OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Joseph Webb retains a long, thin scar on his face. PJ Allen remembers nothing of the fateful Oklahoma City day but still has breathing problems after the bombing 20 years ago that scalded his infant lungs.
Dubbed the ‘miracle babies’, Webb, Allen, Nekia McCloud, Chris Nguyen and Brandon and Rebecca Denny were the only six child survivors from their daycare center when a fuel and fertilizer bomb turned Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building into a tomb of rubble on April 19, 1995.
All were under the age of five.
Despite seared lungs, ravaged faces and mental and psychological scars, the small group of men and women now in their early 20s try not to dwell on the past.
“We’ve all moved on with our lives,” said Nguyen, the oldest of the group at 25. He was pulled from the rubble with brain trauma, a broken jaw and ruptured eardrums and now works in guest relations for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We are all connected to this tragedy, but it doesn’t define who we are,” Nguyen told Reuters before a reunion this week under the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.
Another 15 children inside the America’s Kids daycare center at the federal building were among the 168 people who died in the 1995 bombing - the nation’s worst act of domestic terrorism. Over 680 people were injured in the attack.
Anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh, who conceived and carried out the bombing, was executed in 2001. His accomplice Terry Lynn Nichols is in prison for life.
“People ask where my scar came from sometimes,” said Webb, 21, a zoology major at Oklahoma State University.
“If they aren’t from here, I explain about the bombing, about Timothy McVeigh and what happened. Every time, they have a ‘wow’ moment. I don’t mind talking about it, though. I think it’s important for people to remember.”
It’s been 10 years since the group have reunited to mark their terrible bond. Only Rebecca Denny, 22, was absent this time. She’s busy earning her psychology degree and planning her June wedding.
The others didn’t shed tears or rehash tragedy. They laughed, patted each other on the back and teased Nguyen about his dapper suit.
For Allen, 21, every breath is a reminder of the bomb that covered half of his body with third degree burns.
“I have no recollection of that day,” he said, with a constant wheeze. “But I‘m reminded of it every day. I had a tracheotomy until I was 13, and I still have breathing problems. It’s easier now, though.”
Allen is studying hotel and restaurant management at Oklahoma State University and hopes to work in a hotel.
Brandon Denny, 23, and his sister Rebecca were the only siblings to survive the blast. Brandon spent 126 days in the hospital and underwent four brain surgeries.
Today, he’s a cheerful young man who is popular with co-workers at the Goodwill center where he works. The brain trauma makes speaking difficult for Brandon.
“He’s always had a great attitude, but I know he has to get frustrated sometimes,” said his father, Jim Denny. “He has all these thoughts in his head, but he just can’t make the words come out of his mouth. He’s never been able to use his right hand since the bombing. But, he never complains.”
Out of the six, McCloud, 24, is the shy, introverted one. She suffered brain damage and rarely leaves her mother’s side. She loves to bowl, visit amusement parks and work at the Dale Rogers Training Center, which provides employment training for people with disabilities.
“Life is good now,” said her mother, Lavern. “I just can’t believe she’s 24! Lord, where did the time go?”
Not all of the miracle babies will attend Sunday’s 20th Remembrance Ceremony in Oklahoma City.
”I‘m not attending, not because it bothers me, but because I like to have my personal time to reflect on what happened,“ Webb said. ”Each of us has been given a second chance, and I think because of that, we think about what we are going to do with that second chance.
“We have a bond, and we understand what each other is going through,” Webb said. “What we take from it is that you have to enjoy life, be grateful and not dwell on the tragedies.”
Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Jill Serjeant and Andrew Hay