Of all the agonies wrought by the explosion, none was more searing than the deaths of 15 children at the America's Kids daycare center. And in the aftermath of the tragedy, nothing has been more inspiring than the six brave children who survived the bombing. For them and their families, the past year has been a time for healing. Gradually their physical wounds have mended, their psychic scars have faded. And in a sense, the six survivors are now truly America's kids, adopted by a nation inspired by their emergence from the rubble of an April morning.
"I can't describe what it was like to stand there," Dan Webber, an assistant U.S. Attorney, says of that hellish day. When the bomb struck the Murrah building, he was working as a law clerk in the federal courthouse across the street. So powerful was the blast that a ceiling fell down on him. Blood running down his face, Webber, now 30, raced to the bomb site. He had just left his 19-month-old son, Joseph, at America's Kids, on the federal building's second floor, which was now reduced to a gaping hole. Frantically looking for his son, he met up with his wife, Dawn, 28, who worked at the nearby Chamber of Commerce and had also rushed to the chaotic scene. Shortly thereafter, police Det. Don Hull ran past, clutching a motionless boy to his chest, exhorting, "Breathe, baby, breathe!" It was Joseph.
"We chased him, calling out, 'That's our baby!' " Dawn remembers. "I can't give him to you," the detective yelled back, fearing the child was dying and that the parents might see the bone breaking through Joseph's severely injured left arm. "He was afraid it would fall off," says Dawn.
Joseph was one of the lucky ones. He is expected to make a complete recovery—miraculously, considering that for days after the bombing he could not see, hear or speak. Surgery repaired his arm, leaving a wide scar. Fluid that had accumulated on his brain a year ago was reabsorbed by Joseph's body within six months, and two ruptured eardrums have repaired themselves.
Like all the survivors, Joseph and his family have been deluged with public affection—cards, letters, toys and more precious gifts. "I remember a little girl called the hospital the second day Joseph was in ICU," says Dawn. "She wanted to give her little puppy to him." The Webbers declined, but have something else in the works for their son: a baby brother, due in July.
Of all the survivors, surely none has basked more exuberantly in the public eye than P.J. Allen. Just 20 months old a year ago, when he was rescued at the site he had a broken arm, scorched lungs, ruptured eardrums and burns covering more than 50 percent of his body. The last of the America's Kids victims to leave Children's Hospital of Oklahoma, the irrepressible P.J. has made stunning progress. In fact the hospital staff had little choice but to discharge him in July, well ahead of schedule. Tearing around the halls on his tricycle, "he turned the ICU into a little Indianapolis 500," said one doctor.
Since his release, P.J. often appears to be running for office. It takes no cajoling for him to dole out hugs to the many strangers who approach him these days. "He's the son of the United States," says his grandmother Deloris Watson. "The child belongs to everybody."
That he does bespeaks a kind of sociological miracle. Willie Watson, Deloris's husband, is only 44, like his wife, but he is old enough to recall when Oklahoma City was still in the thrall of Jim Crow. One balmy day when he was 12, Watson recalls, he and a friend ventured into a local soda fountain and were told bluntly, "We don't serve Negroes." Says Watson: "It kinda hurt us. Now it's different, I tell you."
Certainly it is different for P.J., whom public support has given a safe place to play. Though his burns have healed, he must, for the next 18 months, avoid long exposure to direct sunlight, which could permanently scar his tender new skin. So local volunteers built him a solarium, with special window's that shelter him from ultraviolet rays. On a more ominous note, doctors recently discovered damage to a vocal cord, which could prevent him from speaking. "One expert says he won't talk, another says he will," says his grandmother, undaunted. "I'm betting on P.J."
Speech was never a problem for 5-year-old Nekia McCloud—until the bombing. "She was very active and talkative before this happened," says her mother, Lavern, 33. But the blast left Nekia with a depressed skull fracture in the frontal lobe, along with two ruptured eardrums, impaired eyesight and severe burns on both legs. To make matters worse, the little girl suffered a mild stroke en route to the hospital, where she spent five weeks. "It was a month before she could say 'Mama,' " says McCloud, a single mother of three. "She is having to learn speech all over again from the baby stage, and she only started walking after she left the hospital."
Her physician, Harriet Coussons, says Nekia is doing "remarkably well" and notes that her vision has improved and she is now fully ambulatory. Adds McCloud: "She rides her bicycle now."
The recovery of 4-year-old Brandon Denny has been just as astonishing—except, perhaps, to his father, Jim, and mother, Claudia. "We'll be running together soon," says toolmaker Jim Denny, 51, joyfully. Brandon and his sister Rebecca, 3, were together at America's Kids on the morning of April 19, 1995. Rebecca suffered severe lacerations in the explosion, and a sharp piece of blue plastic pierced her jaw, but she recovered quickly. Brandon's road was much rockier. Dust, concrete and wood fragments lodged in his brain, leaving him unable to walk or speak. But after eight operations and arduous rehabilitation, he now stands and walks on his own, aided only by a leg brace. Moreover, he speaks in full sentences and even teases his sister. Perhaps he'll soon be able to counsel his father, who is grappling with problems of his own. Having spent every minute with the children and Claudia, 37, Jim Denny returned to work in November—but was racked with anxiety by the separation. "It was killing me," he says. "Claudia told me everything that happened, but I was missing being there to see it happen." Two weeks ago, Jim decided to leave his job and plans a career as a public speaker—on such topics as terrorism and how families survive catastrophes—that will hopefully allow him to spend more time with Rebecca and Brandon.
Surely, Thu and Phuong Nguyen, whose son, Christopher, 6, sustained serious head injuries in the blast, are able to sympathize. As they can attest, one consequence of the bombing is that they now cling more tightly than ever to Christopher and his two older brothers. Recently, Thu took the boy to a birthday party. "I walked him to the house and went back to the car," he says. "Then I just sat there. I couldn't bring myself to leave." And so, instead, he joined the party, playing soccer and T-ball with the kids. Explains Thu, 41, a mechanical designer: "I just had to make sure he was all right."
For the most part, the families of the surviving six plan to avoid the April 19 tributes. The Dennys, who have a number of TV appearances lined up, will be in New York City. The Webbers, too, will be out of town, but for different reasons. "It's not that we don't share in the grief," says Dan. "We just believe the ceremonies should focus on the families who lost a loved one."
BOB STEWART in Oklahoma City