By Jeff Truesdell
April 27, 2015 12:00 PM

They greet each other with a quick handshake, these two former high school classmates now navigating their separate paths to adulthood. But Joe Webber and P.J. Allen, both 21, share more than a recent semester of Spanish class: Twenty years ago, on April 19, 1995, they were enrolled in America’s Kids Daycare inside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City when a truck bomb detonated outside, killing 168 people. Of the 21 children in the daycare center that morning, only six survived. “I didn’t realize,” says Allen, who was then just a year old, “how close I was to not making it out.”

Too young to have firsthand memories of the tragedy, all six survivors, ages 1 to 5 at the time, do still bear its scars, both physical and emotional. “It’s a weight they’re trying to lose,” says Jim Denny, 70, the father of survivors Brandon, 23, and Rebecca, 22. “But I don’t think any of us will ever lose it. The one thing we’ve never asked is, why? There’s no answer.” (Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001 for the antigovernment attack; accomplice Terry Nichols is serving multiple life sentences.)

PEOPLE gathered five of the survivors together to mark the bombing’s anniversary; only Rebecca, who is graduating from college next month and planning her wedding, was absent. Rather than revisit the past, the goal was to celebrate who they’ve become. Says the oldest of the group, Christopher Nguyen, 25: “God gave us a second chance.”

Grateful families joined in the happy catch-up. “That’s Joseph? Oh my God, you have grown up so much, I would never have recognized you!” blurted Allen’s grandmother Deloris Watson, 63, upon spotting Webber. Still, reunions are intentionally rare: “We try not to circle each other so much that it becomes a focus for them,” says Watson. The survivors already know what binds them. “I live with it every day, and I wouldn’t want to forget it,” says Allen. “Because it’s something that needs to be remembered.”

‘The bombing affected us all, and we can’t forget that’

P.J. Allen, 21 Age then: 20 months

Nothing about P.J.’s broad-shouldered appearance today hints at the blows his body took in the blast. His right lung collapsed. Second- and third-degree burns covered half his body. His left arm was broken in three places. Pieces of cinder block were embedded in the back of his head. After years of surgeries, he finally had his breathing tube removed when he was 11. “It was almost like I was being set free,” he says. “I promised myself I would just seize opportunities and try my best at everything.” Now studying hotel and restaurant management at a junior college in Stillwater, Okla., “I really just believe there’s something I’m supposed to do, and I don’t know what that is yet. I hope one day God reveals that to me,” he says.

‘Not a day goes by when I don’t think about those who died’

Brandon Denny, 23 Age then: 3 years

Rebecca Denny, 22 Age then: 2 years

For a while, Rebecca used the bombing as a yardstick to measure her life – and found herself failing. “I am constantly bashing myself and telling myself that [the victims] would have done a better job if they were here,” she wrote in a 2011 high school graduation essay. “So many lives were taken away that day, innocent lives, the only way I have been able to cope with this is to take everything in my own life and hold on to it.” One of those things is her brother Brandon, who was the most seriously injured child to survive the blast. Although a piece of the blue plastic barrel that held the bomb cut a slice through Rebecca’s left cheek, Brandon’s injuries required four major brain surgeries, hampering movement on his right side and making it tough for him to get his words out. “Brandon spoke more until he was 3 than I’ve heard him speak in 20 years,” says dad Jim.

Still, Brandon’s easy good humor and determined attitude – an NBA and NASCAR fan, he works four days a week at a Goodwill distribution center and looks forward to moving out on his own – have helped his sister heal too. And he’ll be on hand when Rebecca, who will receive her degree in psychology from Oklahoma State University in May, gets married in June. “I was worried about the past getting in the way of my future,” she wrote in 2011. “Bad things will happen, and I have learned to accept that, but if bad things didn’t happen to us, if we didn’t have those moments of weakness, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the good nearly as much.”

‘Truthfully I don’t think I have come fully to terms with it’

Joe Webber, 21

Age then: 20 months

The bombing broke his jaw and left arm, but for a long time the imprint on Joe went no deeper than the slight scar above his left eye and another that curves across his cheek. Then, on a random practice run as a high school hurdler, the magnitude of what he’d endured suddenly took hold. Stopped on the track, he realized “that I was in a tragic event so terrible that it’s amazing that I escaped alive,” says the artist and junior zoology major at Oklahoma State University. “I am so lucky to be here and even thinking about this.” Alert to the resilience he shares with his city and nation, he sees it reflected in the “survivor tree,” an American elm badly damaged in the blast that has bloomed again and again on the memorial grounds. “The tree is my favorite part,” he says. “It’s a great symbol of strength.”

‘Through the darkness I found a silver lining: I see the best in people’

Christopher Nguyen, 25 Age then: 5 years

At first, when Christopher asked about the bald scar on the back of his head, his parents told him it occurred in a fall. “We didn’t want him to think about that and feel different,” recalls his mother, Phuong Nguyen, 55. But as Christopher learned the truth of his injury, he also came to an awareness of what he’d been feeling. “As a child I could only describe my emotions as far as ‘feeling bad,’ whereas I can now readily restate it as survivor’s guilt,” he says. Naturally upbeat, he graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a business degree, works two jobs and says the tragedy has pulled him closer to those in his life. “I’m very appreciative that I’m alive and that my parents can see me grow,” he says. “The other people, they won’t ever get that chance.”

‘She’s going to do good things. God kept her here for a reason’

Nekia McCloud, 24

Age then: 4 years

With the spring opening of Frontier City amusement park, Nekia looks forward to multiple spins on a ride called the Tornado. “I get her a season pass,” says her mom, Lavern, 52, who works for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. “Most of the time she goes with her friends.” Indeed, Nekia enjoys independence few expected when a traumatic brain injury from the blast left her in a coma for a month. “I guess at that time, I was thinking she was going to be okay, she could relearn everything, because she was so young. It was hard, but you pulled through it.” Quiet and sweet, Nekia is “at the level of a 6- or 7-year-old.” But her ambitions aim higher. She rides public transit Monday through Friday to work at a center for young people with disabilities, likes to bowl, shop and visit the library, and knows how to cook her favorite meal of tacos. She talks about driving. “She can drive a go-kart, but I know that’s not the same,” says her mom. “She wants a boyfriend. I’m hoping one day she will find a nice guy that maybe has some certain challenges like her. She says she wants to get married too. I’m hoping she’ll have that day.”

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