“When it first came out it was a curse,” Oklahoma City sergeant says bombing photograph changed his life

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*****WARNING! There are graphic images in this story that some viewers may find disturbing.*****

OKLAHOMA CITY - When a bomb exploded in Oklahoma City 20 years ago, chaos ensued.

One of the first responders to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 was Oklahoma City Police Sgt. John Avera.

He plunged into the building, never suspecting what would happen in the coming minutes would color his life forever.

"It was smoky. Hard to breath. And you knew you had no choice. And water from busted pipes was coming down.  I would actually take a shower to get the soot and concrete dust off me and clean my glasses so I could go back in and do it again," Avera remembered.

Then, Avera heard something.

"All of a sudden, I hear this baby crying. So we turn around. And I went over to where I hear it and we started digging around the rock. And we found two babies," he said.

One of the babies was day care survivor P.J. Allen.

Avera rushed out of the building with the other infant.

"I was trying to keep her from jostling," he said.

It was little Baylee Almon.

In those first frantic minutes after the bombing, Avera was too busy to notice the photographer.

He never knew the photo was being transmitted around the world.

The next morning, Avera says a chief called him in.

"Did you bring a baby out of that building? Did you see the picture?" Avera said the chief asked. "No, what picture? Well, it's everywhere."

A private man, he found himself in front of many cameras.

"When it first came out it was a curse," he said.

Everyone knew Avera's face.

"I don't think it would have bothered me as bad if it weren't for the aftermath," he said.  "If you went to a restaurant and started laughing - and they recognized me everywhere I went - it hurt people's feelings. So you had to be somber for months and months and months. And that really ate my lunch because I'm not a somber guy. I like to be happy and play jokes and tell jokes and laugh and play."

After having the photo turned against the wall for years, he now proudly displays the photograph over his desk.

"If it wasn't for the picture, no one would have ever known I was there. Because I never would have told," Avera said.

The photograph is now part of a display at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

It is a tribute to first responders, and a reminder of the iconic image that captured the emotion of that historic day.

"I love the picture now. It shows I was part of the solution to the problem," Avera said.

John says he suffered depression after the bombing.

He was plagued by fears that he should have done something different, that he could have somehow saved a life that was lost.

He credits counseling with helping him understand his reactions to an abnormal situation.

"I want people to know I'm happy now. I'm going to laugh now and it's not going to bother me. And I hope it doesn't bother people that I'm happy," he said.

MORE: "IT TOOK MY BREATH AWAY," OKLAHOMA CITY SERGEANT HEALING 20 YEARS AFTER MEMORABLE IMAGE OF BOMBING AFTERMATH

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum is hosting its remembrance ceremony on Sunday, April 19.

KFOR will provide live coverage of the event beginning at 8 a.m.

 

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