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Photograph remains part of Okla. firefighter’s life

OKLAHOMA CITY(BP)–April 19, 1995. It was a day the world may never forget. In one moment of time, all the emotions experienced by those who couldn’t believe what was happening on American soil were captured with the flick of a camera shutter.

It was a picture that seized passions and gripped hearts — a lone firefighter holding the lifeless body of a baby. The picture, without any words, tells the story of the tragedy that hit the nation that day.

More than any other photo, even the image of the blown-up building, it was flashed around the world on television and published in newspapers and magazines.

“I think the picture was used because it had more of an effect on people because of the innocence of a baby caught up in the tragedy,” said pictured firefighter Chris Fields.

Fields, a firefighter for almost 15 years, was on duty at Station 5, less than two miles from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City when the blast that reverberated around the world went off. Fields grew up at South Lindsay Baptist Church and was a member of Westmore Baptist Church at the time of the bombing.

“We heard it, and it rattled the windows at our station,” Fields recounted. “When we looked out the back of the station and saw the huge column of smoke, we all jumped into the rigs and headed that way.”

Fields said normally they would call the dispatch office and report smoke, but with the magnitude of the sound of the explosion they knew it was something big.

A misconception printed in most cutlines under the picture is that Fields carried 1-year-old Bailey Almon out of the wreckage of the building.

Fields said he worked at the YMCA day care facility before going to the Murrah Building and helped clear the way for a woman with a broken ankle to be brought out of the bombed facility.

He said he was standing outside the building when Sergeant John Avery of the Oklahoma City Police Department said he had a critical infant and handed the baby to Fields.

“There was an ambulance across the street, and I carried her there,” Fields said. “I told EMSA personnel we had a critical infant, and they got a blanket so we wouldn’t have to lay the baby on the ground.”

Fields said he was not aware his picture had been taken until about 11 p.m. that night when he got a call from the dispatch office.

“They had a photo that had been faxed to them from Great Britain, asking for identification of the firefighter,” Fields said.

“The chief in dispatch is a good friend of mine, and he said, from the profile, it looked like me, and there was a ‘5’ on the helmet. So by process of elimination, we figured it was me.”

During the next weeks, Fields said, he received copies of newspapers, which carried the photo, from cities in almost every state. And he talked to media from around the world.

“Sometimes I had a hard time understanding the questions reporters were asking because of their accents,” Fields noted.

Fields said the thing that bothered him about the photo, and its extensive use, was that Erin Almon, Bailey’s mother, had to look at her baby.

“As firefighters, we’re in the newspaper and on TV all the time, but here was a picture of Erin’s daughter, who was dead, going all over the world,” Fields commented. “It was like she should just toughen up and get used to it.”

Fields met Almon shortly after the bombing and they have become close friends.

“We hit it off, maybe because I’m the last person to have contact with her daughter,” Fields said.

In the last few weeks, Almon, who is now married, and goes by the name of Almon-Kok, and Fields have joined in a project Almon-Kok started to promote putting protective glass on windows of high-risk buildings, especially schools and day care centers.

“During the bombing and the May 3 tornadoes last year, there were lots of people injured by flying glass,” Fields noted. “There is a protective coating that keeps people safe through tornadoes, high winds, hurricanes and national disasters.”

Schools, day care centers and other buildings that use the protective covering will receive a plaque from Almon-Kok’s foundation. The plaque has the image of Fields and Bailey Almon.

Five years after the bombing, Fields says his life has changed, as have the lives of most other Oklahomans.

“The tragedy has made me appreciate the little things more,” Fields acknowledged. “It’s one of those deals where you think, ‘Something like this is never going to happen in little Oklahoma City,’ but it did. I don’t take small things for granted anymore. It’s made me think how fragile life really is.”

At the time of the bombing, Fields’ oldest son, Ryan, was 2, and carrying Bailey naturally made him think of Ryan.

“As I was looking at her, I was thinking, ‘This is someone’s baby, and they’re going to find out today that their baby is dead,'” Fields recalled. “I couldn’t comprehend getting a phone call and finding out my son was dead.”

Fields said, as a firefighter, he deals with life and death most every day.

“We make calls on heart attack victims and others in an arrested state, but they are usually older, and have lived a reasonably long life,” he explained. “When the 75-year-old grandpa has passed away, once EMSA or the police department gets there, we’re released from the scene and go on down the road. We never know anything about them, the funeral or anything.

“It’s just part of our job, but because of the coverage of the bombing, we came to know these people almost on a personal basis,” Fields said. “We saw the effects the loss of loved ones had on people.”

Fields said his faith has helped him understand and cope with the fact there had to be a reason for the bombing.

“If you believe in God, have faith, and realize there is purpose in everything, and something good will come out of it, things are easier to handle,” Fields said. “The ones without faith are the ones you see five years down the road who are still angry and bitter.”

Fields said his mother believes her son was in that place at that time for a reason. Fields doesn’t disagree.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I may not know until 30 years from now, or it may be the foundation I’m helping Erin with.”

Fields admitted he never thought he would be involved in something as big as the bombing.

“We’ve been on some big fires all night long, but this was beyond comprehension,” he noted.

As for the photo becoming a symbol of the bombing, Fields said he and Almon-Kok could never change that.

“That’s one of the reasons for the Protecting People First Foundation,” he said. “The image of the photo on the plaques is not a bloody image.”

Fields acknowledged that the perspective of the photo — how people look at it — can never be changed, but perhaps another perspective can be added.

“Maybe 10 or 15 years down the road, people will know the plaques are there because of the safety protection places have taken,” Fields said. “Perhaps the photo will come to represent safety, instead of just the tragic day of the bombing.”

    About the Author

  • Dana Williamson