Joe Webber saw his physical scars as a mark of who he was, but not of what he endured as one of the youngest to emerge 20 years ago from the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
“I was just told, ‘This is what happened to me,’ ” says Webber, 21. Growing up as the oldest of four boys, and a successful student athlete, “I noticed that I had scars on my face, and one on my arm. Basically up until high school, it was a way of explaining why they were there. It never really stood out to me as bothersome. It was just something that made me who I was.”
That changed in his teens, when he says the weight of the April 19, 1995, attack against the government that killed 168 people finally settled in for him.
Joe was just 20 months old when he was one of only six children from America’s Kids Daycare inside the building to survive the bombing, for which Timothy McVeigh was later executed and accomplice Terry Nichols was sentenced to several life sentences.
“Truthfully, I don’t think I have fully come to terms with it,” he says. “For someone who doesn’t remember anything, it’s just an incredible story that’s hard to believe, and so I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s true, and how significant it is in my life and other people’s lives.”
“It’s a blessing, I think, and a hindrance not remembering something like that happening. Because while you don’t have any reminders of the horrors, you can’t really place yourself in it,” says Joe, now a junior studying zoology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
He adds: “When I think about it, I get the overwhelming sense of how I’m connected to those people who were in the building, and by extension to everyone in the city and the nation.”
“It’s made me hopeful as well as grateful for the little things. Because you never know when even the little treasures can be taken away,” he says. “The sense of purpose, the sense of awe that comes with this whole story, has just made me a more thoughtful, faithful and compassionate person.”
For more on the bombing’s youngest survivors, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
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