Christopher Nguyen says his connections to those who lost more gives him positive perspective

By Jeff Truesdell
April 20, 2015 03:50 PM
Larry W. Smith/EPA/Landov

Survivor Christopher Nguyen personally feels the resilience that was celebrated Sunday as Oklahoma and the nation recalled the loss of 168 lives, 19 of them children, in the bombing 20 years ago of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

“Subconsciously I know that the connection to everyone on the grounds is of a melancholy nature,” says Christopher, 25. He, like others who were at a daycare inside the building, is among the youngest survivors who recently were reunited by PEOPLE – and has no firsthand memories of that day.

“Yet through the darkness I found a silver lining,” he says. “Although my outlook is still periodically pessimistic, I find myself to be cautiously positive. I see and believe the best in people.”

Speaking Sunday at the site – transformed with a reflective pool and chairs that commemorate each life lost in the April 19, 1995 attack – former President Bill Clinton acknowledged the grace shown by families of victims and survivors alike, along with the city as a whole.

“For 20 years you have honored the memories of your loved ones,” he said, reports The Oklahoman. “You have inspired us with the power of your renewal. You have reminded us that we should all live by the Oklahoma Standard – service, honor, kindness.”

Clinton was president at the time of the attack carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a former service member with anti-government views, who was convicted and executed for his role. An accomplice, Terry Nichols, is serving several life sentences. [IMAGE “1” “” “std” ]

It’s a tragedy that Nguyen, then age 5, and others among the youngest survivors – P.J. Allen, now 21; Nekia McCloud, 24; Joe Webber, 21; and brother and sister Brandon and Rebecca Denny, 23 and 22 respectively – grew up with, although they had to learn what that defining moment meant for them. Some bear only superficial scars. Others still deal with the affects of traumatic injury.

Christopher’s discovery of his place in history was subtle.

As a grade-schooler starting to play T-ball, he got a buzzcut to fit into his batting helmet. Then he spotted a bald spot in back. “He screamed and yelled, ‘Mom, the barber messed up my hair!,’ ” recalls his mother, Phuong Nguyen.

His parents lied and said he acquired the scar from running and taking a tumble – and not from the stitches needed to close his head wounds from the bombing.

“We didn’t want to tell him nothing,” his mom, 55, tells PEOPLE. (“To be fair,” says Christopher, “I did run at full speed for no reason and did hit the wall corners occasionally.”) His parents feared his emotional reaction, and didn’t want to give him reason to feel different.

He recalls “having absolutely zero knowledge” when early interviewers asked him about McVeigh. So he sought out the answers himself.

“I read the newspaper articles my parents had saved and looked up information online to fill in the gaps,” says Christopher. His awareness grew after he asked to visit the bombing site and museum.

He graduated the University of Oklahoma with a business degree and works two jobs, one in guest relations for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder – a perfect fit for his engaging, outgoing side. A fan of comics and superheroes, he grew to identify with Harry Potter, the fictional boy wizard scarred in a childhood attack that everyone knew about except him.

But his connection to the tragedy affects his outlook, he says.

“The look on people’s faces when I talk about the bombing is something I actively avoid,” he says. “Even if the Murrah Building bombing comes up organically in any conversation, I will not mention being a survivor.”

Yet he finds some comfort in each spring’s reminder. “Each year on the anniversary I get a reminder of how lucky I am to be alive,” he says. “Nineteen children did not survive that day. I have no right to be apathetic, coarse and ungrateful.”

He adds: “I make small but significant choices every day to not waste the gift of life.”

For more on the bombing’s youngest survivors, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.