After more than 30 years of incredible service to the Oklahoma Fire Department, Chris Fields is hanging up his helmet for good. There's one memory from his long career that haunted him for years. You see, Chris was one of the first responders after the 1995 terrorist attack on an Oklahoma City Federal building. He is the firefighter from the iconic Oklahoma City bombing photo seen cradling the bloodied body of a baby killed on that terrible day. And it's taken Chris years to make peace with that awful moment.
***WARNING: Contains some images considered disturbing***
Credit: Charles H. Porter IV, AP
Becoming a firefighter is more of a calling than it is a job. These heroes don't just risk their lives to save others -- they face the stuff of nightmares. And those horrifying scenes are not easily forgotten.
The photo of Chris captures a traumatic moment he struggled with for years. And now, after 31 years, 7 months and 16 days of duty, he's opening up about that day and the impact it had on his life and personal relationships.
The Day That Changed Everything
Chris was at a fire station just 17 blocks away from the bombing that took place at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. The station was close enough for Chris and his fellow firefighters to feel the blast and see the smoke. They immediately jumped into action and headed to the site.
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(WARNING: contains disturbing images)
When they got there, a police officer came up to Chris, telling him he'd found an infant in critical condition. The little girl's name was Baylee Almon. She'd turned one just days before the bombing. And as Chris took her bloody, limp body into his arms, the moment changed his life forever.
“I’m an EMT so I just checked for signs of life, I didn’t find any. But I wanted to get her to the ambulance and let the paramedics see if there was anything they could do,” he said.
There were so many injuries, the ambulances were all full. And as Chris waited for workers to lay a blanket on the ground, he looked down at the little girl, heartbroken. As the father of a 2-year-old son, Chris's heart ached thinking about the baby girl's family.
“I was thinking, this is somebody’s world just getting ready to be totally undone,” he recalled. “Knowing that they’re going to find out that their child is dead.”
And that's when a photographer caught the gut-wrenching moment in what's become an iconic Oklahoma City bombing photo.
The Harsh Reality
The explosion killed 168 people. 19 of those deaths involved children.
“It’s always devastating when it involves children, but when you have one, it hits home even more,” Chris said.
Chris pushed on and worked late into the night, alongside many other first responders, helping in any way they could. He didn't know anything about the photo until a reporter faxed it to the fire station the next day, asking for Chris' name.
At the time he didn't think much of it. But soon, the picture was everywhere. It became the iconic Oklahoma City bombing photo, eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize. And though it was meant to represent all of the brave rescue workers and innocent victims from that day, it was Chris' name that was getting the brunt of the attention.
Aside from disliking the limelight, there were other emotional scars from Chris' moment with Baylee.
“I was the last one to hold a parent’s baby when that should be a parent’s deal,” he said.
Though it was no fault of his, Chris couldn't help but feel responsible for robbing Baylee's mother of the final moments with her baby. The attention from the iconic Oklahoma City bombing photo only deepened his sense of guilt and remorse. He worried how that picture must make Aren Almon-Kok feel -- Baylee's 23-year-old single mom.
When Aren wanted to meet, Chris was filled with anxiety. But God was working on healing this hero's heart.
The first thing Aren did was thank Chris.
“She said, I could tell by looking at the photo that you were a dad by the way you were holding Baylee,” he recalled.
A Lasting Trauma
Aren's friendship was a major step in Chris' healing. He suffered from serious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the event. He came to realize "PTSD is a real thing."
Chris Fields with his wife and two sons Credit: Chris Fields via Today
It rained on the day of the bombing. As a result, the smell of wet cement could send Chris into painful flashbacks. Before that day, Chris was very social. Afterwards, he came straight home from the station and did very little. Each anniversary of the attack came with loads of anxiety and regret.
But by the grace of God and with lots of counseling, Chris has finally accepted he had no control over what happened. The father of two got professional help to deal with his PTSD, and now helps counsel other first responders who witness devastating events. He calls his friendship with Baylee's mom, Aren, a blessing.
“I have come a long way,” he said. “It took me a long time to get to this point… it definitely affected my personal life as the years went on, but everything is great now.”
Though we'll never be able to understand why tragedies like this happen, when you look through eyes of faith, you'll see God making beauty from the ashes.
"Aren lost her baby that day. But there's been -- and Aren will tell you -- there's been some good things [to] come out of it. So, that's how we kind of keep it in perspective," Chris said.
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