“Children who die are not really gone,
But go to a place that is something like home,
Where they sleep the deep sleep, as quiet as stone,
Until we can join them when our lives are done.”
Baylee Almon, the infant seemingly frozen in time among the carnage that took place at the Murrah building in 1995, would be turning twenty-five today – just one day before the anniversary of the terrorist attack. She had celebrated her first birthday less than twenty-four hours before the bomb went off at 9:02 a.m.
The picture is known virtually by everyone in the U.S – especially if you live in Oklahoma: a firefighter carefully cradling a baby coated in dust and blood. It won a Pulitzer prize, and the image has been constructed into ceramic statues and tee shirts. It is an iconic photograph that painfully reminds us of the horror and brutality that took place on April 19, 1995.
Shortly after the 19th, after heartbreaking photos of the disaster were released, the little girl laying limp in a firefighter’s arms instantly became Oklahoma’s angel, a seemingly paradoxical American symbol for tragedy; for compassion; for terrorism; for acts of heroism.
For evil; for love.
Today we remember the beautiful little girl and her short life that has affected the nation for over two decades.
Miss Baylee Almon was born April 18, 1994 at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She was immediately welcomed into a large family full of love; her young mother, Aren Almon, was one of four sisters who would collectively have thirteen children, who would go on to give birth to nine children of their own.
“We raised our children as siblings, not as cousins,” Aren reflects fondly. “We’re lucky they’re all this close.”
Every weekend, there was a sleepover between the cousins. Baylee was particularly fond of her cousin, Jake, who was seven years older than her, and loved going to her cousins’ baseball games.
Unbeknownst to the family, the clock had already begun ticking for the precious time they were able to spend with little Baylee before her tiny and beautiful life was cut short.
Aren Almon was a single mother in her early twenties on April 19, 1995. She and Baylee lived in the Regency Apartments at the time, which was approximately a block away from the Murrah building.
The first few hours of the day were filled with so much promise. Aren had been sick for awhile, so that day was Baylee’s first day back at the building’s daycare center. It was also the first day of Aren’s new job.
At 9:02 a.m., Aren’s world – and the entire nation – would come to a screeching halt.
After the bomb went off, Aren’s first thought was that some demolition work was taking place downtown. However, after looking out the window of her workplace, she immediately saw the Murrah building was up in smoke.
“I only remember that I needed to get to Baylee,” Aren recalls. “I knew she was hurt and scared.”
Upon arrival to what was left of the Murrah building, Aren was in disbelief at the devastation she witnessed.
“There was blood everywhere. It looked like a true war zone.”
Aren came across a police officer and asked where the children from the daycare center were.
“Ma’am, there is no daycare center,” he replied.
Aren continued to walk around in shock with countless other people looking for their loved ones. She continued to ask people about the children, but no one knew what was going on.
She eventually found her parents and one of her sisters, who had also come to look for Baylee. Upon remembering a sign at the daycare center that informed the parents that children would be taken to St. Anthony’s in the event of an emergency, the family headed straight there, only to be told everyone had been taken to the Children’s Hospital.
Within minutes of their arrival, a doctor walked toward the Almon family with a priest at his side.
“No,” Aren cried. “No! You can’t do this!”
Aren demanded to see her daughter’s body in the morgue, but as they approached the doors she changed her mind. Her father walked in instead, and identified the lifeless child as Baylee Almon.
“Children who die are not really dead,
But just like good children tucked into bed,
Wait the long wait while we go ahead
Till our tales are all told and our tears are all shed.”
Aren doesn’t remember a lot of the details in the days following – especially Baylee’s funeral.
“It was tough on me. I wasn’t married. Baylee was my whole world.”
Aren’s father cut hair for a man who worked at a funeral home in Del City, so the family selected that firm to take care of the funeral arrangements. Aren’s brother-in-law was buried at Kolb Cemetery near the funeral home, so they purchased a plot there.
“It was devastating for all of us,” Aren recalls.
Baylee’s body was placed in a little white casket. Aren viewed her daughter’s body once, privately, and then asked the funeral director to never open it again. A small graveside service was held a few days following the bombing. One thing she does remember is leaping from the family limousine to get to Chris Fields – the firefighter she’d met only days before who had found Baylee’s body.
Aren was staying with her grandparents’ following the bombing, and woke up in shock with each new day.
“I don’t have anything to do today,” Aren’s would think in a daze as she was forced to learn how to cope without her daughter. “My whole identity was gone. I have no one to take care of. My whole world stopped.”
She initially could not process exactly what had happened – that a domestic terrorist attack had taken place in Oklahoma, and that her daughter was a victim of it.
“At the time I was just mourning Baylee,” she says. “I couldn’t care less who did it or what it was called. I don’t remember anything else except that someone had murdered my child.”
A couple of days after the destruction of the Murrah building, Aren asked her family if she could see the newspaper.
“We never got one,” they claimed, doing their best to shield her from what they already knew.
Aren tracked one down, saw the photo of the firefighter carrying a baby, and immediately knew it was her daughter. As much as everyone tried to convince her it wasn’t, Aren knew in her heart who the little girl in the picture was.
“That’s my child,” Aren says. “I knew what she looked like. I’m her mom; I knew that was her.”
She even called Baylee’s pediatrician and asked her to look at the newspaper photo.
It was confirmed.
When this fact was realized by the public, Aren and her family were suddenly thrust into the limelight, without their consent, without any desire whatsoever to be famous for the heartbreaking photograph.
“It was a celebrity status to a point,” Aren remembers. “I didn’t ask for any of this. I never wanted that picture – ever.”
To make matters worse, Baylee’s cousins were forced to see the photo in newspapers and magazines constantly.
“My nieces and nephews had to see their dead cousin every day. It was unfair.”
The photograph even caused some tension between survivors of the attack, and the families of those lost in the tragedy. She’s been ostracized by some in the tragedy’s community due to the amount of attention Baylee has received. Some people have even accused Aren of making money off of her deceased daughter’s photograph.
“People think we benefit from that picture,” Aren stated. “I hate that picture.”
Regardless of the ethical dilemma in releasing the photograph without Aren’s permission, the photograph struck a chord among people across the United States – in both good ways and bad.
For instance, in the years following the bombing, a young man moved to Oklahoma from California to be “closer” to Baylee. His infatuation began with sending flowers and letters to Kolb Cemetery and escalated to meeting Aren at the bombing memorial and telling her, “I moved here for Baylee. I love her a lot more than you do. I bought a burial plot next to her.”
“I wanted to be swallowed up by the ground I was standing on,” Aren remembers of the shocking conversation.
The FBI quickly got involved and the man was charged with stalking in 2002. He was forced to donate his burial plot at Kolb Cemetery and ordered to stay away from Baylee’s chair at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
“It was awful,” Aren recalls.
“Children who die feel no pleasure or pain
In the place where they wait till they see us again,
And all of us dance in a world washed with rain
Where the sun shines so brightly no sorrows remain.”
~ Nicholas Gordon
Twenty-four years have passed since the bombing, and Baylee is still remembered as much today as she was then. Aren is now a mother to two more children, Bella and Broox, who have grown up knowing all about the big sister they never got to meet. Aren has also changed laws in Baylee’s memory regarding daycare facilities and safer, shatter-proof glass in federal buildings.
“We are all on borrowed time,” Aren tells me. “I didn’t want Baylee’s death to be in vain. I want it to mean something.”
Numerous women who were pregnant in 1995 named their daughters after Baylee following the horrific terrorist attack. Aren is even planning a large get-together for Baylee’s 25th birthday and is inviting the girls who were named after her daughter. The day before Baylee’s birthday, Aren posted on Facebook:
“As I sit here and think about Baylee and my loss I also think about what I have gained. I have a whole Army of Baylees, Baleighs, Baileys, (and many other spellings) and all of the mothers and fathers that so graciously honored my Baylee with their daughters and sons carrying on her name blazing a path honoring her legacy while building their own legacies. I am so grateful that you all have allowed me to be part of their lives and given me a smile that doesn’t come so easily, especially this time of year.”
Aren is still close friends with Chris Fields, who has since retired as a firefighter.
“If everybody who lost somebody in that building had a Chris Fields, they would all be better off,” she asserts.
I walk along the sea of empty chairs at the National Memorial and chat with Aren about her family, her life, and – of course – Baylee. Aren and Bella take turns showing me pictures of the chair at night or decorated for holidays. They both talk easily and lovingly about Baylee and how her death has affected their family.
When asked about the one thing she wants the world to know about Baylee, she responds:
“Baylee is not just a symbol of the bombing. She was a real person. She had a real life. That gets left out a lot.”
Despite the pain and heartbreak that stems from the worst domestic terrorist attack in the United States, Baylee and the 167 other people who died on that April morning are far from victims. They are proof of the love and resilience of Oklahoma and the American people, the legacies each person leaves behind, and are daily reminders that, in Aren Almon’s words, “We are all on borrowed time.”