With his every wheezing breath, PJ Allen is reminded of the Oklahoma City bombing.
At just 18 months old, he was in the daycare centre of the Murrah Federal Building when Timothy McVeigh’s 7,000lb bomb ripped through it in America’s worst act of domestic terrorism.
The interior chambers of the toddler’s lungs were melted in the blast and more than half his body was covered in second and third-degree burns.
The attack, 25 years ago on Sunday, killed 168 people including 15 children in the creche and its three teachers.
PJ, now 26, was the youngest survivor, one of the lucky ones. He has rebuilt his life with the help of his loving gran – and his friend Sarah, the Duchess of York.
“Sarah is a huge part of my family,” he says. “She’s such a positive energy.
“She could not give enough of her time to me. I love her.”
Fergie came into his life a year after the atrocity, when she attended a memorial event to mark the first anniversary. Still a toddler at the time, PJ faced a decade more of operations, therapies and tracheotomies.
As well as the lung damage and burns, the blast had broken his arm in three places and rescuers found stones embedded in his head.
For days he was wrapped in ice blankets as he battled a high fever, and he remained unconscious for three weeks.
But a year on he had recovered enough to be back on his feet when the Duchess attended the anniversary event, just weeks before her divorce from Prince Andrew in May 1996.
PJ says: “She was speaking and I was just being rumbustious as children do, not paying attention to what was going on. I then ran up in front of her as she was making her address. She picked me up and scooped me into her arms.
“She has been amazing ever since. My mom speaks to her regularly, and I do around the holidays.”
PJ’s “mom and dad” are his maternal grandparents Deloris and Willie Watson, who adopted him from their daughter at birth. Their unwavering support brought him through the horror. Deloris’ devotion to PJ’s recovery was so all-consuming that her marriage broke down and ended in divorce.
To this day he still calls the 68-year-old Ba Ba, as he did when a toddler.
He never forgets the sacrifices she made for him including giving up her job as a telephone technician.
It pushed her into dependence on the Red Cross to pay for many basics – but through it all, she ensured her boy was treated no differently from others. PJ says: “She’s been there for me since the beginning. Through all the surgeries and different events in my life, I never realised something was actually wrong with me, that I was in any way different.
“She went out of her way to make me think I was normal as everybody else. I didn’t realise I couldn’t run as much as other kids until I was at school and even then she was like, ‘It’s just fine. Don’t worry about it.’
“She’s just been there for me, making sure I had anything I ever needed. She’s made so many sacrifices to make sure I had every opportunity that I could to be normal. I’m eternally grateful, and I love her dearly.”
Five years ago grandad Willie told PJ that he had carried a burden of guilt for 20 years, believing himself responsible for his injuries. On the morning of the bombing, Deloris had asked him if he wanted to take PJ to the centre later.
But Willie said he was tired, so she took the toddler in with her when she went to work. Willie, 68, said that if he had done as Deloris asked, they would have arrived at the building after the bomb had already gone off.
But PJ would not hear of any such blame, telling Willie: “I don’t want you to walk around with this burden, I want you to be alive inside. I’m never angry about my situation.
“Dad, you’re always the coolest guy in the room. I’m like, ‘All right when I get to that age, I’ll be just like him. Walk in, be the man’.”
PJ was 13 when the last tube was finally taken from his throat, but the damage he suffered can still be heard in his soft voice and constant wheeze.
He says of the bombing: “I have no recollection of that day, but I’m reminded of it every day. Whenever I look back or think of the limitations I have today, I look at it as a blessing.
“What happened to me was what needed to happen for me to survive.
“I’m really thankful for every day.”
Today PJ is on the verge of passing his avionics exams, hoping to work one day for the Federal Aviation Authority. However, his final exam has been delayed due to coronavirus, of which he has to be particularly conscious due to his lung damage.
He says: “I can’t play any contact sports because if I get hit in the chest it could cause me damage. But I can play golf. I love golf.”
Paying tribute to her friend PJ, Fergie said: “I’m very honoured and delighted that PJ has chosen to speak about our special friendship in this way.
“I saw a picture in the newspapers of a fireman carrying a baby out of the disaster and I decided to fly there to see if I could help these children who had been so badly damaged.
“I found PJ and was overwhelmed by his courage. I promised his grandmother Deloris I would keep in touch. His story inspired me to create a doll called Little Red, which I drew on a napkin, to raise money for children’s charities. So PJ actually helped many thousands of children over the years.
“I have always kept in touch with PJ and his grandmother – we hear from each other every couple of months. I’m so proud of him and I adore everything about him. Whenever we see each other I hug him so close because he is the greatest success story.”
McVeigh knew the creche was directly above where he parked his rented truck loaded with fertiliser and explosives on April 19, 1995. The Gulf War veteran, then aged 27, detonated it on a two-minute fuse at 9.02am in an act targeted at federal law agencies.
As well as those killed, a further 680 people were injured.
McVeigh was executed in 2001, and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols is serving life without parole. A third man, Michael Fortier, turned government witness and was released in 2006 to a witness protection scheme.
PJ says: “The bombing affected us all. To push it out of my mind would be disrespectful to those who weren’t fortunate enough to have their loved ones survive. I’d swap all my experiences to just go back in time to make sure no one was hurt.”