa was arraigned on charges including kidnapping, arson and criminal conspiracy, for which she may face life in prison. Meanwhile, Philadelphia officials have launched a probe into the initial fire investigation.

As for little Aaliyah, two days after Correa's arraignment, social workers brought her to visit Cuevas at the home she'll share with her and her brothers. "She walked in and said, 'I'm the princess,' " says Cuevas. "Her brothers picked her up, and then, even the little one, they were all giving her kisses." Although Aaliyah was all grins as she examined her room, telling her mother that she wanted Barbie decor, psychologists warn that the transition could be tough (see box). Further complicating matters, Vera is suing Cuevas in Philadelphia family court for joint custody of the child, which Cuevas opposes because she says he didn't support her quest for the child. She has no illusions that the coming months are going to be easy, but for now both mother and daughter can't help smiling. "Obviously it is going to be work for her to adapt," Cuevas says. "But right now she's happy."

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Bob Calandra and Hope Hamashige in Philadelphia and Mary Green in Willingboro

  • Contributors:
  • Bob Calandra,
  • Hope Hamashige,
  • Mary Green.