I met Chris at IHOP at 7AM — I told him to look for the guy in the red tie. He found me right away. We introduced ourselves and sat down, he ordered the French toast and I got the quick two-egg breakfast with bacon, hash browns, and pancakes.
“I guess this is a busy time of year for you?” I asked.
“It’s busier during the ‘big’ years,” he replied. He was, of course, referring to the 10, 15, and 20 year anniversaries. This year is the 22nd.
Chris has a wife and two kids. The youngest is graduating high school soon and looking forward to his senior trip.
Chris grew up in Mid-Del and Moore, graduating from Moore High School. He realized early on that college wasn’t really his cup of tea.
Growing up, his friend’s dad was the chaplain at the local fire department. Chris and his friend would tag along to fires and watch the action. He was very involved in church also, and there were lots of firemen in the church congregation. The firefighting culture seemed to be all around him. He worked in the oil field a bit, but eventually found his way into firefighting in 1985.
April 19, 1995 started out as normal a work day as any. He was on duty at the department at NW 22nd and Broadway. The firefighters had a routine work schedule – and that day was yard day. Many of the men were weed-whacking, mowing, and tending to the outdoor maintenance of the building. They’d been at work about three hours. Chris and others headed into the kitchen to figure out breakfast.
The windows rattled as a shockwave passed through the building.
The men looked at each other – wondering if a train had derailed on the nearby tracks. They rushed out of the building, rounded a hairpin turn toward downtown and they saw it – plumes of smoke bellowing from the Alfred P. Murrah building. They self-dispatched and headed into the fray, digging into the rubble and pulling out survivors. At one point, a fellow first-responder gently passed Chris an injured baby to transport to the medical team for emergency care. A photographer on the scene captured what became an iconic image from that terrifying day.
That photo would change Chris’s life forever – and bond him inextricably to little Baylee’s family for decades to come.
Chris says the local media was instrumental in helping out during the tragedy. They covered the investigation thoroughly, the rescue and recovery efforts delicately, and helped to mobilize the very important donations and volunteer efforts. Oklahoma came together in a really incredible way to push back against the horrible tragedy and set a standard for response. They called it the “Oklahoma Standard.”
I asked Chris if other areas have the same response when tragedy hits – are we any different from other states in that regard?
“I’d like to think we aren’t,” he said. He reflected on the sheer volume of volunteer time and resources devoted to the rescue and clean-up efforts – the kindness and hospitality of Oklahomans then and in general. “What a great thing it would be if everywhere was like here.”
The first day, Chris’s team put in fourteen hours of work. They eventually worked into a rotation with firefighters coming in from around the nation to help build a sustainable resource base.
What Chris marveled at most, in those early days, was that despite the destruction in the area –including banks and stores with blown out windows and exposed cash tills– there were no reports of looting or related crime. He and I both wondered if that would be the case if such a tragedy struck these days. One would hope not, but the world has arguably changed in the last twenty-two years.
The model for that type of emergency response was still rudimentary in those days, but Chris says in the decades since, the OKC Bombing has provided part of the model for how to improve and advance the process.
“How long was it before you learned your photo had gone viral?” I asked.
It was that same night. Chris was back at the station and took a phone call from chief dispatch. The Associated Press had a photo that was going “worldwide” and they wanted to identify the firefighter. The chief knew it was Chris, but needed him to confirm it. He did. Ever since, Chris’s image has been the cover photo for any number of stories about the tragedy.
“Why do you think it captivated people the way it did?”
He thought for a while on that. “It captures the rescue effort, but also the innocence,” he said. It was a striking dichotomy. The heroic first responder. The helpless child. Her name was Baylee Almon. She would be almost 23 years old now. Chris was the last person to hold her before she passed away. He admits he felt a lot of guilt for that. He wishes Baylee’s mother, Aren, could have held her baby that one last time – comforted her. She should have been able to say goodbye. But instead, Chris was placed in that difficult role.
Chris’s family considers Aren and her family to be kin. They send cards and announcements and keep in touch. They’re bound together by a circumstance that was both unforeseen and out of their control.
The bombing and Chris’s subsequent entry into the history books was unexpected – but I asked him if anything else had surprised him in the years since.
He didn’t hold back.
Chris told me of his struggles with PTSD that hit hard in the mid-2000s. He recognized that he was becoming withdrawn, introverted, and depressed. His wife Cheryl noticed, too. It took him a while to admit he needed to talk to someone and walk through the experiences that had brought on his PTSD. It wasn’t just the bombing (though it may have been a catalyst) – Chris had buried years and years of traumatic experiences and never properly dealt with the shock and trauma of what he had seen. At that time there was a strong stigma surrounding mental health issues. In a lot of ways, there still is. A friend of Chris’s prefers to refer to PTSD not as a “disorder,” but an “injury.” And that’s truly what it is – an injury inflicted on the psyche. In many cases it can be a debilitating condition for those who help out our communities and country the most.
Chris believes firefighting, in particular, could benefit from more training and focus on this facet of the job. He recently retired from firefighting, but is exploring ways he can help use his platform and experience to advocate for more services and resources for firefighters and other emergency workers who deal every day with tragic and traumatic circumstances. He knows it benefits us all when our emergency personnel have the skills and resources to process what they experience in the field.
Chris is thankful for his wife’s support as he worked through his PTSD to understand it and move past the more difficult elements he experienced. “It takes a special person to be the spouse of a first responder,” he said with a grin. He also spoke highly of the support system he had in the department.
When I first approached Chris about buying him a meal, I told him that he is my first memory of a “hero.” The Oklahoma City Bombing happened during my formative years – I had just turned 10 years old. His image is burned into my memory and will be for my entire lifetime. Fred Rogers once said that when a tragedy strikes, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
As a young kid trying to understand the events of that day, it was Chris who captured my attention. He’s captured the attention of the nation in the decades since – a reminder that when adversity hits, there are people out there who can and will help.
Our state and country are strong because of people like Chris.