Tiny Symbol of Life and Death

updated 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ON TUESDAY, APRIL 18, WHEN BAYLEE Almon turned 1 year old, her mother, Aren, 22, and a large, loving family of aunts, uncles and cousins came together at Aren's apartment to celebrate the little girl's birthday. Less than 24 hours later, the dramatic image of her lifeless body being cradled by compassionate rescue workers was beamed to newspapers around the world and would soon become, in the words of Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, "a metaphor for what's happened here."

It was Oklahoma City police Sgt. John Avera, 47, who, less than half an hour after the explosion, helped dig Baylee from the ruins of what had been the America's Kids daycare center in the Murrah Federal Building. "It was dark," he says. "We couldn't see the babies, but we could hear them cry." Beneath a chunk of concrete, Avera and a fellow officer found two babies. Grabbing one, Avera "ran out of the building with her as fast as I could," he says. He didn't stop until he saw firefighter Capt. Chris Fields, 30. "I've got a critical," he told Fields, asking for help. "I can't find any signs of life."

As Avera passed the child to Fields, who, sadly, could find no pulse, Charles H. Porter IV, 25, a local banker and amateur photographer who had run to the site from his nearby office, shot the scene from across the street with a zoom lens. Within four hours his pictures, which were developed that morning at a Wal-Mart photo shop, were being distributed worldwide by the Associated Press.

On Thursday, one day after the blast, local reporters told Avera and Fields that Aren Almon, a single mother, wanted to meet them that evening. "It worried me," says Avera, "that maybe the photo was how she found out her baby was dead." Fields was also concerned about the meeting, which was to take place at the home of one of Almon's relatives. He feared her reaction would be, "Why didn't you guys save my baby?"

Instead, says Avera, "she saw me coming, ran across the yard and hugged my neck. 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' that's all she could say. 'My waiting is over—not like all the other people who have to wait to find their relatives.' "

Parents themselves—Avera and his wife, Benita, have three children, ranging in age from 11 to 26; Fields and his wife, Cheryl, have a 2-year-old son—both men attended Baylee's funeral. Afterward, says Fields, "her aunt gave me a picture of Baylee at her birthday party. That picture," he says, "will go right up on my locker at the fire station—and stay there until I retire."

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