Why The Children?

THE LITTLE GIRL IN THE PHOtograph was named Baylee Almon, a pretty 1-year-old dressed for the April day in yellow overalls. A recent family picture shows her with -fine brown hair wrapped in a gaily decorated headband, her broad smile pinching dimples in her soft cheeks. In the more famous photograph, the one that has come to symbolize the horror and pain of Oklahoma City, she lies helpless in the arms of firefighter Chris Fields, her fragile limbs covered in insulation and dust and blood. As he accepted the child from city police Sgt. John Axera, Fields, 30, suspected the worst: Baylee Almon, the tiny emblem of a city's sorrow, had already come to the end of her short life.

On that Wednesday morning her mother, Aren Almon, had dropped off Baylee at the America's Kids day-care center on the second floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. For Aren, 22, a single mother living downtown near the center, it was just her second day of work as a clerk at an insurance company. It was the day after Baylee's first birthday, and she was especiahy happy, according to her mother. Americas Kids, one of 98 child-care facilities operated in federal buildings nationwide, was a cheerful place: brightly lit, with lots of windows and creamy white walls decorated with the brilliantly colored artwork of young children. Like most federal child-care facilities, it was considered safe and well regulated. That morning Baylee was one of 24 children at the center, all between the ages of 4 months and 5 years; six more were enrolled but not present. At 9:04 a.m., when the bomb exploded in the parking area immediately below, the children would have been just sitting down to breakfast.

If there can be a darkest part of the Oklahoma City tragedy, it lies in the wreckage of the Americas Kids daycare center. The random and senseless destruction of a government building shows a nation how vulnerable it is; the random destruction of innocent children shows how deep the pain can go. "I think it is the children that has everybody the most upset," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. "Everybody I talk to mentions the kids." As a tearful Aren Almon held Sergeant Avera in an embrace grief on Thursday, Baylee numbered among the 13 children definitely killed in the blast. "If they do catch these criminals," Aren said, "maybe they'll see this and see how much they've hurt me and hurt my family and hurt other people. They destroyed our lives and our homes."

Throughout the next two days, rescue teams searched the rubble. The bomb was immediately below the center; the wreckage from the higher floors came crashing down onto the center from above; all that was left inside was ruin and carnage. One team used a dog especially trained to search for the scent of infants. The hound found one body, but it was too late. Rescuers tried to wrap the bodies of the dead children in blankets, but the winds coursed through the blast area, blowing the blankets off. Governor Keating said that one firefighter heading back into the building Wednesday night had turned to him and said, "You find out whoever did this. All I've found in here are a baby's finger and an American flag."

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Inside the center, some of the bodies were torn apart so violently by the blast that they could not be identified except, in time, by fingerprints and footprints. In one of the more grisly tasks of the week, agents of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation went into the homes of families with missing children to lift prints from the kids' toys. Bobby Johnson, 42, a charge nurse at South Park Health Care Center, was part of a four-member rescue team that entered what was left of Americas Kids in the hours shortly after the explosion. "It was just as bad as anything I'd ever witnessed in Vietnam," he told NEWSWEEK. "The fact it happened here made it seem even worse, the fact that you could see body parts everywhere. All you could see was body parts. Even outside, there were spots of blood. One guy found a child's finger on the sidewalk. I saw part of a little dollhouse, parts of a tricycle, some Fisher-Price toys. They were all just mingled in with the debris. The only way you could tell they were toys was that the bright colors made them stand out. Every now and then we'd spot a pool of blood." In the carnage, Johnson was consumed by thoughts of his 3-week-old son, Austin. "All I could think of was him, and how could somebody do something like that?"

Six children from America's Kids were hospitalized; according to Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City, three were in critical condition. At least six more could not be accounted for. "Those kids were at ground zero for that blast," said Lydia Winfrey a licensed practical nurse who worked triage with the first medical personnel on the scene, and saw few survivors. "They looked like they could have been sitting at a table, and their upper bodies caught the brunt of the blast. One child had no face, just torn skin. With most of them, you couldn't tell whether it was a boy or a girl. They were wearing clothes with little ducks on them, little shoes." Across the street, at another daycare center located inside a YMCA, the force of the explosion shattered the windows, spraying the children with glass; at least five were reported seriously injured. Oklahoma state Rep. Kevin Cox was near the YMCA when the bomb exploded. "Babies were crying and screaming, with blood and Plaster and insulation on their bodies," he told the Los Angeles Times. For firefighter Randy Woods, who belonged to one of the crews that searched for survivors among the ruins, the death of the children summed up the brutality of the act. "A whole floor of innocents," Woods told The New York Times. "Grown-ups, you know, they deserve a lot of the stuff they get. But why the children? What did the children ever do to anybody?"

Around the city, parents waited anxiously to hear the fates of their children; many spent the nights after the blast at the Red Cross's makeshift center at St. Luke's Methodist Church, praying fearfully for their loved ones' names to appear on the list of victims who had been identified in hospitals. A televised report that doctors were seeking the parents of a girl with red hair who needed surgery briefly raised hopes in some parents; others held on in dogged determination, even as their odds dwindled. At Children's Hospital, families wore strips of masking tape inscribed with the last names of their children, hoping to hear that they were among those being treated. Doctors and nurses divided their energies between the few injured survivors and the increasingly desperate families. On Thursday morning, when a bomb scare cleared Children's Hospital, Ginger Miller, a nurse, stayed behind with the most critically ill children while bomb experts searched the building. "It was hard to pull the families away from those children," she said. One woman, Doloris Watson, refused to leave her grandson 20 month-old P.J. Allen, despite the threat. "I can't say I blame her,"said Miller.

With each hour, though, the hopes of others grew harder to sustain. One father, who had two children in Americas Kids, told reporters he found some thin consolation in his despair: "It's comforting to me to know they were together in life, and together in death." Wanda McNeely, whose 6-month-old grandson was missing, was among those who began the painful process of resigning themselves to their loss. After searching frantically at three city hospitals, she told the Los Angeles Times that she was going to the morgue at St. Anthony Hospital. "We're going to go and see if we can identify a body," she told the reporter. "We've checked all the lists, now we're going to the other side." By the weekend, more than 72 hours after the last survivor had been pulled from the Murrah building, few wanted to talk about the growing likelihood that they would never see their children again; this was the unspoken, and unspeakable, weight bearing down on the town.

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Michael and Michele Vallean were among the lucky ones. On Wednesday morning, as usual, they dropped their two children -Desmond, 2, and his little brother, Brandon, just 11 weeks -at the child-care center at the downtown YMCA. Michele is vice president of C.R. Anthony retail stores, working just a few blocks from the Y; she and Michael, a sheriff's deputy, had brought the kids in early that morning so she could catch up on some work. At 9 a.m., she said, "I was standing there talking to a coworker and the next thing we knew, boom! We dropped to the floor in self-defense." She crawled into the hallway, then ran to the street. "It looked like an atomic bomb," she said. "There was so much smoke, in a circular shape."

She got to the YMCA just as the police were arriving, and started looking for Brandon and Desmond. "One of the daycare workers had Brandon," she said. "Desmond was standing with a group of kids. The right side of his face, his shirt, his jeans were all bloody. I took off my jacket and tried to clean him up. We were just standing around holding each other. He was crying, 'Mommy, my eye hurts'." Desmond had a cut on his right eyelid that required six stitches. "A little deeper and he could have lost an eye," she said.

It was remarkable that the children weren't hurt more seriously. Inside the Y center, the ceiling had crashed down and glass shards were sprayed everywhere. Michele, too, was fortunate to have escaped injury. She'd been in her boss's office at the time of the blast; when Michael went into her office to retrieve her bag and briefcase, he found a large sheet of glass thrown across her chair. "After everybody got calm, she said, we put the kids in tie car, took them to the hospital and had them checked out. When we got home, I turned on the television to watch, and it hit me that I had gone through this. We are lucky to have ended up a full family. I really feel for the parents of those lost children."

Mike and Kathleen Treanor were among them. Mike, 33, a welder, was at work Wednesday morning. Kathleen, 31, had just started a new temp-agency placement at a cotton co-op. When she heard about the explosion at the federal building, she didn't worry for her own family; they'd left their daughter, Ashley with Mike's parents. "I knew I was safe, and I just knew everyone I loved was going to be OK," Kathleen said. Ashley, 4, is a doll-faced blonde. "She's just an angel," said her mother. "She loves everybody." Shortly after the blast, Kathleen's sister called with a frantic question: where's Ashley? It was then that Kathleen remembered that her in-laws had a morning appointment, at 9, at the Social Security office -on the first floor of the federal building. She realized to her horror that they would have taken Ashley with them. She called Mike at work. They went to the morgue at St. Anthony's Hospital. No Ashley. "There's no word," she said, sobbing. "Nothing. She's just up there in that terrible building." Thursday evening, Kathleen took Ashley's favorite stuffed bear to a community wide prayer service at the First Christian Church, where she prayed for both her daughter and her in-laws. "I'm going to give her the bear when I see her again." But Saturday afternoon, Kathleen's unspoken fears were confirmed. Ashley's name appeared on the list of the known dead. "We live in Oklahoma, for God's sake," wailed Kathleen. "What could happen to my precious baby?"

PHOTO: The Vigil: When a bomb scare cleared Children's Hospital, Doloris Watson refused to leave her burned grandson P.J. Allen despite the threat to herself

PHOTO: An agonizing wait: Days after the blast, dozens of families still had not heard the fate of their children. Some carried photographs, hoping to help rescue teams identify victims.

Why The Children? | News