CARMEL, Ind. (AP) — John Moriarty barreled through panicked crowds after an explosion inside a Kmart store in Indiana. He soon found a bloodied 5-year-old girl, her hand blown off as she'd picked up a makeshift bomb fashioned inside a toothpaste container.

The off-duty firefighter had been shopping but quickly joined a medical student to tend to the child: Plastic sandwich bags became medical gloves, linens were used to stem her bleeding, a turkey baster helped remove fluid from the girl's airways. They stabilized her until paramedics arrived.

Moriarty always wondered what happened to little Erin Bower after that day in 1989. He went to the hospital a day after the bombing with dresses he bought as gifts for her and her sister, but police wouldn't let him visit because the investigation was ongoing. Moriarty said he often thought about calling her.

"There were times I wanted to, I truly wanted to," he said. "But I guess my biggest fear was how would that affect her if I introduced myself and started talking about it?"

He found out on Thursday, when 34-year-old Erin Bower Patterson surprised him as he retired from the Carmel Fire Department in suburban Indianapolis.

A shocked and teary-eyed Moriarty had only hugs to greet Erin — who now directs the pediatric rehabilitation department at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital in Indianapolis — along with her husband and her parents.

"When I realized that was her, that made everything the greatest of all time," he told the Indianapolis Star . "There is nothing better than that ... to see how she's grown up and everything, and her husband, that's wonderful. That is so cool."

Moriarty said saving her was the biggest moment of his life.

He remembers the explosion in detail. He muscled through a stampede of people exiting the store, following calls for help from Erin's mother, Maureen Bower. She was bleeding from shrapnel wounds, and Erin's father, Kevin, was clutching Erin in shock.

Moriarty gently laid Erin on the ground to stop the bleeding before paramedics arrived. The bomb also damaged one of her eyes. The man police determined was responsible for the bombing killed himself two days after the explosion.

On Thursday, Erin said she was filled with gratitude that Moriarty was willing to run toward danger. She said accepting his fellow firefighters' invitation to his retirement ceremony was an easy decision.

"He was a key piece in saving my life and getting me to where I am today," she said.

She said she didn't remember the explosion, but she later went through extensive physical therapy, an experience she turned into a career.

"For something like that to happen to a child like that, and look at Erin helping people today," Moriarty said. "When I think about the outcome of all that, my God, how beautiful life is to think that I helped a girl who is alive today who is helping other people."

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com